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Communicating science, a long way to go

December 31,2017 Read time: 5 mins

It was years ago that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had said, “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, or a rich country inhabited by starving people... Who indeed could afford to ignore science?” 

Nehru was one of the first people to use the term scientific temper and advocate the promotion of scientific temper:

Scientific temper is a way of life - an individual and social process of thinking and acting - which uses a scientific method, which may include questioning, observing physical reality, testing, hypothesizing, analysing, and communicating. "What is needed is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems."  Nehru wrote in his famous ‘The Discovery of India’. 

Seven decades after India’s independence, in 2017 – Prime Minister Narendra Modi almost repeated what the country’s first Prime Minister had said. Modi, addressing a meeting emphasized that science, technology and innovation were the keys to progress and prosperity of India and "the government's priority in the science and technology sector is to apply science to solve our country's problems". 

Modi asked officials to come up with specific targets which could be achieved in the field of science by 2022. He asked officials to break silos and strongly emphasized that a mechanism be formed to document and replicate successful innovations at the grassroots level. 

Has India failed to imbue in its citizens what Nehru called ‘scientific temper’? Has the country failed to achieve progress in Science to solve the problems of its teeming millions? There seems to be a mixed bag here. 

The Minister for Science & Technology and Earth Sciences Dr. Harsh Vardhan claims over the three years his Ministry has notched up several successes and garnered accolades with their path breaking work. Science exhibition on wheels reaching 50 lakh students, automatic system for detection of adulteration in milk, ‘Surya Jyoti’ for lighting up homes of the poor and off grid dwellings, installation of Asia’s largest steerable imaging telescope in Uttarakhand, he listed the achievements adding that the Ministry of Earth Sciences had also successfully provided quality weather, climate, ocean, coastal and seismological services. Under the Monsoon Mission, the Ministry had also developed the capability of generating high resolution weather and climate forecasts including Monsoon and tropical cyclones using advance dynamical models. 

Harsh Vardhan’s list of achievements is but the tip of the momentous achievements by India in various fields be it astronomy or space technology.  The country has developed capability from building its own heavy duty rockets to fabricating sophisticated satellites. India has launched its ‘Chandrayaan’ and the Mars Orbiter satellite. The list could be endless. 

If it has achieved a lot in the field of science and technology India has woefully lagged behind in reaching the benefits of science to its millions – developing what Nehru had called ‘a scientific temperament’ among its people. How can one explain otherwise the problems of hunger with a sporadic report of a hunger death still appearing in the press? Or need to for the country to launch ‘Swachh Bharat’ mission to tell its people not to defecate in the open? Or of illiteracy and falling standards of education? And what about the mushrooming growth of conmen keeping gullible and superstitious men and women in confinement in their ‘ashrams’? Or the continuing ‘customs and tradition’ of child marriages and skewed sex ratios? Tons of food grains going waste?

The fact remains that ‘Science’, for households in the cities mostly remains as the stream their wards should take in schools. There is no need for a survey to ask how many households, families discuss ‘science’ at home. We congratulate scientists for their achievements in launching rockets and sending missions to the Moon and dreaming missions to the Mars or the Sun but ‘science is hardly the topic that is discussed. 

In an article in Science Development Net, scientist Manoj Patairiya writes that in India a remarkable gap has persisted between scientific knowledge and the ‘common man and woman’. Till recently almost effort was made to bridge this gap, he wrote. The National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (CSIR-NISCAIR), a government body is mandated to disseminate information on science and technology to general pubic especially students to inculcate interest in science in them. 

It goes, however, without saying that governmental agencies have their own limitations and it is up to the media, both the traditional print and electronic media as well as the social media to go beyond discussing new launches in motor cars, motor cycles or smart phones and encourage the people in general and the young generation in particular to understand the science behind. A concerted effort has to be made to inculcate the habit of scientific inquiry. 

Needless to say, it is a long way to go. If India has to conquer the evils of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening customs and traditions. The country not only needs to take rapid strides in Science and Technology, its people also should live science and go beyond cheering scientific achievements in the morning and blindly falling prey to unscrupulous conmen and women in the evening. There is urgent need to teach people to celebrate science.