`The thrust is on popularising science'

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Interview with Dr. Narender K. Sehgal.

Spreading awareness among the people about the scientific aspects of the issues confronting them and inculcating in them the habit of solving these issues through community action are the main objectives for observing 2004 as the Year of Scientific Awareness (YSA). Dr. Narender K. Sehgal, chairman of the National Organising Committee of the YSA-2004 project of the Department of Science and Technology and a recipient of the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for Science Popularisation (1991), shared, in an interview with B.S. Padmanabhan, the activities contemplated to achieve the goals of the project. Excerpts:

What is the thrust of the YSA programme?

The thrust of this programme is on spreading scientific awareness among as many people as we can. But, as you know, merely spreading scientific awareness is not enough. For example, many of those who smoke know what smoking does to them and those around them. Still they continue to smoke. Being aware does not mean that the awareness is being put to use. So, promoting scientific awareness also implies that the awareness leads to scientific information and knowledge being put to good use. For this we will have to make the people get into the habit of acting on the information they have been made aware of. We hope that after this project is over we would have created a better atmosphere all around in which it would be easier and simpler for people to become scientifically aware. Those who want to get information on the scientific aspects of the issues that confront them should be able to get it without too much effort. If for every information one had to go to libraries and make special efforts it would make it that much more difficult for people to become scientifically aware. So when we talk of creating an atmosphere conducive to promoting scientific awareness we mean that we should make renewed efforts to see that there is better coverage of science and technology in the mass media. We hope we would make some progress and more information is readily available on the issues that confront the people. Many organisations are already doing these. We have set aside the whole year to focus these efforts, coordinate them and make attempts to see that they reach specific groups, which have not been reached before.

Which are the groups you propose to target under this project?

Efforts of organisations that profess to popularise science have been largely concentrated on students, mostly school students. The NCSTC - the National Council for Science and Technology Communication - [which came into being in 1982] and the Vigyan Prasar tried to focus on other groups as well. The Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha (BJVJ), which we took up in 1987, was our first big project and the largest science communication experiment done anywhere in the world. Its impact is being felt even today. Based on its success, another Jatha was conducted in 1992, named Bharat Jan Gyan Vigyan Jatha (BJGVJ), combining literacy campaign with scientific awareness programme. As a result of this, for the first time, it appeared possible to achieve almost 100 per cent literacy in the country. That process is continuing. After the 1992 BJGVJ we felt the need to consolidate the efforts to bring about scientific awareness and inculcate a scientific temper among the people. Our effort now is to create mechanisms to ensure that people put scientific awareness to good use. The activities of these institutions will be coordinated so as to cover newer target groups and make the programme effective.

For instance, we may target organised groups such as labour unions and professional workers in different sectors in order to promote scientific literacy and resolve problems specific to their areas. Surveys have revealed that a significant proportion of even the literate population is ignorant about the scientific factors underlying some of the natural phenomena occurring in their daily lives even though they have been taught these in schools. What is taught at the school level does not get registered unless the relationship between what is taught and the real life is brought out during the studies. So, there has to be some special effort to bring about this awareness. We produced the television serial "Kyon aur kaise?"("Why and How?") - to highlight the scientific reasons for many of the natural phenomena.

What is your assessment of the role of mass media in this?

So far as the mass media are concerned, the coverage of science and technology has over the years been up and down. The coverage has been good in respect of the agricultural sector, highlighting Indian efforts. The same cannot be said in respect of other disciplines because most of the coverage is based on the work being carried on in other countries. In fact, Vigyan Prasar and the NCSTC had at one time wanted to start a science feature service to disseminate the research work being done in Indian laboratories, particularly top 50 or 100 technological achievements that have been commercialised. Many foreign news networks had shown interest in such a service. But it was not possible to get the information from the laboratories. As part of the present programme we may have to sensitise those having information to give it. It may not be easy. One effective way of getting information is through Parliament questions because if a question is asked in Parliament the information has to be furnished. Perhaps, we should try this method.

Another way is to encourage journalists to specialise in science communication. With the support of the NCSTC, the Madurai Kamaraj University in Tamil Nadu started a course in science communication. However, after five years this was stopped. The condition under which it was started was that for the first three years the NCSTC would give financial support and thereafter the course shall be continued with State government support. The university could not continue the course after the Central government stopped extending financial support. Subsequently, a few other universities introduced science journalism courses with the NCSTC's support. These courses would evoke better response from students only when newspapers provided job opportunities for them. Science journalism graduates have told us that newspapers preferred general reporters rather than those specialised in science communication. If general reporters can write on science, science journalists could certainly do a much better job in covering general topics. Editors of newspapers should ensure that more and more science journalists are recruited and adequate space is provided for science coverage. We should also explore the job opportunities for graduates and diploma holders in science journalism in various government and non-governmental agencies. In fact, before embarking on such courses, the NCSTC did a survey on the job opportunities for science journalists and the results showed that there would be a good demand. But actually it did not turn out to be so.

How do your propose to reach the target groups?

For the purpose of this programme we have divided the country into eight regions having some common characteristics and issues. We will undertake jathas, which will focus on specific problems of the region concerned in addition to certain issues relevant for the country as a whole, such as drinking water. The pre-jatha and post-jatha activities will concentrate on specific local problems by interacting with people in the local language. For this we will have organising committees at the national, regional, State, district and local levels. Some of these committees are in existence and others are under formation. After the next meeting of the National Organising Committee scheduled to be held in February we will finalise the jatha routes. Meanwhile, we will have people working on the development of software to carry forward the message effectively through the print and electronic media and events such as exhibitions, lectures and activity corners.

The regional and State organising committees have identified the problems at the regional, State and local levels. The local-level problems will be discussed with groups of local people and efforts will be made to see how they can resolve these by themselves with scientific interventions. Whenever there is a problem, people look to some one from outside their region, particularly government agencies, to solve it. We want to change this mindset and make the people themselves take control of the situation. The government can help but the basic effort should be that of the local people.

One of the issues we propose to focus on during the present project is rainwater harvesting (RWH). Currently only 10 per cent of the rainwater is tapped effectively to meet the water needs of the population. We want this to be increased to 20 per cent. Some States have made RWH mandatory in all new buildings. We would like the State-level campaigns to impress on the governments to bring in legislation making it compulsory for all buildings to have a provision for RWH.

You have detailed the organisational structure to reach the target groups. How do you propose to change the mindset of the people, promote scientific awareness and ensure that this awareness is put to good use?

We have to use innovative methods and present various examples to change the mindset. For instance, if non-vegetarians were to be shown how animals are killed at least some of them would cease to eat meat. During the no-smoking campaign we presented the picture of those smoking freely and the pictures of one of their close relatives suffering from cancer. The sight of the suffering family could bring about the desired change in the smoker's outlook in many a case. In such a way one has to think of different ways to change the mindset in the desired direction. We also propose to organise public debates on contentious issues so that the people can come to their own conclusions based on scientific facts.

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