Published: Monday 15 July 1996

Passing the buck

Let me at the outset congratulate you on the wonderful editorial (Down To Earth, Vol 4, No 21) questioning the fact that Indian scientists do not publish their research in popular science magazines. The article has been pinned up on the main notice board of our institute and most of our scientists have acclaimed it.

The point I would like to make is that the problem really lies with the CSIR'S (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) policies which recommend the publishing of our research papers in high-impact journals and these could only be foreign ones. Therefore, if we were to write the same for Down To Earth we would create an impact factor of zero!

The concept of impact factor introduced by the new director-general of the CSIR is something that is debatable. There is a lot of controversy surrounding it because it basically means that we should only aim for foreign journals and ignore our national magazines in the process. It is also the main reason why none of our scientists will ever think of disseminating their work to our public. The issue of impact factor must be taken up by your magazine.

National Institute of Oceanography,
Dona Paula - 403 004, Goa...

Holier than thou

I fully endorse your views regarding the Indian scientific establishmant's apathetic attitude towards the dissemination of science. In developer countries, several top-ranking scientists have written excellent popular books. They are also contributing to popular magazines like the Scientific American.

Somehow, our scientists have developed a wrong notion about popular writing because they consider it as being below their high status. They think it is something best reserved for their lesser colleagues to engage in. Their disregard for it-makes them call it a populist measure. Since our scientists are not interested in such communication, it is but natural that scientific establishments will have an apathetic attitude towards science magazines and newspapers. Perhaps they think it is not their job to provide information.

J V Narlikar is an exception (there are few others like D Balasubramanian). During an interview, Narlikar told me emphatically that "creating scientific awareness is a common responsibility and scientists are no exception to this. Like other sections of society, they too should work towards that goal." In my opinion, universities and research institutions should treat popular writings and research papers on par.

But what about the print media? Only one or two English dailies may be providing good science coverage. The rest of them are content with publishing some features and occasional news reports. Hindi dailies too - including the national ones - seem to have scant regard for science. Send them a report or feature based on a paper published in Nature or Science and one could be sure they will dump it in the dustbin. Their editors would like to have the latest equipment in their offices but it does not seem to occur to them that laypersons may want to read about the latest scientific breakthroughs. They are confident that Hindi readers would not be interested in reading about the same.

The daily Aaj, published from Varanasi is an exception to this. Their science coverage may not be excellent, but I appreciate their openness towards science.

Science journalist...

Money matters

I must congratulate Anil Agarwal for his editorial on science coverage and how our scientists behave with the ordinary public in sharing the fruits of science, particularly what science can do for the common folk. I want to include doctors and engineers in the category of scientists because they interact more closely with common people than do scientists. Today, more health problems arc created by doctors because of their inability to understand the language of their patients.

Take the simple case of dehydration and diarrhoea occuring among children. For several years, Indian grandmothers have practiced oral dehydration therapy. But our doctors do not even want to talk about the homemade salt and sugar solution as a first line of treatment before children could be treated for severe dehydration. When I talk to paediatricians on various occasions about oral dehydration and the use of oral dehydration solution (bRS) packets before they prescribe Intravenous (iv) therapy indiscriminately, they privately confide that ORS is for public relations and iv treatment for their livelihood! All sciences have ethical underpinnings and every scientist hds to learn science for the benefit of the ordinary public. Similarly, our public health engineers have mystified the management of human waste by propagating expensive toilet technologies like septic tanks even when there is an acute dearth of drinking water and collapsed underground drainage systems in many of our towns and peri-urban areas. The simple leach pit toilets can do wonders to stop the faecal menace in the countryside. It seems as though doctors and public health engineers want our children to be under the constant threat of diarrhoea and dehydration.

Our scientists should 'unlearn' their science and only then can scientific knowledge spread in the country. If science is not popular in India it is because scientists are not interested in popularising it and sadly, Down To Earth cannot do much about it.

UNICEF, Bhopal...

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