A science communication success story

Two thirds of them wrote stories in different formats in the regional Tamil language and the rest in English to suit the requirements of different media.

Y.Bala Murali Krishna

A successful effort to encourage youth, particularly post-graduate students, to popularize science through writing for different media using an array of journalistic genres was made recently on the sprawling Mother Teresa Womens¿ University campus at Kodaikanal in Tamilnadu.

Thanks to the initiative taken by Chennai-based
M.T.S. Academy, the MTW University
and the National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) under the Union Ministry of Science and Technology besides experts of the Indian Science Writers Association (ISWA) had motivated as many as 62 participants.

Most of them comprised of women  from different socio-economic background and colleges in and around the picturesque hill resort of Kodaikanal  in places like Periyakulam, Palani, Gandhigram,
Madurai
, Thiruparankunram, Dindigul and Theni with a rural and semi-urban character. Their response to the 5-day workshop on science writing was quite encouraging.

They were so motivated that two thirds of them wrote stories in different formats in the regional Tamil language and the rest in English to suit the requirements of different media, particularly the print, electronic and traditional.

Dialogues, TV and radio scripts, story, play, poems, monologues, fiction, skits besides articles, essays, features and news reports had been filed by the participants. Significantly, a batch of boys from a local hotel management institution and a brilliant boy studying 10th class near
Madurai
were also among the selected few for the special event.

The stunning performance from the students, most of them belonging to M.Sc. in microbiology and biotechnology wings and some in Visual Communication, was a presentation of ?scientoons?(science+cartoons), a new but emerging journalistic genre for science popularization developed in India, that has won laurels abroad for its invention.

To become a good science writer or a communicator, one need not be a science graduate or a postgraduate or even a scientist. Success depends on how best the writer explains even a difficult science concept or phenomenon in the simple and popular language easily understood by ordinary readers. That was exactly what most of the motivated participants in the science-writing workshop did, says the director and a senior scientist of the NCSTC Dr.Manoj Patairiya.

An award winning write-up titled  ?A Spelling Mistake in the Identity Card? in English by the university student Begum Hazeem in the form of a conversation during a train journey with fellow passengers, was considered one of the finest examples of popularization of science to educate the masses in a simple language about the highly difficult concept of DNA that the human being is made up of and its unique quality that makes difference with others.

Another contribution from one of the participants was on living on the planet Mars. A scientoon by V.Geetha Rani of the university showcasing the impact of oil slicks in the high seas and the science behind the release of certain bacteria that could clear off the oil spilled protecting the fragile marine environment was stunning in deed.

Another revelation through a story was the presence of certain mosquito repellent plant available only in Kodaikanal and
Kashmir
valley. Efforts were underway to make commercial use of the plant substance besides conserving them even as a foreigner filed a patent. The story was withheld from presentation to the workshop by the concerned university professor who was working out details through a research project on the plant¿s presence in the popular hill station where the residents and tourists had been found to be safe from invading mosquito colonies like in other areas.

The invasion of invasive alien species into India and their deleterious impact on the country¿s economy, ecology and human health particularly from the water hyacinth weed from Netherlands that entered India through ship¿s ballast water a few decades ago, was another interesting write-up.

The participants also highlighted several local problems such as pollution caused by toxic effluents from neighboring factories affecting water quality and soil fertility and aquatic life and impact of ban on use of plastic bags by the residents and tourists, leave alone the role of the local astronomical observatory in educating the masses.

A robot that heals, farming in the form of a popular native Tamil song Villu Pattu, biodata of a tablet, a dialogue between a coconut spoiled by insects and the healthy one, a feature on bacteria were some of the contributions that enthused the resource persons and the academic community.

Resource persons including senior journalists belonging to the Indian Science Writers Association (ISWA) and Dr.Tariq Badar, scientist in charge of the CSIR¿s human resource development Centre at Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh associated with science popularization movement were confident that once the writing skills, the techniques and processes of communication explained, the students could become good science communicators and writers.

Inspired by the overwhelming success of the workshop, the MTW University ¿s lady vice chancellor Dr.Anandhavalli Mahadevan took the lead in declaring open a chapter of the INSA with over a dozen department heads becoming life members and others including students becoming members with a pledge to popularize science and promote scientific temper among the masses.

Dr.Cheyon Murugan, formerly deputy director of All India Radio, Chennai and honorary secretary of the MTS academy, who coordinated the conduct of the workshop also announced opening of Tamilnadu chapter of the INSA soon for the cause of science popularization.

?Nothing is impossible if we impart motivation and training for success (MTS) of the students and what was what we did on the university campus from June 21 to 25. All the write-ups contributed by the participants will be brought out in the form of a bilingual souvenir that could further the cause of science in future besides becoming a model for future workshops in science writing,? Dr.Cheyon maintains.

The Kodaikanal experiment gained significance in the current year, which was declared the ?Year of Scientific Awareness?. Similar efforts to popularize science through usage of puppetry, held at Port Blair in Andaman recently, and on the ?science behind so-called miracles? held at Itanagar, were also planned for more locations  in the country.

Talent abounds but the modalities to canalize it are minimal. The participants opined that it was for the first time that they had been exposed to such interactive sessions on science writing, which they said they could not forget. ?It ignited our motivation and thinking to take to writing as a career or a hobby to popularize science,? Ms.Swastika, a post-graduate student of Visual Communication Department added.

Significantly, the participants did not forget to mourn the death of the country¿s noted popular science writer Dilip M Salwi during the technical sessions though the national media failed to make a mention of the ?unsung hero of Indian science writing? when he met with an untimely death on April 2,2004 in a road mishap in New Delhi.

Regrettably, very few universities and institutions in the country are available for imparting specialized training in science journalism these days unlike in the counterparts abroad, particularly in the west. Those offering the training included
University of Pune, Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya, Indore, Institute of Mass Communication in Science and Technology, University of Lucknow, Department of journalism and science communication, Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi
.

At the same time, career opportunities are plenty with most of the newspapers, periodicals and journals allocating more space for science stories and bringing out even weekly pullouts on science and technology like several national dailies.

Even the electronic media including Doordarshan has now been geared itself up to cater to the cause of science in India though not at the desired level as is evident in its features like ?Bhoomi? and ?Turning Point? even as it required a separate channel for science like the Discovery and Animal Planet.

Drawing inspiration from the Mother Teresa Women University¿s successful training course, the neighboring Gandhi Gram Rural University near Dindigul are contemplating to open graduate and post graduate courses in science writing.

What has been worrying the NCSTC was lack of trained reliable resource persons to promote science writing and science communication as part of promoting scientific temper among masses. A very handful of journalists were available for coverage of scientific events in the country and most of them were from the capital city of
Delhi
though handout or statement journalism continues to dominate the scenario in the field.

Experts opine that different scientific institutions, particularly the premier organizations such as the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) should undertake training of specialized journalists on S&T issues, besides building a cadre of writers from the very scientific bodies who could be directed to serve as public relations officers for respective institutions.

Lack of transparency and veil of secrecy still continue to dog the country in this age of glasnost and perestroika. As a result, most of the West-based scientific bodies and associations continue to dominate dissemination of science and technology news world over.

India
  which boasts of having registered 57,000 plus newspapers and periodicals has a very few popular science magazines and journals. Some have been closed down for want of support because most of them lacked popular approach. It was only of late that Indian dailies and periodicals started publishing detailed science and technology reports particularly when there was a newsbreak like transit of Venus.

According to a study of the ISWA, science is given only a 3 per cent of coverage in the newspapers as against the desired level of 15 per cent. With efforts stepped up by the NCSTC in this Year of Scientific Awareness, it is hoped that the media would shoulder more responsibility to promote scientific temper and popularize science while universities and institutes of higher learning provide training opportunities for the aspirants in science and technology as wished by Kodaikanal group of participants.

Experts believe that institution of several incentives/scholarships/awards for best science writings as are in vogue abroad would go a long way to champion the cause of science journalism in a meaningful direction.

This could help evolve suitable media strategies to educate the rural masses  like those in the foothills of Garhwal Himalayas in Uttar Pradesh where scores of cattle die of haematuria every year by eating locally grown cancer-inducing grass.  

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