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Most affected communities miss out on new scientific knowledge and its application PDF Print E-mail
© Neena Bhandari

Melbourne, May 22– As natural disasters like floods and droughts become more common, bringing in their wake serious health risks, the most affected communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America have missed out on new scientific knowledge and its application.


Lack of press freedom and access to public information to disruption in electricity and poor communication skills are some of the reasons science journalists cite for people in emerging economies losing out on new discoveries that could go a long way in improving their life and livelihood.

Governments in these regions tend to guard information about "charismatic mega scientific" public funded research projects in areas such as nuclear energy and telecommunication. Often they are a drain on limited health, education and research funds.

Questioning their viability can be career or life threatening for journalists. As Nalaka Gunawardene, Director and CEO of TVE Asia Pacific and Trustee, Science and Development Network in Sri Lanka says, “Governments in our part of the world have a simple and brutal logic: if you are not with us, you must be against us -- and you need to be silenced using whatever means available. This makes it difficult for journalists to find scientists willing to be quoted.”

“Our problems often become magnified because some of our democracies are not mature and stable; our public institutions aren’t well oriented to serving the public interest; some of our media organizations are poor; and there just aren’t enough champions for public science either in our media organizations or in scientific institutions,” adds Gunawardene.

He observes a disparity or “non-equity” between science journalists from North and South. For example, an equally competent and capable science journalist of the developing world can only become an assistant for the (documentary-making) projects undertaken by the organizations from the developed nations.

The story is not very different in Africa where government’s police what goes into the media and anything thought to be `anti-government’ is killed. In Zambian newspapers, scientific or technological news is always relegated to inside pages.

As national governing council chairperson for environment at the Media Institute of Southern Africa and a correspondent for the Science Development Network in Zambia Talent Ngwande says, “It’s very sad to see a minister of information going through the newspaper before it goes to print, removing any 'offending' articles. It gets worse when it's a science article. Science-oriented stories, as well as those covering forestry, agriculture, and climate change, often get ‘spiked’. Publishers prefer stories about crime, violence and political scandal because this is what ‘sells’.”

A recent survey by the London-based NGO, Panos, of 47 journalists from Jamaica, Zambia , Honduras and Sri Lanka found considerable frustration amongst media professionals, with what they felt was a severe lack of interest by editors.

A huge communication gap between science journalists, scientists and public relations officers at R&D institutions and universities was a major predicament for Latin American science journalists, says Luisa Massarani from Brazil, who coordinates Science Development Net in Latin America.

Science reporting in Indian media accounts for merely 3 per cent of the overall coverage despite the country making global headlines for its economic rise. As T V Padma, Science Development Net South Asia coordinator says, “Though the coverage of some scientific issues is increasing and a few investigative reports on science are getting published, there is no science-dedicated TV channel from India; most of the old Indian magazines of science are now closed while the officials are, generally, of the opinion that no one needs to know science.”

Meanwhile, China has greatly increased the spending on R&D in science and technology during recent years, yet has paid little attention to the public communication of science, a similar scenario to the other developing countries.

As Jia Hepeng, regional coordinator of Science Development Net in China says, “A glance at science articles in the official media reveals ample use of difficult scientific terms and swathes of text boasting about the political achievements of Chinese research. What is often lacking, or inadequately expressed, is an explanation of how and why the research is relevant to the public at large. By contrast, editors in commercial media often do not hesitate to cut scientific terms from a story — or indeed, cut science stories from the publication altogether. “

Despite all odds, science journalists in emerging economies are taking up the challenge of gathering information, investigating stories and making use of information and communication technologies.

“The good thing with science journalists is that we are like bacteria, always mutating to adapt to the current challenge. This gives us hope," says Christina Scott, Science Development Net sub-Saharan Africa regional consultant. She emphasized the need for local-language science journalism.

For countries like Zambia, Ngwande suggests, “Liberalising the telecommunications industry is crucial because it will bring on board the private sector thus increase competition and lead to a reduction in costs. For example the average cost for a fixed line broadband in Zambia is about 1000 Dollars compared to about £20 in the United Kingdom. Mobile Phones have proved successful in Zambia with nine out of 10 subscribers use a mobile but many journalists cannot utilise it to file stories because of the costs associated with it.”

Hepeng stresses non English-speaking science journalists to improve their English-language skills, so that they can have a better international recognition.

In Latin American newspapers, science from first world countries has a higher presence compared to national science but Massarani says, “Despite this, there is a need for science journalism in this part of the world: audiences are hungry for science stories and newspapers and TV channels are giving more room for science.”

If science has to be made relevant, scientific stories will have to educate and inform the public and only then can it improve people's lives in developing countries. For that, it has to be made glamorous and trendy and profitable.

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