Where have all the science writers gone?

BY Frederick Noronha| IN Media Practice | 10/01/2005
Hardly a handful of major newspapers in India have weekly pages or sections devoted to science. From across the border, science writers in Pakistan seem to have similar experiences.

Frederick Noronha

Where have all the science writers from the sub-continent gone? Newspapers and magazines seem to have diminishing space for science - and science writers -- these days, in times when the consumer`s every whim is king and mindless entertainment gets packaged as news.

Hardly a handful of  major newspapers in
India
have weekly pages or sections devoted to science. Many others prefer to focus on information technology.

Similar concerns and issues face the sub-continent, and this point became clear at an event held recently at
New Delhi, that brought together writers from across South Asia. Scientists like Prof Pervez Hoodbhoy and Dr Isa Daudpota of Pakistan rubbed shoulders with senior Indian officials, while journalists from Bangladesh
met officials from the other countries.

From across the border, science writers in
Pakistan
seem to have similar experiences. With a few exceptions (such as the Dawn), science writing doesn`t pay, complains Aleem Ahmed, editor of the `Global Science` magazine.

But those interested in science writing in the sub-continent were brought together by an odd catalyst. The Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) recently launched a news service ?specifically for and about?
South Asia, and held a seminar in Delhi
for this purpose.

This SciDev.Net South Asia gateway (
www.scidev.net/southasia) offers daily news, features and opinion about the links between science, technology and development aimed at India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and the Maldives.

Scidev.net also offers free e-mail alerts, access to selected items from journals like `Science` and `Nature`,  and  dossiers (on biodiversity, brain-drain, climate change, ethics of clinical research, HIV/AIDS, GM crops, intellectual property and science communication).

?Until yesterday,
South Asia was lumped together with South East Asia and East Asia. We know that all these areas don`t have similar problems,? said Dr Geoff Oldham, chair of the Science & Development Network, speaking at the meet held in New Delhi. ?We hope to promote (South Asia-related) communication to all these different audiences and to the general reading public too.?

SciDev.Net calls itself ?the world`s leading online source of news and information about the role of science and technology in meeting the needs of developing countries.? Its director is David Dickson, whom Dr Oldham calls an extremely talented and experienced science journalist who worked as a former editor of the `New Scientist`, as news editor of `Nature` and as the European correspondent of `Science`.

Adds Dickson: ?We`re trying to promote the whole field of science and technology communication. Not just (abstract) science information, but to help people develop skills, and keep them informed. We want to make sure this information gets down to the grassroots. Knowledge is power, especially at the bottom.?

He concedes that issues about science in the so-called `developing` countries -- where the gap is often widening -- can be incredibly important. But mainstream science journals of the West tend to be driven by the needs of the affluent world. Says Dickson: ?The Internet cuts the cost of production and dissemination (of information). So, the main cost is now over the generation of content (in an operation like Scidev.net).?

This is a job which science journalists are well equipped in doing. So the Internet could really be a powerful ally. ?It can be a tool to get information into the hands of people who need it,? argues Dickson. He narrates how a talk by Dr Oldham in the `seventies, through the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, helped to underline the need to find solutions to issues that came up in the less information-rich
societies.

Scidev.net is run by 13 trustees, including eight from the so-called `developing` world. It is funded by international organisations like the British DFID, IDRC of Canada, Sida of Sweden and The Rockefeller Foundation (US). Since its inception in 2001, in three years time it has some 10,000 registered users. But large countries like
India still have only about 800 registrants there, which is obviously inadequate to have the desired impact.

This network, which is funded by donors and hence isn`t under financial pressures currently, is looking for more readership among researchers, professions, science communicators, aid officials and even science teachers.

Currently, Scidev.net has electronic dossiers and policy briefings on its site, besides a lot of science-related news. It offers an e-guide to science reporting, which is another popular feature. Websites interested in its news can directly link to Scidev.net headlines -- which then show up on their own pages.?This creates a small box on their website, which shows our top three stories. Currently, we have about 45 websites picking up Scidev.net news in this manner. We hope to have a regional newsfeed (for
South Asia specifically) next year,? said Dickson. They also plan to have workshops here on issues relevant to South Asia
-- such as TB or malaria.

Scidev.net is keen to have more `local ownership` -- by expanding both its number of users and contributors from
South Asia
. It might build a self-learning module for science communication in the future. More information is available from info@scidev.net

Their meet at New Delhi brought up a number of valid viewpoints:Said Dr Anuj Sinha, head of the Government of India`s DST (Department of Science & Technology) in New Delhi: ?The lay of the land is quite similar in the countries of South Asia. We have several languages to cope with, and also problems like illiteracy and poverty -- one causes the other.? He said with ?most scientists speaking their own language? they were trapped within a network of speaking to other specialists, which needed to be changed.

Aleem Ahmed pointed out that the history of Urdu science journalism had its roots in pre-Partition
India, when a science magazine in that language was launched in Delhi. He traced the growth and ebbs of science journalism in Pakistan, and regretted that journals were closed down on the belief that these lacked readership. Like Ahmed, others too felt that science journalism cannot be seen as a business, and steps are needed to invest in this field of endeavour for long-term benefits. But both governments and major advertisers don`t seem to be taking science journalism seriously in the subcontinent. One other issue to come up was the lack of scientists who had good communication skills.

Sri Lanka`s Nalaka Gunawardene (TV Environment Asia Pacific regional director) spoke about the multiple roles a science journalist could play --as educator, motivator, reporter, analyst (?asking the hard questions, even if we don`t always come up with all the answers?), as instigator of reform, as facilitator of debate, and as activist. Mustak Hussain of
Bangladesh`s Daily Star pointed to the problems of his country, while Narayan Prasad Bhusal of Nepal
said science journos in his country had a long way to go.

Dr Geoff Oldham, who was earlier director of the Science Policy Research Unit at the
University of Sussex
, called on science journalists to be ?knowledge brokers (and) intermediaries who can be trusted?.

For some years now, meetings of a pan-South
Asia kind seemed difficult to work out, specially in countries like India and Pakistan. This is true even for meets over technical issues, unless these were held in `acceptable` smaller countries like Nepal or Sri Lanka
. For a change, while there were still a few lingering signs of distrust here, the meeting seemed much more tolerant and respectful towards each others` priorities and the sameness of our problems.

Along the way, there was some unintended humour too. ?Are you from
Pakistan,? someone came up and asked.  ?No,? I replied, ?I`m from India.?When asked, the other party said with a smile that he was from Pakistan. Some seconds later, we ended up in laughter, realising that both were from different parts of India
and had failed to recognise each other! On a more serious note, sometimes South Asians seem to be unable to also recognise the common concerns and challenges they face collectively.

Contact: Frederick Noronha, freelance journalist, http://fn.swiki.net 

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