Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Do our scientists communicate?

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak launched Malaysia Inovatif 2010 last week. Former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi launched the National Biotechnology Policy in 2005. Another former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohammad championed science and technology and aspired to have one Nobel Laureate by 2020. Lots of incentives and fund are channelled to promote science and technology in Malaysia and various policies ranging from agriculture, biotechnology to ICT has been in place. But how much effort is taken to communicate science to the public and to create a well-informed society who is science literate? Who champions this effort?

According to UNICEF, our literacy level stands at 98%. It is something to be proud of, since I am sure being literate in our country does not just mean the person is able to write his or her name. This is the definition of literate in some countries. However, we are lucky to have higher standards. Nevertheless, we should take one step ahead and strive for science literacy. How literate is our population in terms of science? There are various studies done in UK and US to gauge their science literacy level decades ago. The House of Lords in UK has come out with reports like the Bodmer report on “Public Understanding of Science” and suggested strategies to improve science communication in as early as 1985. This was done because a science-ignorant public might fear and disfavour science. Ten years later, in 1995, the Wolfendale report strongly recommended that scientists should specify their communication activities with the public in their research proposal to get public funds. And in year 2000, again the House of Lords continued to call for more dialogue, discussion and debate between scientists and the public. These initiatives have led more than half of UK scientists to communicate with the public on their research activities.

How many of our scientists in the public sector communicate with the public? How many of us have heard a scientist talk about his or her work? Are there any special grants for public awareness allocated to the scientists? Is there any special institute assigned to champion this effort? It must be acknowledged that there are pockets of activities carried out by various agencies such as MOSTI and its agencies, and various research institutes and universities. However, these activities are sporadic and the impact might not be great. There should be a bigger roadmap for this with clear indicators.

Scientists generally do not see the need to communicate to the public. This is coupled with the fact that they are not the best communicators to start with. The public does not understand their mumbo-jumbo language laden with scientific jargons and most often scientists fail to repackage their research news into stories that are appealing and relevant to the public. Nevertheless, there are a hand full of scientists who are interested to reach out to the public, however other constraints such as time, grants, and approval by the institute hinders their efforts. It must be accepted that the scientists have duty to inform the public on their research activities and how public fund is spent. The public has all the rights to know that funds allocated to R&D are spent on research work that brings benefits to them and the country. This is one way to gain trust from the public and their acceptance of new technology.

Public understanding of science is crucial for developing countries like Malaysia and efforts in this area should not be taken lightly. High level involvement is important to ensure we reap the benefits of all the science policies that are in place.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan