Op-ed: Why We Need Science for All

The Sunday Observer newspaper in Sri Lanka recently sought my views on the concept of ‘Science for All’, which comes into focus with World Science Day observed globally on November 10. I sent them an op-ed of 700 words, from which they have quoted extensively in a long feature published today: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2014/11/09/spe05.asp

Here, for the record, is my full essay in original form:

We can take the citizen to Science but...? Cartoon by Awantha Artigala

We can take the citizen to Science but…? Cartoon by Awantha Artigala

Why We Need Science for All

 By Nalaka Gunawardene

World Science Day for Peace and Development is celebrated worldwide on 10 November each year.

The annual, global event was initiated in 2001 by UNESCO, the UN agency covering education, science and culture. It is an opportunity to remind ourselves why science is relevant to our daily lives.

World Science Day aims to ensure that everyone is kept informed of new developments in science, and the role scientists in society is understood and valued.

The notion of ‘Science for All’ is not confined to scientific subjects studied in school or university. Science is much more than textbooks, laboratories and experts.

Some among us are drawn to studying science and technology in depth and pursue careers in medicine, engineering or other specialized fields. Sri Lanka certainly needs such highly skilled persons to transform the economy and society.

Beyond this, however, every citizen needs a certain minimum knowledge and understanding of science and technology to lead productive and safe lives today. Without it, we can get easily confused, sidelined or exploited by various scams.

Consider a few recent headline-making developments.

Last month, an international health conference held in Colombo heard that no new malaria cases had been reported in Sri Lanka since October 2012. It suggests that we have probably eliminated the ancient disease from our island. Science based disease surveillance and control measures were responsible for this feat in public health.

Yet there is no time to rest, as other mosquito borne diseases pose new threats. Since 1988, dengue fever (DF) and dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF) epidemics have been regular occurrences in Sri Lanka, which is among the 30 most dengue endemic countries. Dengue is preventable and evidence shows it can be contained. Once again we need scientific research to inform health policies and control measures.

The Koslanda landslide on 29 October destroyed an entire settlement, instantly burying many innocent people and making hundreds more homeless. That was a national tragedy, especially as the hazard was identified by scientists at the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) who had repeatedly warned the people at risk to relocate.

Alas, that did not happen for socio-economic reasons. A key lesson of Koslanda is that hazard information and warnings need timely and effective communication. To be effective, they need to be accompanied by viable alternatives to those at risk.

We often read media reports that can be scary. We hear about pesticide residues in our food, the rising number of road traffic accidents, and the danger of digital identity theft. Some basic scientific knowledge and technical skills become essential survival tools in the 21st century. Science cannot be left to scientists alone.

We can understand this with a sporting analogy. Our national passion of cricket is played professionally by a handful of men and women who make up the national teams and pools. But practically all 20 million Lankans know enough about cricket to follow and appreciate the game.

Similarly, we have a few thousand professionals practising or teaching science and technology for a living. The rest of society also needs to know at least the basic concepts — and limits — of science.

Science for All would be a 'good idea' for a nation obsessed with astrology! Cartoon by Awantha Artigala

Science for All would be a ‘good idea’ for a nation obsessed with astrology! Cartoon by Awantha Artigala

For example, the scientific method involves questioning and investigating before accepting anything. A healthy dose of scepticism is very useful to safeguard ourselves from superstitions and increasingly sophisticated – but not always honest – product advertising.

The Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation (COSTI, website: http://costi.gov.lk), set up in 2013 under the Senior Minister of Science and Technology, has recently set up a National Coordinating Council on Science for All in Sri Lanka. Its mandate is to empower Lankans of all ages and walks of life with science knowledge to enable them to make informed decisions in everyday life.

The Council wants to play a catalytic role, inspiring media, education and professional institutions to promote science communication as an essential survival skill for modern times. It will collaborate with such message ‘multipliers’ who can help reach large numbers of people quickly. A national policy on science communication is to be drawn up to guide future activities.

American astronomer Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996) was at the forefront in promoting science for its sense of wonder and also for countering pseudoscience. As he used to say, “Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.”

[Award-winning science writer Nalaka Gunawardene counts over 25 years of national and international experience, and serves as co-chair of the recently established National Coordinating Council on Science for All in Sri Lanka.]

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