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Are scientists responsible for communicating their work to the general public? (the hindu,)

‘Does a lay person understand even soft science?’

After getting totally frustrated in a Twitter exchange (@GautamDesiraju) on this question, I decided to put my thoughts down in the more conventional form of an article, a means of communication with which scientists are far more comfortable. One of my Twitter followers even said that one cannot say much in 140 characters, and this matter needs a bit more than that. Do scientists in publicly funded institutions need to communicate the gist of their work to the general taxpaying public? Are they morally bound to do it? Does an increased awareness of science among lay persons increase its acceptability, and eventually create a better sense of its requirement, so that the public continues to pay for what some might even consider a luxury? On the other hand, is it easy to communicate high science to the public? Is there a difference in communicating the hard and soft sciences to non-specialists? In simplifying scientific matters for the sake of explaining it to lay people, does one lose the essential thread of the work? That there are many questions and no easy answers is what I found.

It’s easy to quote Rutherford who said a good physicist is one who is able to explain what he is doing to the cleaning lady who comes every morning to tidy his laboratory. He got the important point here in that some kind of reality check on what one is doing is required for any scientist, but I really wonder if Rutherford meant this literally.

What is science?

Science is all about details, precision, accuracy, and it is indeed 99 per cent perspiration. The beauty and joy in doing science lies in those rare moments when the pieces of a puzzle magically come together. To adapt from Shelley, the shadow indeed becomes more important than the substance. I suppose one could put some of this together and disseminate a simplified, sanitised version to the public but in the end, science is a highly individualistic, personal affair. Most honest scientists will tell you that they are ever so grateful that they are being paid by their governments to do something that they would have done anyhow for free.

Does this make academic scientists parasitical, irresponsible, ivory-tower people, uncaring, cold and selfish? No! A resounding no! Many good scientists are often ill at ease in dealing with daily life situations. Scientists do communicate their work to non-specialists, especially in matters of obtaining funding or seeking promotions and awards. In many of these cases, the evaluation committees cannot consist only of people who are highly knowledgeable about the particular scientist and his/her area of work, but they are all scientists.

To ask scientists to actually “sell” their work to purely lay audiences in the name of increasing its “acceptability” would be taking them way beyond their comfort regions. Scientists are fully aware of their responsibilities. In universities and research institutes, their primary responsibility is to train the next generation of students through the expedient of conducting high-calibre research. In this research, their goal is absolute quality, ideally without any concern for possible practical applications.

This whole business of research outreach is fraught with problems. The standard sequence for scientific work should be patent, refereed publication, newspaper, with the first and third steps wholly optional in an academic institution. The danger in encouraging “communication” too much is that there would be a temptation to reverse the order and make it newspaper, mostly no publication (or controversial publication), and certainly no patent. This is already happening in some CSIR and DBT/DST laboratories today, sadly even from some IITs.

This is of course an extreme situation. My main problem with a scientist trying to disseminate his or her work to the general public is that the detail that is lost in communicating with the public is not a superfluous extra. The detail is the whole work. Without this detail, there would be no point in the work. Details are hard to understand and appreciate. Many breakthrough discoveries are incredibly hard to envisage, carry out and understand.

I finally come to the question of whether it is easier to “communicate” research findings in soft sciences like ecology, sociology and economics in contrast to hard sciences like physics, chemistry and biology. It is of course easier for a lay person to understand some very simple concepts in the soft sciences. Many of us would claim to say we understand something about climate change, body language or inflation as opposed to say hadrons, the Mannich reaction or epigenetics. So, while the soft sciences might “appear” to be more easily understandable than the hard sciences, I am sure that it is just as difficult for a practitioner to communicate the concepts and principles of these soft sciences to a general audience. But in the end, does a lay person understand even soft science which is easier to communicate?

What is lacking in India is a critically large mass of science communication experts, who on the one hand can talk with scientists and on the other can disseminate essential aspects of the science to the public. This tribe is found in several foreign countries but in India the activity is non-coordinated and sub-critical.

Newspapers are definitely doing something, and The Hindu is a notable example. There should be a lot more of this in TV, which regrettably is interested in other things today. Our science academies are doing something but once again the activity is really sub-critical to make any real impact.

Some practising scientists have tried to get into science communication seriously. Whether their science suffered as a result is a moot point. Over the years, I have attempted my share of communicating scientific thoughts with the general public, perhaps a lot more than some of my contemporaries, but my considered opinion is that a practising scientist is not duty bound to communicate his or her work to the general public.


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