Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 13 June 2014
Years ago, as a young science journalist working for Asia Technology magazine of Hong Kong, I was shown around Pakistan’s space agency SUPARCO premises in Karachi. At the time, in early 1990, they were readying the country’s first satellite, Badr 1 (launched later that year on a Chinese rocket).
It was a national showpiece, and no one involved would talk about specifics like costs, benefits and long term research and development (R&D) plans. Although Benazir Bhutto had returned Pakistan to civilian rule, no critical questions could be asked about the country’s nuclear or space programmes.
A few years later, I happened to be in Mumbai when India carried out its second nuclear weapons testing in Pokhran mid May 1998. This ultimate chest thumping act inspired street celebrations and highly nationalistic media coverage. Pakistan carried out its own nuke test within weeks, escalating tensions in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
Both countries have long shielded their space and nuclear programmes from public and media scrutiny, on the grounds of national security. Such ‘Charismatic mega-science’ projects are not the only ones in South Asia to be treated like sacred cows. Large dam and reservoir projects, or efforts to lay national fibre optic cables for broadband Internet connectivity, can easily get elevated to symbols of national pride.
Sri Lanka has its share of grandiose projects. The Accelerated Mahaweli River Development programme in the 1980s was beyond reproach. A current example is plans to launch a national communications satellite and to set up a space centre in Pallekele. Even Parliament is unclear as to who is pursuing what in this respect.
These mega-projects are meant to showcase technological accomplishment, but not all of them build local capacity or address development priorities (Mahaweli was an exception). Often they can drain scarce funds available for health, education and scientific research.
In many parts of South Asia, independent academics, civil society activists or journalists questioning such projects risk being called ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-development’. In today’s Lanka, they can be easily labelled as ‘traitors’.
Against this backdrop, how can the media critique the role of science and technology (S&T) in national development? What can science journalists do to hold scientists and policy makers more accountable?
These and other questions were explored in a recent public conversation I had with visiting Indian journalist, Ranjit Devraj, the Delhi-based South Asia regional coordinator for Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net).
It was part of the ‘Coordinated Dialogue on Science for All: Mainstreaming Science, Technology and Innovation for Public Communication’, held on 29 May 2014. It was organised by the Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation (COSTI) of the Lankan government, in partnership with SciDev.Net.
SciDev.Net, a non-profit entity set up in 2001, operates the world’s leading online source of reliable and authoritative news, views and analysis on information about S&T for global development. Its content is drawn mostly from freelance journalists and experts living and working in the global South.
Although science now encompasses our modern lives, many are still not familiar with how science is done or why it matters. Science communication – done by science centres, museums and other educational activities – seeks to fill this gap by interpreting and explaining matters to non-scientists.
Science journalism is a form of science communication — with a critical edge. Journalism involves gathering, processing and analysing what is topical and socially relevant. Science journalists use the craft and tools of the trade to probe issues related to S&T. They work within the same ethical and professional framework common to all mass media.
Thus, we science journalists are not simply public amplifiers for scientists or their institutions. We support scientific research and its use in policy making and society, but at the same time, we question them closely.
In my view, science journalists’ primary role is to be ‘critical cheer-leaders’ for science: we promote scientists and their institutions while also holding them socially accountable.
David Dickson, the British science journalist who founded SciDev.Net, was among the first to recognise the value of his kind for transparent, responsive and accountable government.
He wrote in 2007: “The concept of the journalist as a defender of the public interest is usually applied to those writing about overtly political issues, since it is here that the need for — and indeed the challenges to — a free press are often greatest. But a growing number of political decisions, from allocating medical resources to promoting economic growth, have a scientific and technological dimension to them. It is therefore important to recognise the extent to which science journalism forms an essential component of a well-functioning democracy.”
This has long been acknowledged in the industrialised world, but Dickson argued that it is equally true of developing nations.Science journalists can, he said, highlight government failure to meet public commitments in science-related areas. They can also press for government policies to be firmly embedded in evidence drawn from sound science.
The work of SciDev.Net during the past dozen years has helped define a new ‘common ground’ between democracy, development and pursuit of scientific knowledge.
Ranjit and I discussed how this has happened, for example, in contentious debates surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs), nuclear energy, and pharmaceutical drugs. When expert opinion is polarized, policy makers need neutral platforms where concerned parties can discuss matters openly.
In recent years, I have chosen to focus on stories that explore the nexus between science, public policy and the public interest. There is plenty to choose from – from dengue control and safe use of agrochemicals to climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction.
On these and other current concerns, I have sometimes irked single-issue activists whose commitment I admire but whose rhetoric and conspiracy theories I don’t accept.
Taking on Big Agro, Big Pharma and Big Tobacco seems a popular sport for them. Yet the best long-term defence is in strengthening governance and improving the policy processes. And in recognising that, despite activist prescriptions, ‘Big Government’ is not a panacea for all ills.
In this column, I have flagged the danger of ‘policy-based evidence’ – when ministers commission investigations to prove a preconceived notion, or quote from selected research while ignoring inconvenient truths.
To be effective, science journalists must sometimes challenge political and academic authorities when their positions are clearly misguided. This is easier said than done, Ranjit and I agreed, especially when patriotism is the last refuge of mediocre scientists.
It’s not the journalists’ job to join any group’s chest thumping or back slapping. We should simply keep asking the right questions and go in search of answers and clarity.
And that’s why we science journalists shouldn’t jump on any bandwagon, even one as laudable as science for all. Instead, we can be fellow travellers along the same path.