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  • 'Pop culture' blamed for drop in science literacy

[GWALIOR, INDIA] The growing influence of consumerism and 'pop culture' in India's media has been criticized for eroding scientific literacy in the country and undermining an awareness of its achievements in science and technology.

The warning was made by speakers addressing India's annual National Science Communication Congress (NSCC), which is taking place in Gwalior this week.

Speakers urged journalists to help bring science 'from lab to land' in order to promote scientific awareness in the community. They demanded better training in science communication for both scientists and journalists, so that each could help increase public awareness of the progress that India has achieved in science and technology.

Up to 125 scientists, journalists, academicians, writers and communicators have been participating in the four-day congress, which is being held just as India's 'year of scientific awareness' is drawing to a close.

The Congress has been organized jointly by the National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC), the Indian Science Writers Association (ISWA) and Yuva Vigyan Parishad, Gwalior.

In a keynote address, Krishnamurthy Sekhar, director of the Defence Research and Development Establishment in Gwalior, stressed the need for well-trained journalists to bridge the gap between scientist and non-specialist.

Reminding the media of its three roles — to inform, to educate and to entertain — Sekhar urged media professionals to adopt popular styles of writing and presentation, and to learn how to describe complex scientific ideas with clarity, accuracy and simplicity.

He also cautioned against science fiction writers whose work was not based on scientific knowledge and reasoning.

Sung Kyum Cho, a science communication specialist from Chungnam National University in South Korea, stressed the value of networks linking scientists and journalists, as well as the need to prepare scientists with communication skills to face the media. Both, he said, were important for developing ways of using the media to disseminate scientific information effectively to society.

Most scientists, he said, were unaware of the impact of media reports on scientific research. A study involving more than 30 scientists and science journalists in South Korea had shown that the way the media cover research can have a direct impact on the research itself. For example, media attention given to topics ranging from robot soccer Olympics to stem cell research had helped to generate support for such activities.

"Media reports also effect the recruitment of new scientists, as young talent tends to choose areas that are described in the media as being highly promising, such as the life sciences," Cho said. "And scientists get feedback about their own research through newspaper reports."

"Not every scientist can be a good communicator. But we can help them, as we do in Korea, and science communication congresses — such as these in India — can go a long way towards meeting this goal," he added.

In a key-note address, Dinesh Kumar, director of the Institute of Science Communication at Lucknow University, criticized the poor coverage of science news in print and other media, apart from a few national daily newspapers that produce weekly science and technology supplements.

The media, he said, had to avoid 'handout journalism' by providing journalists with the skills they needed to cover science-related news competently, and thus meet their responsibility to the society.

Kumar said that he would like to see new syllabuses introduced in universities and colleges that gave journalists a better training in writing about science in a popular style. "Scientific developments should no longer be kept a secret and confined to laboratories," he said.

Air Vice-Marshal V. M. Tiwari, president of ISWA, contrasted the growing coverage of 'pop' and 'consumerist' culture in the media in India with that given to science and fine arts.

"Pop culture is the product of modern media," he complained. "Science writers and authors are not celebrities; it is beauty queens who get wide coverage in a media that is motivated by power and profit."

Tiwari said that it was important to save India — and humanity more widely — from consumerism in the media. India should encourage the training of science writers and journalists in ways similar to those carried out by the developed countries, and gave, as an example, the recent World Conference of Science Journalists in Montreal, Canada.

At a subsequent ceremony, Sekhar launched a new website www.iscos.org of the Indian Journal of Science Communication, recently published by the NCSTC, and the Indian Science Communication Society in Lucknow.

Read more about similar issues in SciDev.Net's 'E-guide to science communication'

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