[NEW DELHI] Budgetary constraints and political apathy have resulted in poor science communication in India, says Archita Bhatta.
The centenary celebrations of the Indian Science Congress held in Kolkata in January saw technical papers on subjects like 'Use of natural oxidants' presented at a session for science communicators. But the papers had little to do with science communication.
At another conference on 'Science Communication for Conservation of Planet Earth, held in New Delhi in March, a delegate sceptically remarked: "I do not think science communication can change people’s attitudes towards conservation."
Such incidents clash with a key aspiration set out in India's Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2013, released at the centenary celebrations with the aim of ensuring that "the message of science reaches every citizen of India, man and woman, young and old so that we advance scientific temper."
The new policy is faithful to a fundamental duty enshrined in the Indian constitution that obliges the citizens of this country to develop a scientific temper. However, the promotion of science through communication projects has not quite matched up to such high ideals.
Inadequate funds, inconsistent efforts
Independent India's first attempts to popularise science among the masses dates back to a scheme launched in 1958 to set up 'Vigyan Mandirs' (literally meaning 'science temples') — science centres equipped with films, slide projectors and libraries — in each district of the country to disseminate scientific information.
The scheme was stopped in 1959 and the centres have gone defunct. A science museum set up in the early 1950s by the National Physical Laboratory in Delhi was scuttled by worries that the sudden influx of visitors may divert attention from research.
"Many of the science communication programmes started with high ambitions were soon cut down due to budgetary constraints and lack of consistent support," says Thathamangalam Vishwanathan Venkateswaran, head of the audio-visual unit of Vigyan Prasar, an autonomous government organisation that directly implements science popularisation.
In 1978, India established the National Council of Science Museums as yet another attempt to set up a network of science centres and science museums. Till date, there are only 27 science centres distributed across 30 states in the country — far from the target of a centre in each of India’s 640 districts.
Jayanta Vishnu Narlikar, emeritus professor, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, attributes this failure to insufficient budgets and lack of political will.
Other pioneers of science communication such as Anuj Sinha, former director of Vigyan Prasar, agree. The yearly budget of both the autonomous National Council for Science and Technology Communication, which implements science communication through other agencies, and that of Vigyan Prasar is about 120 million Indian rupees (US$ 2.3 million) each. This is against an annual requirement of about US$ 3.2 million each, says Sinha.
Focus areas missed out
"The approach towards science communication has been at best kneejerk," says Sinha. "In the absence of policy, guidelines and definitive goals certain areas that need attention for long-term gains have been missed out."
Most of the government's outreach efforts have been focused on students who are an easy target, says Sinha. "As it is, all students are exposed to science till class 10. While we have spoken a lot about generating scientific awareness among women, we have not made concrete efforts towards it. We need to focus on women who are school dropouts because they often become decision makers at the family and the village levels."
"The inconsistency can be corrected with a concrete policy and guidelines on science communication so that we can have a goal to look up to," says Subodh Mahanti, head of the publications division at Vigyan Prasar. "Participative science communication has not been undertaken and communication in vernacular languages has also not received adequate attention."
"Participative science communication has not been undertaken and communication in vernacular languages has not received adequate attention," Mahanti adds.
According to Venkateswaran, while there has been emphasis on removing superstitions, little is being done about societal ills such as the caste system and gender insensitivity that arise partly from unscientific attitudes.
Lack of a feedback system
Science communication also suffers from a lack of a proper feedback system. "In the absence of a benchmark system, there is no way of knowing whether a communication programme has succeeded or not," says Gauhar Raza, head of science communication through multimedia at the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (NISCAIR), New Delhi.
A three-day conference (22-24 March) on communicating the science of conserving planet earth, organised by the Indian Academy of Social Sciences in Delhi, highlighted that apart from a formal evaluation system, science communication needs to integrate a feedback system within the communication effort itself.
Venkateswaran says most communication projects supported by the government now follow a top-down approach. "Projects are supported only if they can fulfil the targets of the government and not with an eye to how they can benefit the people. This is in contrast to the bottom-up approach followed in the 1980s and early 1990s."
Mass media found wanting
Opportunities thrown up by a February 1995 ruling by India's Supreme Court, declaring that "airwaves constitute public property and must be utilised for advancing public good," were lost because private television channels showed scant interest in airing science programmes.
"Except for 'Discovery' and 'National Geographic', there are hardly any science programmes on the private channels," Venkateswaran observes.
Newspapers are no better. A study published in the Journal of Science Communication in March 2012 showed that the space given to science and technology news in India's national newspapers ranged between six and eight per cent.
It was left to the state-owned Doordarshan to telecast weekly science news programmes. Since 2011, Doordarshan's Lok Sabha TV has been airing one weekly science news programme in Hindi, India's national language, and another in English. Doordarshan also telecasts a weekly science feature called Manthan in Hindi.
"Though the number of programmes has definitely increased in the recent years, it is nowhere adequate," says Rakesh Adani, proprietor of Credence Media, a New Delhi-based company which develops science programmes for Lok Sabha TV.
Over the last decade, deliberations have been going on for the launch of an Indian science channel. In February 2006, Indian Space Research Organisation announced plans to start a dedicated channel, but it is yet to see the light of day.
Voluntary agencies get little support
Pioneers in science communication like Narlikar praise the role of NGOs, people’s science movements, and voluntary agencies in spreading awareness about scientific issues to the last mile.
However, according to Venkateswaran, civil society activity has been hampered by a lack of funds and lack of clarity on contentious issues such as nuclear energy and genetically modified crops.
"Consistent efforts need to be made to provide people correct information about these issues," says Hasan Jawaid Khan, editor of Science Reporter, a science magazine brought out by NISCAIR.
Consistency, Mahanti suggests, can be brought about through clear policies and guidelines, a properly planned national programme and firm, long-term goals.