Leveraging digitech for popularising science

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Contemporary society is built on materials of science. But unless the common man understands what the scientists discover in our laboratories, science becomes meaningless. Communicating science to the public-whether through the media, museums, or outreach – is now a burgeoning global industry.

The question of who should communicate science to the public has been debated several times in the long history of science. Most of the scientific community members are interested in communicating with their peer group through scholarly publications. Unfortunately, to digest this scholarly publication is beyond the capacity of the common man. A good scientist is not necessarily a good communicator. Nobel laureate Paul Dirac was achingly shy and could not face reporters. He had even thought of refusing the Nobel Prize in order to shun publicity.

The main reason is that most of these great scientists incur lots of knowledge that they often find difficult to translate into lay man’s language. When these scientists make landmark discoveries, they are overwhelmed by their achievements and try to explain them using scientific jargon, which often becomes dull for a non-science person. This will be misinterpreted and appear sinister, leading to misunderstanding and fear among the public.

Even though communication skills can be enhanced through training or by reading specified books, it’s an inherent quality of a person that, in turn, depends on the passion for the subject one has. We can see such power when we listen to the speeches of the Indian former President, the late Dr. Abdul Kalam, even though his accent and pronunciation may not be at par with western standards. Many of our great scientists in the pre-independence era like Sir C V Raman and Sir JCBose were lively speakers because of their passion for research and their subject of interest.

 Gone are the days when engaging in popular science communication was seen as career suicide. Every prospective young researcher nowadays is expected to be a practitioner, someone who is willing to carry science out of the lab and into the culture. The field has now moved away from didactic, top-down approaches to communication to consider more inclusive approaches to communication that emphasise the need to engage a wider range of so-called ‘public’ in decisions about science, stemming from an initial concern among scientists and politicians that the general public lacked an understanding and appreciation of science.

In fact, Public Engagement in Science and Technology (PEST) continues to be a key priority as governments around the globe seek to encourage citizens to participate in debates about new emerging science, such as quantum technology, nanotechnology, gene-editing, or stem cells. Whether personal or societal, tackling global problems, such as climate change, also requires citizens to engage with science and technology. A science communicator of this age should be aware of science and technology, the economy, social structure of society and should have a world view of science.

Engaging diverse people in the community is a challenging task. Society includes varied types of people, a scientifically elite group, illiterate people, students, retired people, homemakers, old age people etc. Scientific temper can be imparted in society only if we deliver science to each one of them. This is an arduous task, and conventional science communication practices may not be sufficient. A storytelling mode or puppet show maybe not be liked by the older people. Similarly, a science magazine or newspaper cannot be understood by an illiterate group. If science should be propagated among the masses in this century, we need to explore alternative strategies for harnessing the potential of digital technology.

The COVID pandemic has shown the strength of digital media. When all communication channels stopped functioning, it was the intelligent phones that acted as a friend for millions of people across the globe. Every section of society uses smartphones as an entertainment source and information source. People started believing what was delivered through Whatsapp, and it acted as a knowledge resource for millions. Whatsapp has achieved what our universities failed to do for hundreds of years. Of course, the information through Whatsapp was not regulated, and many misinformation also were forwarded to people that few believed blindly.

We need to promote a reliable and authentic digital platform for scientific information dissemination. Government has to give impetus to digital tools like OTT in science communication activities. OTT stands for Over-the-top. This means streaming across different devices whenever we want, possible because of ‘over-the-top,’ a convenient little term that explains the new delivery method of film and TV content over the internet. The beauty of OTT platforms is that one can view videos on their handset. There is no need for antennae or cable connections.

The gaining popularity of OTT among the public is due to their cost-effectiveness, easy connectivity and broader outreach. The contents can be viewed by a person sitting in polar regions also if they have internet connectivity. Thanks to OTT video distribution technology, people now have a plethora of options at their fingertips. They can watch content on a variety of devices, including Smart TVs, PCs, tablets, smartphones, and gaming consoles. They can also use ‘app switching’ to access numerous distributors for speciality programmes and view channels, providing them more control over the content they buy and watch.

In science communication, OTT platforms can be used to show live programmes or recorded videos on various topics. The public can directly interact with scientists working in remote corners of the world, for example, from our research stations in Antarctica or Arctic regions. Unlike different science communication modes like print magazines or science demonstration lectures, OTT is cost-effective and has a broader reach. All types of science content can be streamed through it. Moreover, the peers from the science can directly interact with the viewers making it more authentic.

The generation who grew up during the pandemic has adapted to using smartphones either for entertainment or economic transactions. Even kids are comfortable playing and gaining knowledge through smartphones. Similarly, even illiterate persons in society are comfortable using smartphones, and they enjoy the video messages being forwarded to them.

Today’s generation may not like the traditional forms of science communication like magazines, drama or puppet shows. They are interested in animation and virtual reality. OTT has shown its strength in the entertainment industry by replacing the stress given to cinema halls. Similarly, many infotainment channels like Discovery, National Geographic, Animal Planet, History etc. have started their OTT versions sensing its benefits. Science policymakers should give thrust to science communication by leveraging the potential of digital technologies to suit the new generation of our citizens.

(dailypioneer)

By Biju Dharmapalan