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HindustanTimes Sat,25 Oct 2014
Making sense of science
KumKum Dasgupta, Hindustan Times
January 13, 2013
First Published: 22:13 IST(13/1/2013)
Last Updated: 22:17 IST(13/1/2013)

In the first week of 2013, the 100th edition of the Indian Science Congress was held in Calcutta. Speaking at the prestigious conference, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India must develop a scientific temper since controversial issues like nuclear power and GMOs cannot be settled by “faith, emotion and fear” but only through “structured debate, analysis and enlightenment”.

The PM is right — but leave alone developing a scientific temper, I wonder how many people were even aware that the country’s premier science meet, the theme of which was ‘Science for shaping the future of India’, was taking place in Kolkata. But then don’t blame the public for such indifference; the interest in such meetings is low because science conferences in India are usually closed-door events — of scientists, by scientists and for scientists.

However, the world over science meets have become fantastic platforms for bridging the gap between science and society and to inculcate a scientific temper in public. Take, for example, the Euroscience Open Forum, a biennial event, which is held in different cities in Europe. The event is attended by top European scientists (including Nobel laureates), science teachers, the world media, politicians, industry and the public with a mission to further debate on issues of science and technology, society and policy.

In every edition of the Forum, one of the key programmes is the Science in the City (SITC) event, an excellent platform for the public to understand scientific theories, latest discoveries and new technologies. The SIC programmes are held in public spaces in different cities of the host country and the public are encouraged to participate in these events.

In the 2012 edition of the Forum in Dublin, the organisers brought together cultural institutions, organisations and individuals passionate about showcasing the best of the science, arts and culture of Ireland. The events consisted of photographic and art exhibitions, theatre/film festivals, tours, trails and treasure hunts, street performances on science, large-scale interactive installations, experiments, public talks, debates and workshops. Over 600,000 people attended the events.

In fact, of late, many countries in Europe are aggressively trying to take science to the masses. In France’s Lorraine region, since 2002, many commercial movie halls have been screening science films on weekends, free of cost. Then there is the Researcher’s Film Festival. The 2012 edition, which was held in Nancy, helped the public discover great scientific adventures. All the 16 films that were shown at the fest had a scientific theme.

In Africa, science cafés — where scientists talk to local people — are gaining popularity. According to scidev.net, these cafés (the idea surfaced in Nairobi, Kenya) are modelled on the cafés philosophiques that French philosopher Marc Sautet developed in Paris in the 1990s to take philosophical discussions into French coffee houses.

Closer home, China has in place an action plan for increasing scientific literacy among “different demographic and social groups”.  Beijing has also set up dedicated science and technology museums and industrialised science centres at the national, provincial and municipal levels. These are not only centres of ‘fun learning’ but also display the marvels of science.

But sadly, in India, we are still discussing the why and how of developing a scientific temper. kumkum.dasgupta@hindustantimes.com


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