Scientific Indian

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Sunday 31 March 1996

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!

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.