Strengthening the science-society interface

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Strengthening the science-society interface
SCIENTIFIC NEXUS: The concern expressed by the public in relation to the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, is an example of the need for greater interaction between scientists and local communities
The Royal Society of London, one of the oldest science academies in the world, established about 25 years ago, a committee on public understanding of science (COPUS). Later, the Royal Society also constituted a committee on political understanding of science. In a democratic society like ours, there is greater need for public and political understanding of the scientific facts underpinning events of great significance to our future, such as, biodiversity loss and climate change. Recent examples in relation to differences in perception and apprehension are in the areas of genetic engineering and nuclear energy.

While medical biotechnology has not generated fears about biosafety and environmental safety, food and agricultural biotechnology has evoked strong opposition. An area in medical biotechnology, which is controversial, is cloning. Generally, therapeutic cloning is acceptable, while reproductive cloning is not. In the case of crop biotechnology, the fears relate to biosafety and environmental safety, adverse impact on biodiversity and long-term impact on human and animal health. The impact of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) in relation to inclusiveness in access to new technologies is also a matter for public concern. The controversy relating to Bt brinjal and the moratorium on its release imposed by the then minister for environment and forests are examples of the lack of confidence in the existing regulatory procedures. The Supreme Court of India has also raised several issues of public importance with reference to genetically modified crops and foods. Several state governments have imposed a ban on the testing of GMOs. The Kerala government has not allowed even the testing of genetically modified rubber, although we urgently need rubber clones tolerant to higher temperature. Obviously, powerful scientific innovations like nuclear power generation and genetic modification require professionally led regulatory structures. The government of India has developed a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Act for being discussed in parliament. The standing committee on agriculture of parliament headed by Basudeb Acharya has recommended that we should adopt a comprehensive Biosafety Act. The aim of the Act is to provide a professional and transparent regulatory body, which inspires public, political, professional and media confidence.

Another recent example of the need for greater interaction between scientists and local communities is the concern expressed by the public in relation to the Kudankulam and other nuclear power plants. Nuclear power is environmentally benign since it does not add to the green house gas burden. On the other hand, there are concerns about the safety of the nuclear power plants, particularly in the context of what happened at Chernobyl many years ago, and Fukushima recently. The tsunami induced Fukushima tragedy has given a big setback to the spread of nuclear power plants. Nuclear waste disposal is another area, which needs careful consideration. The situation observed at Kudankulam where technical experts and the general public have been living in different worlds, emphasises the need for fostering continuous interaction between technical experts and the local communities. Such interaction and conversation should begin from the very early stage of the conception and construction of a nuclear power plant. Citizens’ consultative councils will help to promote more enlightened and informed discussions on the issues involved. Parliament has recently approved an Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority Bill. The bill provides for an autonomous and professionally credible and competent regulatory body. It is obvious that a regulatory body should not be under the control of the persons to be regulated, which was the case until recently. Ultimately, regulation alone will not be adequate for achieving public acceptance. Education and social mobilisation through elected local bodies are equally important.

As science progresses, more and more such issues of public concern will grow. Nanotechnology will also create fears and apprehensions. The role of scientists in the area of public information and education will increase. We need a cadre of science communicators possessing both proficiency in science and mastery of communication. I am reminded of Prof C V Raman who used to deliver lectures for school students on topics like, “Why the Sky is Blue” or “Structure of Diamonds” with great clarity and lucidity. I have seen thousands of young students listening to him in pin drop silence, digesting every word and idea that he expressed. I would suggest that our universities should help in developing science communicators who can explain to the general public in local languages, the significance of important scientific discoveries. Biodiversity, biotechnology, nuclear technology and nanotechnology need priority attention in efforts designed to bridge the scientist-society perception gap.

Nanotechnology is an area where proactive action is needed to remove doubts in public mind. The following quotation from a recent issue of Nature (August 30th, Volume 488, p.557) brings out the urgency of attending to societal concerns. “In the past two years, Mexican nanotechnology researchers have been subject to a spate of bombings and bomb threats. In the worst of the attacks, two researchers were injured. Police say that if the explosive had gone off properly, a whole building could have collapsed. Nanotechnology advocates have an important role here, and one that could help to determine how public awareness of nanotechnology develops. They should continue to work to make public debate informed and accurate, and do more to monitor and test the possible toxicity of novel products. And they should avoid hype. If they paint a true picture of the state of the science, then the distorted version drawn by the extremists will have a greater chance of being recognised as such”.

No wonder, in a recent Editorial in Science (August 17th) Alan L Leshner has made the following remarks:

“Public understanding and support of science and technology have never been more important, but also never more tenuous. Today, they are embedded in an increasingly politicised environment where ethical, legal, and social implications are emerging at a rate that seems to be outpacing society’s capacity to make sense of the science. The science of science communication will be essential to help guide new and more effective efforts at engaging productively across the science/society interface.”

(M S Swaminathan is an agricultural scientist who led India’s green revolution)


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