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Are we reaching the ‘public’ with our public outreach programs?

Shreya Ghosh

Dipyaman Ganguly is an immunologist and currently a senior scientist at the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology (IICB), Kolkata. In this interview with IndiaBioscience, he talks about how public science outreach efforts in India need to expand beyond already engaged audiences in big cities and towns and make forays into remote geographical locations to reach children and adults who lack previous scientific exposure. He has previously written about this topic in detail in Dialogue: Science, Scientists and Society, a publication of the Indian Academy of Sciences.

Dipyaman Ganguly
Dipyaman Ganguly  

Science outreach efforts currently reach a very limited section of the public in our country, i.e. there are a large number of citizens whom we are not reaching. Why do you feel this is happening?

The existing public outreach programs of science in India are inherently bound to the availability of science educators, who are usually taken from a pool of science enthusiasts with required communication skills. So what they end up doing in most of these public outreach sessions is reaching out to similar science enthusiasts. Now, there are immense amounts of efforts being put in, but they are directed towards people who are already enthusiastic about science. We are not reaching the right people - people who are hitherto disengaged in science. Unless we engage the disengaged, there is no progress. Here, geographical location plays a big role. We arrange all our public outreach programs in and around cities and towns where the population is already exposed to science. But we are not reaching out to people where they don’t have that kind of exposure. It is not that no one is doing it, but we are not reaching the perimeter that we want to reach.

You have written about how our current methods of outreach encourage appreciation of the human achievements in science, but do not encourage rational thought. Can you elaborate a little on this?

Definitely that is a contentious issue, but here is my personal understanding. As an example, talking about the fact that the Mars rover is roaming around on Mars is nothing but factual scientific knowledge being given. Instead, we should incorporate in our public outreach programs how this can be achieved and what are the parameters that scientists have to keep in mind to make it happen. Unless you talk about that, real appreciation doesn’t come. And while you cannot really explain to a general mass in detail how the Mars rover works, I think you can explain to people how optical magnification works. So, when you try to engage people into basic scientific methods, that’s how you gain real scientific temper and real appreciation about science. But, my understanding is that most public outreach programs don’t incorporate that.

Moving forward from here, how do you propose we change this? For example, you have written about the importance of reaching young minds. How do you think we can achieve this?

What would have been ideal would have been a curricular rejuvenation, wherein schools impart some understanding of scientific methods rather than scientific information. But it is easier said than done. So, that’s why perhaps we should have supplemental centres or resource centres for kids all around the country. In this way, kids can have their regular school and curricular commitments, but whenever they have some questions, they can go to this resource centre and find out what is behind this phenomenon or what is behind those mechanisms. And you don’t really need a lot of things to do that. If a fifth-standard student can be given access to very simple, scientifically motivated instruments or models, he/she can actually understand quite a lot by himself/herself. This idea has been around for so long and a lot of district science centres have cropped up in many parts of the country, but the problem is that in making such a district science centre, you actually take into consideration a lot of things that are not necessary, for example, how it should look. But we can actually serve the same purpose by having a science centre in a mud hut in a rural location. It doesn’t need all those peripheral things that drive the cost high and which are not necessary for rural science outreach. For science outreach, you just need a few models and very simple instruments and simply giving access to these kids and that can be done anywhere.

A large portion of the public – the voting and tax-paying public - are adults who are already set into their own dogmas and biases. So, do you have any ideas on how to reach such people with science outreach efforts?

So, that is the most difficult part - adult, disengaged people. Mainly because the sources of information in their day to day life, for example, newspapers (and these days, internet), are very difficult to change and have no gradation of reliability. I think, if geographical spread is incorporated into public outreach programs, you will start reaching out to these people. Even in a location where 50 families live, out of which one family is scientifically engaged and the rest are disengaged, if you have a program there, some of the members of those disengaged families can come forward, and that’s how you reach them. Even one member per family is a good start. But if you keep on doing science outreach only among science enthusiasts, people who have religiously attended your popular science lectures for the past 10 years, you are not achieving that. You have to put in extra effort to do it in a place where there is no history of past public outreach programs, no history of popular lectures being given, and then you will definitely get some of the people who never got exposed to science gaining that exposure.

In the last few years or decades, have there been any outreach efforts that you admire, which you think can be used as an example for others to emulate, going forward?

So, I definitely admire Arvind Gupta. He has a very different take on public outreach, doing it in a very different way. He’s not someone standing on a podium and talking about achievements, but instead he is someone who has people making models themselves, finding out how scientific principles and natural laws work. I think that is definitely difficult - you will have thousands of popular lecturers, but it’s very difficult to get a thousand Arvind Guptas. So, when you get at least one Arvind Gupta, you should capitalize on that and make him mentor similar people. Secondly, I am actually very fond of the amateur astronomy programs, which are present all over the country now. You are given a telescope, you are taught how to use that telescope, you are given some idea about what to look at, and then you go out on your own and try to record. I think that’s the best example of placing the scientific method in the hands of people who are not scientists - citizen science programs. In fact, there are many avenues where you can actually engage citizens, for example, conservation biology. People have been doing it all over the world. We should come up with these kinds of ideas. When you give a ninth-standard student the job of counting sparrows in his locality, and he finds after one year that indeed the number of sparrows is going down, he will try to find out why. This kind of awareness is different.

So, you are hopeful for the future?

Yes, definitely. We should have a positive outlook on this.

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Program Manager - Science Communication