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Absent-minded to jargon-free

Feb. 20: Sections of scientists across India who use government funds for research may soon need to produce a single-page, jargon-free summary for public understanding of their work, under a proposal from an Indian science funding agency.

Science and Technology secretary T. Ramasami announced today that all scientists who receive funding from the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) from April 2014 onwards would have to generate a one-page jargon-free summary for its portal.

The board last year provided more than Rs 530 crore for several research projects in academic institutions across the country. From April this year, it plans to fully seek and process applications for research projects online.

As part of this online transition, Ramasami said, scientists who have had their projects sanctioned after April this year would, after they have completed their projects, need to provide summaries intended for laypersons to be published on the SERB portal.

The move comes amid what some say is a long-standing tug-of-war for the best and brightest students between the humanities and the sciences.

“In our days, we went to bed with science and dreamt about it, but today there is lack of such students. Today, students don’t want to go in for in-depth study,” said Bikash Sinha, a senior physicist and former director of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Calcutta.

“Some really good work is being done in the sciences in this country, but dedication to the sciences is lacking,” Sinha said, speaking on the sidelines of the state science congress at Burdwan University in Bengal.

But sections of scholars from the humanities believe the sciences have been drawing students away from the arts. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen appeared to reflect these concerns at the Jaipur literary festival last month when he said that many students are opting for science education, and education itself is becoming business-oriented. Sen had said India needs to nurture fields such as arts, language, and culture.

Sinha called for deeper interactions between intellectuals from the humanities and the sciences, echoing what the late British writer Charles Percy Snow had prescribed in his country 55 years ago.

Sinha, now chairman of the governing board of the National Institute of Technology, Durgapur, said members of both these communities should work to build bridges between what Snow in a landmark lecture delivered in 1959 had called the “two cultures”.

“There is a huge void in India between the two cultures -- what Snow said then is highly relevant to India in the present-day,” Sinha said. “The work that scientists do is at times not as comprehensible as art, dance, or music. But scientists themselves need to wake up -- they spend enormous public funds for research, it is their duty to explain what they’re doing in plain language,” Sinha said.

But some senior scientists caution that the need for public dissemination of research activities may be easy to prescribe but hard to implement. "Such things can't be achieved through edicts," said P Balram, director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Many scientists may find it difficult to produce a jargon-free page of scientific work, Balaram said.

Some researchers are also questioning the wisdom of trying to make public the results of every funded project. “Ninety-nine per cent of science is incremental, only one per cent represents a big advance,” a senior scientist said. “In such cases, the outcome becomes evident to the public.”