Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Responsible Scientist
To the vast majority of of the Indian Public (maybe others as well), the person in a white coat pouring a lustrous green clear fluid from one raised test tube to another raised test tube containing a bright scarlet fluid, is a scientist! In rural areas where literacy equals education, the concept of a scientist might be a little alien. In urban centres, where in some select schools and colleges, select Science educators work passionately, the notion of science and and a scientist is a little clearer.
What makes a scientist a responsible one? The view of a practising scientist or student is likely to differ from what the society thinks. It should be rewarding to examine both perspectives.
A web dictionary search for the word 'scientist' yields definitions like "an expert in science, esp. one of the physical or natural sciences". The layman's picture of a scientist is critical. It determines the aspirations of the next generation of kids taking interest in science.
The taxpayer's investment is what perpetuates the noble scientific endeavour. His or her faith needs to be kept and nurtured. But where does the taxpayer come accross the goings on in scientific establishments? The mass media chiefly! The occassional newspaper (I personally applaud the Science and Technology section in 'The Hindu') gives people an inkling about new findings in various scientific disciplines. Their interactive columns where 'how's and 'why's are addressed go a long way in sustaining scientific interests of minds, young and old, not necessarily directly involved in Science. However, reports of scientific progress in most high circulation newspapers and television channels are limited to those pertaining to fertlity, libido and warfare. While they cater to basic human instincts of sex and conflict, they pervert the largely sexless non-combative scientific effort.
Radio reaches 70% of the nation. The Bourgeoise are greatly influenced by television. While whole channels maybe devoted to nature and science, the proportion of viewership they capture is peanuts compared to family drama in soap opera. The audio visual input on TV is a big step in spreading what science is all about. The numbers of science students inspired as kids by these shows indicate that they have their role to play, in spite of their small viewership. More than science, it is technology that captures the fancy of many.
Technological products are Science's fashionable daughters. Everyone wants a date with them. Disillusionment results very so so often, like on so many first dates. DDT was touted as the mosquitoes nemesis, man's saviour from malaria around 1939. Waterbodies, swimming pools (with children in them) were generously sprayed with it. A mere 33 years later, it was denigrated as Hell's own poison and held responsible for untold deaths and banned in the USA. Chemical fertilisers were spoken of as the crops' elixir and later besmirched as an environmental curse. Many more such examples exist. 'Oh those lying scientists! They with their fancy testing and all, told us it was all okay. They are the ones responsible for this!'. Can one really refute such allegations?
Universities and Research Institute hold 'Open Day' these days. Members of the public, school children and collegians chiefly, attend these events. Most of them return fascinated by the techniques researchers employ. The odd voice asks "What's point of studying a stupid molecule whose function you don't even know? Sure, there might be two stars going around each other, and the point is...?". "What about those hungry people with no roof to hide them? While these guys waste thousands of rupees on a fly's wing, those people starve and suffer!". hmm... Are these guys doing there stuff responsibly?
Education is an inseparable part of science. It should be anyway! It is the responsibilty of a scientist to ensure that research and scientific enquiry prevail not just till he/she's around but long after he/she's gone. Both of these are imperative aspects of a scientist's job. A fair section of practising scientists think so. So, does the scientist who pays little attention to the development and training of his/her students stand absolved? Enthusiastic students and their prospective employers certainly think not. It is a disservice to society and future generations to deprive them of valuable knowledge and skills that have accumulated through the toil of hundreds of deligent workers and thinkers, thereby making them repeat the whole process and wasting time and energy.
Asking questions about nature and getting answers by logical, repeatable methods outlines the scientific method. Responsibilty lies in asking oneself... what questions are important? ... need they be immediately relevant?... are my methods wasteful or harmful in any way?... does this help anyone else answer any other question?
Intellectual parties exist based on answers to these queries. Some say there is no such thing as an important question. 'We' work to satisfy human curiosity. The resultant knowledge maybe helpful in someway at some point in time and that, frees the effort from the burden of immediate positive social implications. Opponents opine, few in number though they are, that a large part of purely fundamental research is a pure waste of resources. Others, chiefly non-scientists, question the ethics associated with particular fields, embryonic stem cells being one of the one of the most recent ones. The agencies deciding these resources so far have been liberal with the horizon of questions whose addressal they fund, chiefly buying the first argument. These are predominantly public agencies. Yet, the freedom to choose a question is restricted to the set that are 'hot' in the community at that moment.
Private agencies who promise unlimited budgets have obviously a much narrower range of interest. It here becomes clear that the scientist's responsibility of asking questions is wrenched away and replaced by a third party's commercially inclined decision. Often commercial interests overlap with social need. Ranbaxy say, would love AIDS to be tamed, so that it can reap the bounty fom selling the treatment.
Thirdly, methods need to be fancy to attract attention. Attention is what many researchers, just like many others vie for. It gets you one up in the rat race. Their feasilbity is a secondary concern in affluent establishments. Both the effects and outcomes of these methods are subject to criticism. Untoward environmental effects and ethical issues doggedly haunt many streams. The Law and funding bodies judge their validity with finality.
Now, is it at all a wonder that a large number of people in the business are either, confused or callous or both about the isue of responsibilty? To appreciate what the responsiblities of a scientist are and to know what a responsible scientist is, requires deep cogitation after having experienced the life of a poffessional which is by no means as easy peasy as others might think. Passing value judgements on scientists requires weighing a large yet finite number of factors together. I guess you just have to be one to know one!