Scientists must talk to the public

Dr. Abhay SD Rajput
Modern society is too dependent on science and technology (S&T) that it would be suicidal to remain ignorant of the scientific and technological advances that have direct and indirect impacts on our daily life. Today, science has penetrated deep into every aspect of our daily life. Access to appropriate scientific knowledge and information at the right time enables people to make informed decisions and choices while remaining scientifically ignorant only invites more trouble and makes us vulnerable and helpless in situations involving elements of S&T.
We know S&T has answers to many of our questions and solutions to many of our problems. Even the Indian government is pushing for scientific and innovative solutions for societal problems, rural innovations, livelihood and employment, empowering women and weaker sections, helping industries and start-ups, etc. But the technical language used in science and by scientists is too alien for a common person to understand. So, the fundamental question is whether scientific knowledge is accessible and available to the larger society in the language they can understand? Whether scientists can talk in simple terms to the larger non-scientist public? Whether scientists believe it’s worthy to engage with the public and willing to do so?
Further, many in the media and public circles believe that scientists can not speak in a language that connects with the general public. The use of technical words in their conversations makes it difficult to understand. Even media persons, politicians, bureaucrats, policymakers and other stakeholders need scientific inputs in a language they can understand. Therefore, to enable common citizens to make informed choices in their life and the politicians/policymakers to make informed policies based on sound scientific evidence for us, there is a global surge demanding scientists to talk to the public and policymakers in simple language and help them understand the basics of scientific advances and their ethical and social implications.
Such demands for scientists to speak directly to the public and the media are pertinent given the increasing menace of fake news and misinformation. In the absence of authentic and reliable information on scientific issues, vested interests run their own misinformation campaigns potentially tarnishing the image of science and scientists while depriving the larger public of the benefits S&T offer. For example, in the current COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen how fake news giving false and misleading information – now popularly called ‘infodemic’ – has affected the masses from engaging in responsible behaviour and resulted in further aggravating the situation. In the digital world of social media, such fake news travel even faster, causing more damage in less time. In such situations, only experts and scientists can dissipate the bad air and provide the right information to the masses.
This infodemic is now a global phenomenon that is increasingly getting intensified. To tackle it, accordingly, more efforts are needed wherein scientists or experts are required to play an active and proactive role in providing reliable and authentic information to policymakers, the media and the public.
In India, our Constitution mandates every citizen to cultivate ‘the scientific temper, humanism, and spirit of enquiry and reform’ as a fundamental duty under Part-IV of the Indian Constitution, Article 51 A(h). This constitutional provision requires citizens to inculcate scientific temper, think scientifically and solve their problems by applying the scientific method of enquiry. India’s first science policy – Scientific Policy Resolution 1958 – also recognized the importance of disseminating all benefits of scientific knowledge to the country’s citizens. It further highlighted the need for individual initiative for the acquisition and transmission of scientific information for the betterment of society and the advancement of the nation. Subsequent science policies have consistently emphasized taking the message of science to the masses. Despite these constitutional and policy provisions, the actual state of science communication in the country has remained dismal.
There can be several reasons for this situation. Some of these are large socio-cultural and linguistic diversity, illiteracy, poverty, limited access to scientific content, science communication being a low priority area at the institutional level, lack of science communication networks and necessary infrastructure, scarcity of trained and professional science communicators, non-availability of scientific information in Indian/regional languages, and the media/press giving less coverage to science. In addition to these, inaction (or less) involvement of scientists in public engagement activities is seen as a major reason contributing to the low levels of science literacy among the public.
Among the increasing calls from different stakeholders for scientists to actively communicate their research with the larger society, there is a general perception among the media and the public that scientists do not give any importance to science communication and are least bothered about engaging with non-scientist audiences. This situation inspires me to investigate senior and experienced Indian scientists about their views on science communication, science-society interactions, moral duty and willingness to engage with the public. I wanted to understand the perceptions of scientists occupying higher positions in scientific hierarchies because they are seen as role models and trendsetters and have an influence on young researchers and mid-career scientists.
Therefore, I selected the elected fellows of three prestigious Indian national science academies – Indian Academy of Sciences (IASc), Bengaluru; Indian National Science Academy (INSA), New Delhi; and National Academy of Sciences, India (NASI), Prayagraj – as the potential target population. As part of this investigation, I surveyed 259 top Indian scientists from 139 R&D institutions across India including IITs, IISERs, AIIMs, BARC, CSIR, IISc, DRDO, DBT, ICMR, ICAR, ISRO, MoES, TIFR, central/state/private universities and private institutions.
The majority of Indian scientists who participated in the study were males (86%), aged more than 55 years (84%), having more than 30 years’ experience (81%), holding senior scientific/ administrative positions such as university vice-chancellors, institute/lab directors, secretaries, department heads or group leaders (51%), and having more than 100 peer-reviewed publications (62%).
The findings of this study are published recently in Weather – an international journal of the UK Royal Meteorological Society. The results revealed that most of the top Indian scientists (80%) were concerned that the scientifically ignorant public can oppose science projects, and their scientific ignorance can be a hurdle to the advancement of science. Therefore, the majority of them (95-96%) expressed the need for increasing public awareness about scientific issues and establishing better linkages between science and society. Possibly being aware of how science and society interact, a vast majority of the Indian scientists surveyed (~97%) believed that communicating science to the general public is highly important.
These findings counter the general notion that scientists are not serious about engaging with the larger public or media. These findings also provide empirical evidence supporting the Government of India’s recently notified Scientific Social Responsibility (SSR) Guidelines 2022. These guidelines suggest scientists should give back to society by sharing their knowledge and engaging with the public for establishing a link between science and society and strengthening public trust in science. It mandates every scientist to engage with non-scientists or the general public for at least 10 days per year. Such policy interventions are expected to increase public awareness of science while encouraging and incentivising scientists to do so.
Therefore, Government and scientific institutions should bring necessary policy changes making it is easier for scientists to engage and share their research with the public. Scientists’ direct involvement with the public or through the media would surely help negate the impact of fake news and false information campaigns while bringing science and society closer benefiting each other. Let’s make an encouraging ecosystem where scientists can freely and responsibly talk about their research to the public/media.
(The author is a scientist and science communication researcher.)