KIRAN KARNIK has been the president of Vigyan Prasar Society since 2007. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:
What role do see you for the organisation in communicating and disseminating science in the country?
Vigyan Prasar (V.P.) is dedicated to reaching out not only to disseminate science but to create a scientific temper amongst all Indians. It seeks to interest young persons in science and get them involved in and excited about the adventure that is science. To do so, it uses multiple media and channels of communication. Its special focus is to reach out to those who would not normally be reached. To this end, it uses print, radio, television, science clubs, lectures and meetings, and so on. It has also used a train, the Science Express, travelling around the country.
Has V.P. been able to deliver the objectives envisaged for the organisation? If not, what are the issues that need to be addressed?
While V.P. has done excellent work, a great deal remains to be done. There is no resting on our oars: the process is a continuous and ongoing one, requiring constant innovation in approach so as to grab attention, ensure interest and develop understanding. Among the constraints is the difficulty in getting appropriate time slots for radio and TV broadcasts, finding good science communicators and organising at the local or grass-roots level.
Is being an autonomous society an advantage or a disadvantage in terms of funding, recruitment and so on?
Being autonomous is certainly helpful. It allows flexibility of operations in many areas, though sometimes rules and bureaucratic procedures are a constraint. In this regard, DST [Department of Science & Technology] has been most positive and helpful. Successive Secretaries and senior scientific functionaries in the department have taken personal interest and tried to solve problems that arise. The V.P. team itself has shown great dedication and deep commitment to the cause.
Is the current funding level (under Rs.10 crore) and the number of scientific personnel (fewer than 20) adequate to perform the diverse activities that V.P. has taken up? If not, how can it be improved?
As activities expand, more funding will certainly be required. While V.P. has done some excellent even exceptional work, it has not been able to scale up its activities to the level that matches the large needs of the country. Such scaling will require additional funding. However, to absorb and appropriately use such funding it will also need to add staff (though much work can be done by finding partners and outsourcing work, as V.P. has been doing). Getting the right staff is not always easy and will continue to be a challenge.
What has not been clear all along is the need for two bodies engaged in science communication under one department: the National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) and V.P. Are their roles and functions clearly identified?
There is a differentiation in the role of V.P. and the NCSTC. Both the NCSTC and V.P. have established their own special characteristics and niches. There are some advantages in having two bodies, with different organisational forms [V.P. is an autonomous body with a Society-structure, unlike the NCSTC]. However, there is a degree of overlap, and at some point of time it may be appropriate to consider the pros and cons of consolidating or merging the two. In the meantime, they operate with good coordination.
One aspect that V.P. seems to be lagging in is in providing information about activities in Indian institutions. Should this be under its purview and, if yes, how can this be achieved?
There is certainly scope to provide more details about Indian scientific institutions. However, the primary function of V.P. is science per se (which has no national boundaries) and scientific temper (which, while being universal, does have a culture-specific dimension). I would personally favour continuing the present approach, where information about Indian institutions is secondary to science as science.
Do you think V.P. can become a single-window access to science activities in the country?
Very much so. This is what V.P. would aspire to do over a period of time. This requires considerable resources: both financial and intellectual/scientific.