India's Space and Nuclear Labs Are Visibly Lacking in Outreach Efforts

Is it any surprise that people feel threatened by hi-tech science when hi-tech science refuses to trust them?

Credit: rdecom/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: rdecom/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The distance between mainstream science and laypeople is getting smaller in the West every year as the number of public outreach events and citizen science projects have been on a marked rise. Scientists from multiple fields spend their time and energy in inspiring and motivating more people into science.

“In a free society, scientists funded by tax-based sources should obligate themselves to celebrate their discoveries with the public,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, a noted science television personality, astronomer and the director of Hayden Planetarium, New York, told The Wire. “Without a roadway between these places, paved by science festivals and videos and books and documentaries, we risk the public losing trust in science and scientists losing faith in the public.”

The biggest particle accelerator in the world, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, has a dedicated tour programme in English and French that attracts dozens of visitors every day. Throughout the year, CERN – the collider’s host lab – hosts a few thousand of visitors at permanent exhibitions, watch movies about research at CERN, visit parts of the collider tunnel and interact with scientists. CERN certainly stands out among other leading research institutions in terms of the number of visitors and the amount of resources spent on public outreach. They have been remarkably international and democratic through this exercise, welcoming citizens from all countries in the world.

At NASA, there are numerous exhibitions, telescopes, launch pads, engineering sites and events that are open to the general public. Such programmes are conducted at regular intervals. It is straightforward for any US citizen or green-card-holder to enter a NASA campus for science exhibitions, events or guided tours. For Indian citizens, it usually takes about a week to get the necessary clearance. Permanent exhibitions and a visitor centre are common fixtures at NASA, and generally at most space agencies in the West.

“In a democratic society, where the taxpayer’s money is used for any government activity, the public should know about how the funds are spent and they have the right to know,” Murthy Gudipati, a planetary scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, said. “For this reason, public outreach is a very important aspect of space science institutions such as NASA and the [European Space Agency], which have devoted staff who bring science and technology achievements to public in a language that is easy to understand, and which at times professional scientists and engineers may not be able to articulate in simple words.”

(Gudipati spoke in his personal capacity; he does not speak for NASA or any other organisation.)

Lame excuses

At the European Space Agency (ESA), there are various public lectures and events conducted to radiate the spirit of ongoing space missions and the latest research. It is straightforward for any EU/EEA citizen to enter an ESA or ESTEC campus to attend such events and workshops anytime. For Indian citizens, it usually takes less than a week to get clearance from security to enter an ESA campus.

According to Detlef Koschny, a planetary scientist and head of the Near Earth Objects Segment at the ESA HQ, Netherlands, “At ESA, we have a number of communications and educations activities, and I see again and again how important they are. Involving young people in particular – both male and female – gets a new generation interested in our activities that are important for shaping our future.”

In this context, India has perhaps one of the more restrictive, unwelcoming and close-minded scientific establishments among the most scientifically advanced countries, especially in terms of conducting public outreach events on a regular basis.

There is an important distinction to be made here, between more research-focused establishments, such as the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, etc., and institutions run by the Departments of Atomic Energy (DAE) and of Space (DoS). The former have a glut of outreach activities targeting school students, teachers and laypeople. The IISc hosts an ‘open day’ every year, where one and all are invited to meet scientists on campus and try their hands at various ongoing experiments. The International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bengaluru, hosts a monthly public lecture called ‘Kaapi and Curiosity’ – itself modelled on the ‘Chai and Why’ series hosted by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (incidentally, both ICTS and TIFR are funded by the DAE). Scientists from these institutes also travel the country giving talks and meeting the public for informal interactions.

However, the space and nuclear labs, which conduct much less research while receiving the bulk of government research funding, leave much to be desired. For example, like Switzerland and France, India also has a particle accelerator at Kolkata, Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC). But it will be pretty hard to find an ordinary Indian citizen who has ever visited this place or attended any public outreach program here.

In fact, most science school-level teachers of science or university professors have no access to such places and hardly get an opportunity to visit or learn about research conducted at such establishments. As a result, more Indians are likely to know a lot about CERN and a lot less about the VECC. Ironically, Indian citizens can access CERN, NASA and the ESA easier than our own facilities – be it the VECC or the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (Thiruvananthapuram). The restrictions and constraints imposed when attempting to visit places run by the Department of Atomic Energy or the Department of Space are usually justified with the lame excuses of ‘security’, fears of espionage, etc.

Moreover, if CERN can set up a robust system to protect its more sensitive research from its visitors, why can’t India? The hassles of securing clearances required for foreign citizens or overseas scientists to enter some of the country’s research institutions are mind-boggling.

A country with our research budget and resources can easily afford dedicated staff to deal with frequent visitors and outreach, if only there is an inclination for it. They would require simply a drop of funds and allowances from the ocean of government grants for research at the country’s top institutes.

On the other hand, the many planetariums in our major cities are doing a great job reaching out to people – a feat research institutions can emulate. A planetarium’s staff and directors are usually more grounded and take an active interest in educating and engaging with students, school teachers and college lecturers from around the country. Autonomous research institutes run typically by the DAE/DoS do not conduct these programmes as often as our country needs them.

Education through outreach

“An even more important aspect of the public outreach is education. There are a wide variety of activities that NASA undertake, including scholarships for college students, K-12 educational materials, teacher-training in space sciences, visits by K-12 students to various NASA facilities, minority STEM programs, and so on,” according to Gudipati. “NASA scientists and engineers actively volunteer in local schools for mentoring students and give popular talks at” various places.

The agency also has a dedicated TV channel aimed at both children and adults, complemented with an annual open house that provides a hands-on experience with NASA tech.

In the West, public outreach plays an integral role in helping institutions using taxpayers’ money survive. Sheila Kanani, the education, outreach and diversity officer at the Royal Astronomical Society, London, said “We are very lucky that we are able to provide education and outreach activities for people from all walks of life and of all ages. We build rockets, make comets and ‘meet’ astronomers from the past and present.” According to her, the RAS considers space and astronomy to be “an inspiring way to get people involved in STEM subjects”.

The funding system in India is different, so the space and nuclear facilities are least bothered about interacting with laypeople. However, even though there is no need to change India’s present research funding system for this reason, it’s about time officials get out of their protective bubbles. Such recalcitrance contributes to a pervasive suspicion among Indian citizens of nuclear reactors, sophisticated labs and particle detectors; it doesn’t help that some of these instruments are also located in difficult-to-reach areas. To paraphrase deGrasse Tyson, is it any surprise that people feel threatened by hi-tech science when hi-tech science refuses to trust them?

Aswin Sekhar is an Indian astrophysicist based at CEED, University of Oslo, Norway.

Note: This article was edited on January 11, 2018, to state that both ICTS and TIFR are funded by the DAE.