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Social responsibility guidelines for scientists


Biju Dharmapalan

Are policies needed to make our scientists socially responsible? Aren't they aware of their societal obligations, which are managed through public money?

The Government has recently bought out the Scientific Social Responsibility (SSR) guidelines. The objective is to harness the potential of our scientific community voluntarily for strengthening science and society linkages and thereby making the S&T ecosystem responsive to societal needs.

The guidelines were formulated as per the suggestion made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his inaugural address to the Indian Science Congress in 2017 at Tirupati. A committee was formed under Dr.W. Selvamurthy for the purpose.

The provisions of the guidelines aim to strengthen the country's scientific knowledge ecosystem, improve communication between scientists and society, and translate research into social benefits. is probably the first country to come out with such a landmark guideline for scientific,social responsibility. But do we need policies to make our scientists socially responsible? Aren't they aware of their profession's societal obligations, which are managed through public money?

Many scientists showed their sense of social responsibility through their actions and acted as change agents in reforming society.India, as we see it today, is built on the contributions of our great scientists. These great scientists used to interact with the public, especially the student community, with their inherent passion for the subject. But slowly, this got eroded, and a disconnect has happened between scientists working in our research institutions and the citizens.

This disconnect is mainly because of the luxury enjoyed by the scientific community in India. Scientists started loving the high-profile facilities Government provides them through salary and other perks. In this race to win superiority over their colleagues on the professional front, they forgot the fundamental work culture and ethics.   There are hardly a handful of scientists in India who do genuine scientific work in a lab after becoming a scientist. For most of them, a PhD or PDF is the cessation of their research. Once they become scientists, the research work isassigned to the research students or project assistants, and they begin the new role as bosses delivering orders, not accepting suggestions. The role of the scientists gets diminished to a proof-reader going through the reports prepared by scholars or as a clerk doing communication with the funding agencies and administrative division.

Many great scientists lose the technical skill needed in research in the long run. Most of the time, our scientists are just doing administrative . This contradicts the work culture observed in the labs of Nobel laureates. Many laureates work ina lab similar to a research student, even at their old age. It's this curiosity and passion that makes a great scientist. A good researcher or teacher should always be a curious student till the last breath. This spirit leads to -class breakthrough research and innovations in science.

One of the provisions in the SSR is making scientists visit educational institutions to deliver the lectures.Many scientists practice this on an individual basis, especially through the initiatives of the National Science Academies' lecture workshop and refresher course programme. But making it compulsory in the government guidelines will ease the administrative hurdle in getting approval from higher authorities.
The Government should initiate steps to make every public-sector research institution accessible to the public, especially to the student community.

If we want to develop a scientifically competent generation for the future, we need to kindle the fire of curiosity and knowledge gathering in them. Presently students are allowed to visit only with authorization letters from the teacher specifying the reason for the visit. This culture needs to be changed. Any passionate student or public in the country who has a valid identity card should be allowed to enter the research centres without any administrative hurdles. Entering the security check of our research centres is similar to army checkpoints in the country's border regions.Through this culture, we are killing the inquisitiveness of our children. The student should be allowed to meet the public relations officer or science communication officer, who can listen to their concern and accordingly take action. Many students will be interested in seeing the instruments or understanding the protocol or troubleshoots of a particular experiment, or wish to meet the scientist. Without disturbing the research process, their wish can be executed by the concerned official.

In many public sector research institutions, resources like libraries and instruments are underutilized. Many of these instruments are outdated as per the current research standards. Unfortunately, even today, in many science colleges, students don't have access to good quality microscopes, spectrophotometers,centrifuges,electrophoresis, electronic balances etc. The institutions can either gift their outdated instruments to nearby colleges or create a special instrumentation lab for students alone and give access to students from colleges they have signed an MoU.

The research institutions can also conduct two open house sessions per month. Regardless of age or education, anyone should be allowed to visit the research institutions and see the facilities. The duties and responsibilities for coordinating such open houses can be rotated among the scientists. Based on the feedback received from the public, these scientists can be rewarded in their performance evaluation reports. This should be made compulsory even in organizations maintained by ISRO and DRDO, without compromising national security.

Similarly, all public sector institutions should compulsorily organize science summer camps for school children. The ‘Science Fusion' organized by Vigyan Prasar, an autonomous institute of DST in New Delhi, is a unique summer camp model that has been successfully conducted since 2016. This programme has a flair for instilling curiosity in young minds through carefully designed hands o  sessions in different branches of science, from life science to Robotics and has inspired many young minds.

Rather than scientists visiting the public, it is always better to make the public visit the research institutions. This will make them realize the hard work and pain our scientific community is doing for the sake of the community's needs. Otherwise, ordinary people will not understand why lakhs of rupees are spent on certain types of research work. Of course, scientists working in agriculture and healthcare need to undertake public outreach activities in the community. Unfortunately, many present-day agricultural scientists don't have any field experience except in the experimental plots of their research station.
The stress given to science communication, especially in the promotion of writing science stories by the scientist in various print and electronic media, is an appreciable decision.

Only if a scientist connects with society would they be able to identify problems faced by society. This will equip them to research issues having applications to society. Science and society are two indispensable parts of the same coin. Only if there is a proper understanding between the two science will grow. Every scientist in the country should develop a sense of social responsibility, not through administrative compulsions but through an inherent attitude. They should understand that whatever position and status they enjoy is due to the taxpayer's money and owe the public much. The prescribed guidelines by the government will work only if our scientists work with passion and a sense of responsibility towards society.

The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.


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