Editorials: Outreach plans for scientists

The decision of the Union Minister of Science and Technology to tap the talent pool of about 6,000 scientists from institutions and centres that come under the umbrella of the Department of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Earth Sciences and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research to give lectures to school and college students is a good initiative. Scientists dedicating 12 hours a year each to engage with students to impart scientific knowledge and inculcate a scientific temper in them is bound to go a long way in attracting young talent to science and grooming them. This is a much-needed step as India, like several other countries, faces an alarming situation of steadily decreasing numbers of school students opting for science, and a lack of long-term interest among those who have chosen it. While the intent behind the initiative is good, a coordinated approach by different Ministries would be more effective in achieving the goal. Not involving scientists from the 32 institutions of the Indian Council of Medical Research and similar nodal bodies is unjustified. The lapse becomes all the more glaring as the outreach programmes are to be made mandatory and scientists’ performance is to be evaluated once every three years. As it stands, the initiative could cause resentment among the 6,000 scientists as their counterparts in institutions that come under other nodal agencies face no such compulsions. The government should act swiftly to ensure that all the scientists working in government institutions become involved in student outreach programmes. The metrics of their performance can be used to reward them while assessing their research proposals and promotions.

Several institutions and individuals in the U.S. engage in student outreach programmes and India has a great deal to learn from their experience. We should make sure that as we belatedly embark on this ambitious goal, we conscientiously avoid committing the same mistakes that have been seen elsewhere. The first and foremost pitfall to be avoided is compelling scientists to teach science by replacing teachers. Teaching should be made active rather than passive. Excellent results can be achieved when scientists guide students and teachers to do real science that is open-ended, inquiry-based and driven by a sense of exploration — which only scientists are best-equipped to offer. This will foster critical thinking and imagination and impart skills of scientific investigation. Also, it will arouse children’s curiosity and set off a series of questions prior to, during and after a project. Information and knowledge thus gained remain indelible, and science becomes fun. The Indian Space Research Organisation’s work of guiding students from a handful of engineering colleges to build satellites, which were eventually launched, is one of the best examples of imaginative student outreach programmes.

Published in The Hindu on September 15, 2014