Science Communication: Opportunities & Challenges

Gurdeep Singh Sappal

science_and_techScience communication is indeed a challenge in India. Primarily because having scientific approach is equated with being intelligent and modern. No one likes to accept the charge of being unscientific. Simultaneously, there is a strong belief system that has evolved over centuries and bred a culture of superstitions and half-truths. So science is being aggressively twisted to legitimise such social mal-practices and superstitions and at times, even the genuine practitioners of science subscribe to them.

The problem is further amplified because of media, which tends to propagate these practices by giving them an uncritical platform. All around us, be it the social media, or news channels, we see lot of unscientific content masquerading as true science.

All this has created a tough environment for communicators of science, who are not only struggling for their share of resources to promote a more scientific discourse, but are also burdened with the additional task of undoing the damage caused by such fake content.

Therefore, the challenge of science communication is not just for personal satisfaction of a creative individual. It is also a social responsibility. As India aspires for more inclusive society and sustainable growth, it is imperative that we foster a culture of scientific thinking. Rational thinking does play a critical role in promoting more informed decision making, helping the nation to move towards minimising social tensions, reducing caste differences and resolving conflicts.

It’s a goal, noble and well defined, and one cannot emphasise enough the role of science communicators in achieving this goal. But how do we approach it? There are three distinct areas for action by the communicators of science.

First is to create an attraction, a pull factor towards science. We need to glorify science, to create heroes, not just by establishing few icons as Bharat Ratna here and a national award there, but by glamoursing the processes of science, by bringing in an element of adventure in pursuit of science, by establishing scientists and their works, in the mass psyche, as matters of pride.

Second is to demystify the world around us, not just as a counter response to prevailing beliefs and faiths, not by challenging the limits of the knowledge of common people, but by leading them to the joys of discovery, by invoking the thrill of conquering the barriers of knowledge and fulfilling the quest for unraveling the unknown. It would hold science communicators in good stead if they present this process not as a battle against archaic and old, but as a satiating journey towards the new.

Third is to integrate in school curricula and in digital media for kids, educative and entertaining modules that inculcate rational thinking, inquisitiveness and scientific approach to problem solving.

While these action areas are quite evident, the challenge lies in their execution. The experience of recent decades shows that when presented with a compelling case, people are willing to shed superstitious beliefs and embrace scientific explanations.

An illustrative example is the case of solar eclipse. Right from the days of Aryabhatt to 1980s, the efforts to demystify solar eclipse and it’s perceived ill effects bore little results. But then, in mid nineties, a collective awareness campaign, ‘Cosmic Voyage’ by government, civil society organizations and communicators changed the narrative. Today, people may observe their religious rituals during the eclipse, but they also step out to watch it without fear. One can recall scores of similar examples.

Such experiences demonstrate that people are ready to imbibe rational explanations and evolve their beliefs and practices. The challenge is to communicate with them in a convincing manner. It requires both, content and the art to convey the content.

In normal entertainment works, the communicator himself draws the content from his life experiences, from surroundings, from beliefs and values handed down by the generations and also often supported by information floating in mass media. But in matters of science communication, barring a few exceptions, the communicator has to depend on experts for content. These experts, who are often those in the pursuit of scientific quest, are a scattered lot, dedicated to their works but confined to individual or institutional silos. Mostly they are either reticent or cautious due to the fear of being misquoted and thus, are out of the reach of professional communicators. No wonder that India publishes about 32,000 research papers and spends about one percent of its GDP on science, yet, there seems to be a remarkable gap between scientific knowledge and the common man. There is very little and limited coverage of science in the mainstream media (conservative estimates put it at three percent).

So the primary challenge is to bridge this gap between professional communicators and generators of scientific information. Can we develop a platform on the lines of UK Science Media Centre It is an independent platform that support scientists to interact more effectively with journalists and helps journalists access experts easily when needed. This model has been replicated in many other countries like Japan and Canada.

Also, can we build in India, a science and technology news and features pool, which will allow writers and journalists to exchange information on scientific research and developments.

Can we move towards a formal Science Media Network, which would be a pool of science editors, writers, journalists, columnists, translators, ‘scientoonists’, media-persons, producers, script writers of popular cinema and media organisations interested in science coverage.

Fortunately, now we are in an era where the issue of transmission of content is no longer a great challenge. The technology cost is now at the rock bottom. Even mobile phones and tablets can be sufficient for development of good quality content. So the investment barrier no longer exists. The challenge is to allow the common people, especially the students, access to scientific knowledge and then harness their creativity.

According to a study by Internet and Mobile Association in India, India would have had 243 million internet users by June 2014. This provides enormous potential to use online platforms to promote science. An example of this is the Citizen Science Movement, where in volunteer from public are directly involved in research and communication through various online platforms, and are able to interact with scientists.

Also, various social media platforms (like Facebook, Twitter) etc. can be harnessed for wider dissemination of sciencetoons, one minute youtube videos, innovative games and even research papers, articles etc. For instance, Arvind Gupta has designed simple toys, using local waste material in his efforts to impart scientific knowledge. His ideas are being circulated through books, his website, as well as through short videos on YouTube. Similar programmes can be developed for Net and TV.

And last, but not the least, can we mix science with entertainment. For example, two American shows like the Simpsons and the Big Bang Theory have mixed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) based educational content with entertainment to make the shows more attractive. Can mainstream entertainment or cartoon companies be helped to do so in India also?

Certainly there are opportunities and there are challenges. And if the aim is not just to inundate with scientific information, which anyhow, is happening in schools, but to inculcate rationality and to develop scientific approach, then the task is certainly not easy. Ironically, it is a venture, in which success will only confront greater challenges. Lest we forget, Dabholker’s life will continue to serve reminders.

(Inaugural address at the round table conference on challenges and opportunities in science film making, held in Thiruvananthapuram on July 19)