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Scientific Indian

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Author(s): Anil Agarwal
Mar 31, 1996 | From the print edition

My friend, V Nanjundiah, of the
Indian Institute of Science (us) in
Bangalore has asked me a very pertinent
question: why cannot Down To Earth
cover more on Indian science? I am sure
it can; I would definitely like it to. But
there are numerous problems with the
Indian scientific establishment which
makes it difficult to cover Indian SCi7
ence. That is what I want to discuss in
this column.

Firstly, do Indian scientists (in general,
andnot specific individuals) want to
communicate with the public? And
what is theyressure on them to do so?
My own feeling is that they do not want
to. My colleagues have great difficulty in
getting interviews with Indian scientists.
A specific example is of a freelancer I
commissioned, who had done a masters
in physics. Since plague has a lot to do
with rat populations, in the wake of the
Surat plague outbreak, we wanted to
know which institutions were monitoring rodent populations. But when the
freelancer approached a scientist at the
National, Institute of Communicable
Diseases in New Delhi, he refused to
speak, saying that my colleague would
not understand a thing. The freelancer
then lied, saying he was a masters in life
sciences. The scientist then opened up,
but dumped on him a lot of banalities. I
wonder if the same scientist would have
had the guts to tell the health secretary
or the health minister, who are usually
bigger ignoramuses than this young
man, the same thing. I doubt it But it was
quite discouraging for the young man.

Secondly, our science system does
not demand that science institutions
publicise their work. Let me give the
example of us newspapers like 77W New
York Times and Washington Post. Every
week there are at least three to four
major stories, often on the fi-ont page,
based on the papers published in the
latest issues of prestigious journals
like Nature, Science, Journal of the
American Medical Association and New
England Journal of Medicine. These
journals themselves take the initiative to
send out press releases by fax, forewarning the newspapers about the most interesting stories in their upcoming
issues. Institutions like the National
Institutes of Health, National Science
Foundation or the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration (NAsA) regu-
larly send out press releases. All these
institutions have communications
offices whose job is to inform the media
and arrange for interviews.

Thus, the us science system pushes
and prods the media, which in turn,
responds by providing adequate space.
My experience is that few science institutions in India make this effort. For
instance, after the collapse of what used
to be Science Today, Dmm, To "Earth has
become one of our few popular science
magazines. But, though we are completing four years now, I have yet to receive
one letter from the director, or the
information officer of a laboratory
sending me a press release or even one
of its regular publications. The few we
get are the ones we asked for. Which
means that information will flow to us
only ifwe were to set up a system to collect it ourselves and go out all over the
country to visit labs and talk to scientists
directly. But that, as anyone will surely
realise, is a tedious and expensive task.

The last point I want to make is
about scientists themselves. Tell me,
how many scientists want to write popular science? I know a Jayant Narlikar
tries. A Madhav Gadgil does. Nanjundiah himself used to love writing for
Science Today. Raghavendra Gadagkar
at the us also does. But, how many
Indian scientists, despite their numbers,
have done a popular book on a scientific
theme they have researched themselves?
Is there a Carl Sagan or a E 0 Wilson in
India? Has a Raja Ramanna or a C N R
Rao attempted anything like that? But
why not? Does not the public need to be
educated?

And yet all this is so important for
the growth of science. I have just been
reading a book called Complexity, which
is a description by a former science
journalist of the emerging science of
complexity, basically a new discipline
created by computer modellers who
want to model life, cells, ecosystems,
evolution, economy, and so forth, that
is, complex systems. A fascinating book,
I must say. And what I found very interesting was that many of the pioneers of
this discipline read popular books written by leading scientists to understand
issues like molecular biology or evolution. Chris Langton, for instance, got
into and ftirthered the complex theme
of artificial life, reading Lewis Thomas'
The Lives of a Cell. These scientists
themselves had been trained in other
disciplines and knew nothing about
issues like evolution and DNA. Popular
science writing was thus promoting, as I
could see in the book, interdisciplinarity
in some of the most complex areas of
modern science. Where would have
environmental concern been without
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring?

I was once told by Bernard Dixon, a
former editor of New ScientisA that
when the magazine had started, they
had believed that only, ordinary
people would read it. But later they discovered that it was being overwhelmingly
read by scientists themselves, because
physicists wanted to read in a popular
language what biologists were doing and
biologists wanted to keep abreast of
what chemists were doing.

The need to communicate science to
th@ public is a culture that has yet to
develop in India. Till then, popular science
writing will remain hamstrung. It is sad,
but, inevitable. I assure Nanjundiah that
I remain open to every suggestion of his,
however. If it is a struggle, so what!

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