Taking issues to the people

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Interview with Prof. V.S. Ramamurthi.

As new technology options that impinge directly on the day-to-day life of the common man come in, it is necessary for the people to be made aware of their implications in order to take appropriate decisions on adopting them. This is the rationale underlying the designation of 2004 as the Year of Scientific Awareness, during which all modes of communication will be deployed to make people more knowledgeable about the developments in the field of science and technology. The Secretary to the Department of Science and Technology in the Government of India, Professor V.S. Ramamurthi, explained the backdrop to this year-long exercise and its objectives in an interview to B.S. Padmanabhan. Excerpts:

What is the context in which the government has designated 2004 as the Year of Scientific Awareness?

You may recall that in the beginning of 2003 the government had released a new Science and Technology Policy - STP 2003. Developments in science and technology are not only influencing our day-to-day life by bringing in economic prosperity and ensuring national security, but also bringing in new responsibilities on the part of the common people in managing these changes, which are taking place so fast now that it becomes essential for them to be prepared to face the new technologies as they come in. The decision-making process in a democratic system being what it is, issues are no longer decided by a set of technocrats sitting in an office but through public debate. For instance, you may recall the public debate in the last few decades on nuclear power and safety. We thought that was an exception. Now we realise it is not so. On any new technology, whether it is genetically modified seeds, genetically modified food or human cloning, we see public debates. People do not want to leave the decisions to a set of scientists or officials but want to know the implications before decisions are taken. In the new scenario of decision-making getting democratised it is essential that the public is aware of the new developments in science and technology, their advantages and disadvantages. The STP 2003 recognises this and has a component on promoting scientific awareness. It was in this context that the government decided to designate 2004 as the Year of Scientific Awareness and take up during this year a focussed programme of taking science to the people.

What does the government seek to achieve through this?

It is not that in one year we will be able to educate everyone. The basic idea is that we should tell the people what the developments are, where we are vis-a-vis the rest of the world; how do they impact the day-to-day life; and what decisions are likely to come up for public debate? We want to take these issues to the people who are not only in the metropolitan cities but all over the country. So the method of approach could not be only printed material but should be through the media that the people in the countryside access. The programme during this year seeks to make use of all modes of communication. In the 1990s we undertook Vigyan Jathas where groups of people went from village to village and conveyed the implications of science and technology developments. At that time the effort was to remove superstitions. Today we have gone far beyond that. We do not talk about superstitions but about the implications of technology. The basic approach is the same, that is, conveying to the people what needs to be conveyed in the language they can understand and at a pace in which they can assimilate that information. This exercise does not stop at the end of the year. It will continue. But during the year the floodlight will be turned on this. It is the responsibility of scientists to tell the people what they are doing and its implications.

Promoting scientific awareness and scientific temper has all along been a part of government policy. What is your assessment of the impact of the efforts made in the past?

We feel that the earlier efforts had been successful. For instance, one of our earlier programmes was to remove superstition and promote scientific approach to day-to-day problems. During a solar eclipse 15 years ago the roads were deserted. Nowadays you find children out on the roads trying to see the eclipse but taking necessary precautions to ensure that they are not affected adversely. That means that they already know what they are doing and the implications of what they are doing. That, I feel, is an achievement of our earlier efforts. But that is not the end. We have to move forward. New technologies are coming. For instance, human cloning and genetically modified food were not there ten years ago and today they have become important issues. A number of such new issues are coming up. We would like to convey to the people these issues and help them make their choice with full knowledge of their implications

You mentioned that all modes of communication would be deployed to promote scientific awareness during the year. What is your assessment of the role played by the mass media in this regard?

My own perception is that every medium has its own constituency. For instance, everyone does not view all the channels on television. Some are interested in news, some in entertainment and some in sports. We want to reach out to the common man. So we feel we should not be avoiding these media but at the same time we should not be constrained by them. We would like to make use of the radio, which has a much larger penetration than television. We would like to make use of folk arts. The essential factor is the reach of the medium. Therefore, we do not want to limit ourselves to one or two media. It is a multi-pronged drive. On the one side we have the Vigyan Rail with exhibits on S&T developments. Then we have jathas, public lectures and pamphlets, which are being distributed by the National Organising Committee. We also have programmes involving the children like "Mapping the Neighbourhood". We have an ongoing programme of Children's Science Congress.

What is your assessment of science coverage in newspapers?

Excepting a few newspapers like The Hindu, most newspapers have no earmarked space for matters relating to science and technology. This is a weakness, which requires to be corrected. Newspapers may ask where is the material to publish and if the material is there they will say it does not sell. If it does not sell by itself one could make it sell by making it more attractive. That is the responsibility of the media. Some newspapers and periodicals are doing this. We require more of such coverage. We know the impact of the media when we look at cricket. Even a ten-year-old in a village knows what is happening in Australia. We would like this to happen in science.

What is the relevance of the scientific awareness programme to the community at large?

Decisions are being taken on issues that affect the common man without asking him. For example, we decided to change over from diesel to CNG [in Delhi] and as a result the quality of air is much better now than it was five years ago. When the transition took place there was so much commotion and resistance to introduction of CNG. But where was the public involvement in this decision? The public was not involved at all and if a decision had been taken not to go in for CNG we would have been paying a big price. So decisions are taken on people's behalf without telling them what are the stakes involved.

What is the follow-up action contemplated after the year is over?

There are two or three things, which we definitely look forward to. One is an increasing number of science communicators who will convey the developments in S&T to the people, even if they are not professionals in the field of communication. For instance, nothing stops a college teacher from writing an article every month on an issue of public importance. We need to have a much larger number of science communicators to actually get into science communication.

Similarly, every scientist or technologist can also become a science communicator without depending on science communication as a profession. They should come forward to convey what they have been doing in the laboratory. We believe that this one-year activity will bring them into public attention and enthuse them to continue their work in science communication.

Do you contemplate any institutional mechanism to promote science communication?

At the moment we are not thinking of any new institutional mechanism. We already have the National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC). If over the year a case is made out for this we may consider.

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