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FEATURE
Conversations in Science; an Indian Perspective

50 years ago, children in India might have known of breakthroughs in science only through their science teacher in schools. The last couple of decades have witnessed a gradual but steady change in the way science is perceived and communicated to the Indian masses. Although challenges still abound, the wave of science communication is gathering pace.

Getting the scientific message across to various audiences forms the essence of science communication. It is not very different from telling an engaging story where the cloak around the mysterious unknown of scientific research is unwrapped to reveal an exciting discovery. A story that leaves the audience informed and inspired.

Indians have always been fascinated by science, be it by the stars in the sky or by health and wellbeing and in more recent times, information technology. India’s tryst with scientific innovations dates back to the period before the Indus Valley Civilisation (ca. 5000BC). Scientific research has been carried out in India since the ancient times in areas as diverse as astronomy, mathematics, medicine and material science.

Vigyan (Science) was one of the earliest popular science magazines published in 1915, in the national language Hindi, by Vigyan Parishad, a body of accomplished academicians under the Government of India. Science communication was brought to the forefront in the 1950s, post Indian Independence, at a time when the first Prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru initiated reforms to promote higher education in science and technology that aimed to develop scientific temper and a spirit of enquiry among the masses.

This lead to the establishment of various governmental and non-governmental bodies, and volunteer groups to increase public awareness of science across the country in both rural and urban areas in an effort to reach out to a wide variety of people with diverse interests. Some of these have evolved into successful platforms that not only provide information but also propagate an interest in science, innovation and creativity and encourage informed decision making. Others promote and provide the means to exchange ideas related to scientific research, science policy and the future of science in India. Amongst these, Vigyan Prasar, an autonomous body established in 1989 under the Department of Science and Technology, has been actively engaged in the popularisation of science across the country through print and audio-visual media. They regularly organise workshops, science festivals and hands on activities and have about 10,000 science clubs across the country. Importantly, they reach out to people using various mediums of communication and languages, while also focusing on the development of resources for dissemination of science related information. The National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources publishes three well circulated popular science magazines in English, Hindi and Urdu. They have taken topics as diverse as satellite launches, the slimming mania and eminent personalities in science, to the masses. Some attempts have also been made to use Indian folklore, folk art and dance forms as a medium of science communication that perhaps rural India can better relate with. What has gained most significantly in popularity are numerous local science clubs and grassroots public science initiatives. And of course, the age of the internet has brought world science to many Indian homes. People are certainly more aware of science, scientific research and its implications on the development of society.

Scientists are the first line of communicators who routinely engage effortlessly with each other on multiple platforms, the most common being research publications and conferences. This is integral if not essential to the progress of research. As scientists gain by sharing information with fellow colleagues, they also benefit by engaging the general public to not only generate awareness, enjoyment and interest in science but also encourage them to develop a healthy analytical approach to the world around them. But, talking science with the public is often fairly challenging for a scientist who routinely uses scientific jargon. Public engagement is sometimes treated as an unwanted distraction, although scientists do recognise that the outcomes and implications of scientific research have significant impacts on society. Also, as responsible individuals they have societal obligations to the taxpayers who fund research in a country where people could argue that much of that money could be put to better use for the greater benefit of society. Clearly there exists a significant section of people that seeks answers to the why’s and how’s of scientific research and development despite being part of a larger culture that has deep rooted superstitions and inequalities.

What better way to enthuse, inspire and inform, than by training science teachers, scientists and students in the art of communication? Although a challenge for many, communication skills can be learnt. While many teachers and scientists might complain of a lack of time, even brief succinct courses in science communication brought to the doorstep of science institutions and schools could serve the purpose. Efforts have been made to bring suitable training and awareness of the need for more effective science communication. The Indian Science Writers Association organises periodic science communication congresses, training and fellowships in science journalism. While the National Centre for Science Communicators aims to bring together science communicators from print, radio and electronic media onto one platform, The Indian Science Communication Society serves to develop and coordinate educational initiatives in the areas of science journalism and science writing. While these efforts are highly commendable, they may not be sufficient given the diverse needs of science communication in a country as large as India. Perhaps it is time that Indian science and mass media considers more concerted avenues that seamlessly bring together ongoing scientific research on the one hand and bringing that research to the masses on the other.

The popularity of science news websites, blogs and information on the latest research conducted in laboratories across India ranks significantly higher now than a decade ago but continues to be outcompeted by news of a nation that is often buried in political chaos or in mass hysteria for entertainment and tabloids.

Science communication in India faces multiple challenges. The first challenge being the transformation of a technical subject, into something that the common man can understand and relate with, yet keeping the essence and clarity of the story. Understanding the needs and psychology of the audience in an extremely diverse country on both fronts of culture and language, is equally challenging. The lack of sufficient education courses in science writing and science journalism together with budgetary constraints makes for inconsistent execution of science communication programmes. Definitive goals, structured planning and implementation of science policy are required. Importantly, a systematic evaluation of the limitations and the shortcomings of past nationwide projects could help give better direction to new initiatives and future projects. Periodic review of goals and strategies could bring more relevance and effectiveness to science communication endeavors. Training future scientists early in their academic lives would only serve to aid the progress of science communication. Universities and schools could do well to include courses on science communication or science journalism in their regular curricula. Brief, well-structured and tailored courses could go a long way in creating effective science communicators.

Compared to several countries that have a history of well-established and successful science communication policies we still have a long way to go, although the road looks promising. The communication of research findings has progressed significantly in India, in the last couple of decades, but we need to make larger and more concerted strides towards narrowing the gap between research as a scientist sees it and research that the common man relates with. There has never been a better time and more number of reasons for wanting to do so. The next 50 years could see greater leaps for science communication in India.

About the Author

Sarada Bulchand is a postdoctoral research fellow and teaching scholar at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, Singapore. She received her Bachelor’s (Hons) in Life Science and Biochemistry from St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, India. She went on to do her Masters in Molecular Biology from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai and obtained her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory, National University of Singapore in 2010, during which she was awarded the Singapore Millennium Foundation Scholarship.

Her research career has been diverse with sprinklings of neurobiology, developmental biology and metabolism in model systems from mice, human cell lines, fruit flies and zebrafish. Her keen interest in ‘bench to bedside’ research brought her to the Program in Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disorders at Duke-NUS. Her current research focuses on the mechanisms of lipid induced insulin resistance and the metabolic syndrome. Besides her scientific pursuits she also coordinates a pre-med module at NUS and NTU, and enjoys science writing. She is an avid nature lover, bird watcher and musician when time permits!

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