India's science and technology Minister, Kapil Sibal, suggested last week that joint efforts to promote the skills required to communicate effectively about science and technology could be a fruitful area for cooperation between the countries of South Asia.
He also emphasised that such activities were a vital part of efforts to ensure that the work of the research community was brought to the attention of decision-makers at all levels of society in the region, and thereby put into practice.
Sibal's comments were made at a workshop organised by the Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) at the Indian Habitat Centre in Delhi under the title 'Science, Communication and Society in South Asia'.
The workshop, which was attended by almost 100 participants from across the region, was held to launch both the South Asian regional network of SciDev.Net, and a new gateway on the SciDev.Net website dedicated to news about science and technology in the region.
Although Sibal was prevented by last minute political commitments to attend the event, he had asked for his remarks to be presented by R. A. Mashelkar, the director-general of India's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (and a trustee of SciDev.Net).
In his address, Sibal — whose full title is minister of state for science, technology and oceans — said science communication was an area in which the potential for regional collaboration was tremendous.
"We are addressing tasks that unite countries that may have differing domestic agendas, and find themselves at different points on the scale of economic development," he said.
This was true "whether we are discussing ways of enhancing the professional skills of science communicators or examining the common obstacles faced by those engaged in these professions or exploring possible solutions or discussing novel approaches to conveying information between scientists and decision makers".
Few could doubt that science held the key to future prosperity, said the science minister. But the doors that science unlocked had to be opened with care, and everyone involved needed to be as fully informed as possible about what the results were likely to be.
"This is why I firmly believe that all our citizens — as well as our politicians — must be adequately informed about both the promises that science brings and the choices that it presents."
Ensuring that science and technology contributes fully to social and economic development meant making a commitment to supporting all those engaged in carrying out scientific and technological development, whether in universities, in government research laboratories, or in the private sector.
But he added that it was equally important that scientific knowledge was communicated to managers and decision-makers who had a responsibility to find ways of applying such knowledge to social and economic needs.
"This is particularly true during a period in which an increasing number of political decisions have important scientific dimensions to them," Sibal said. "If the underlying science is not well understood — at least in outline — by those taking such decisions, as well as by those to whom they are accountable, then it is unlikely that sound decisions will be taken."
To achieve this, research needed to be embedded in a social system made up of individuals and social processes that enabled the results of research to inform decision-making at all levels of society.
Sibal pointed out that since achieving independence in 1947, the Indian government had been strongly aware of both the need to build up a powerful science base, and to ensure that science was not restricted to the university laboratories.
While creating a strong independent base in science and technology, "India has also been sensitive to the fact that benefits of scientific knowledge must reach everyone, not just an elite," said Sibal.
It was for this reason that the government had declared 2004 to a Year of Science Awareness, during which a number of activities had been carried out to promote the public understanding of science (see Taking science to India's villages).
In recent years, Sibal added, there had been a growing awareness of the importance of such issues to countries that were less developed than India.
"The impact and importance of science is not restricted to those countries that are already well on their way to becoming full participants in the global knowledge economy," the minister said. "Rather, they affect all countries in some form."
This was partly the result of a growing awareness that a basic capability in science is needed to make best use of modern technologies. It also resulted from the fact that reliable knowledge of the scientific basis of environmental problems, and communicating such knowledge to decision-makers, were both essential if such problems were to be successfully addressed.
"All countries, rich and poor alike, share a common interest in raising the general level of effectiveness of those engaged in the task of communicating science both to the public and to policy-makers," said Sibal. "That is why the work of the Science and Development Network since its creation in 2001 has been so important".
Wishing the regional activities of the organisation "every success", Sibal said that he particularly appreciated the fact that a key concern of SciDev.Net was to ensure a degree of ownership by those whose needs it seeks to address.
It was for that reason, he said, that he was particularly pleased that material on the new South Asia gateway "will be written primarily by journalists and researchers from the countries that it covers, and focus on issues of immediate concern to the region."