Good morning Sri Lanka!

Thursday, 27 January 2011 00:11 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

“Opportunity – Every day is a fresh opportunity to continue the quest towards our mission” is a poster that I have hung on my wall – everybody needs inspiration!

However, at times before I set my sight on this message on the wall, the headlines and details of the day before enter my head via other media.

Yes, we all are keen to know what is going on and thirst for information perhaps is a human phenomena.

When one has listened to all that gets delivered through the various airwaves, at the end it is not surprising to find the mind tired of all the reported events from yesterday and feeling apprehensive about what may be in store of us out there in the days ahead. Not the best of frame of minds that one would like to have at the beginning of a new day.

Time for change

This multimedia experience goes on and on and I believe needs some specific attention by those who can implement change. I do not want to switch off also – fatal attraction – as you are keen to know what is presented.

Why one should start one’s day after listening to a string of cartoons, deaths, brawls of various kinds and negative issues highlighted as major developments from the day gone by is anybody’s guess – the issue is that nobody is changing it.

In presenting extracts for the daily menu of news, our preconceived idea of what the audience needs to be told is quite important to understand. Do we try to elevate listeners to a new height or are we to satisfy their basic desires?

The fourth estate is quite important and it has an important function. The way it functions and what it selects to communicate can have an enormous influence over the populace.

Dr. Abdul Kalam’s views

This reminds me of what Dr. Abdul Kalam once communicated to Indians in a public seminar. I do keep quoting him and that is with much respect and I am sure there are many more examples to be taken from him.

He is on record saying, “I was in Tel Aviv once and I was reading an Israeli newspaper. It was day after a lot of attacks and bombardments had taken place. The Hamas had struck. There was death and destruction everywhere. But the front page of the newspaper carried a picture of a Jewish gentleman, who after years of hard work had successfully transformed desert land belonging to him into an orchid and a granary. It was this inspiring picture that everyone woke up to. The gory details of killings, bombardments and deaths were inside the newspaper, buried among other news.”

So he went onto state in conclusion: “There are millions of achievements but our media is only obsessed with the bad news of failures and disasters”.

His comment unfortunately is equally if not more valid on this side of the Palk Strait as well. Once an international speaker at an IESL seminar picked up a similar aspect from one of our newspapers; on the front page was a tourist with a parrot on her shoulder. The picture and the caption had made it to the front page of the newspaper. Hidden inside was an item about a new development of a rice-based food product in a local research institution.

His comment too was that this was prioritising the information in the wrong way, considering the issues that the country faces. I am sure if anyone pauses to reflect on what one hears and observes as headline news, you will agree with this statement. I am particularly concerned about technology-based news hardly ever reaching the attention of the media, an issue I have addressed earlier as well.

Science and technology

The media – the famous fourth estate – has a strong opinion forming role in a society. It is important that there is serious weight given to science and technology. With growing complexity in the way we have to live, the masses, unless educated and enlightened, will be entering unchartered territories with much less preparation and that would not augur well for anyone who seeks progress.

Carl Sagan, the famous scientist and science fiction writer in his foreword to the ‘Handbook for Science Writers’ from the National Association of Science Writers stated that a general public understanding of science was essential due to the following reasons:

  • A productive technological economy.
  • An understanding of the environment and other dangers of technologies new and old.
  • A glimpse of the answers to the deepest questions on the origin of the universe and ourselves.
  • A grasp of the sceptical method of science which has essential connection with the democratic process.

We can analyse ourselves on how well our performance in these areas. I am sure from this set of objectives we have really failed in delivering the required service to our community.

Just note how many times we have given prominence to young inventors of the type whose vehicles were running with water. The coverage was perhaps sufficient to get some of these individuals to enter into hallowed places and discuss their ‘inventions’ with those whose actions may really impact our nation.

No wonder at times the ordinary folk wonder what these learned men and women in higher education systems are doing when they see ‘stunning breakthroughs’ like these coming from elsewhere. When the cookie crumbles on these non-scientific inventions, the reporting is almost absent.

Professional science journalism

Usually in science and technology, specialist attention should be given prior to reporting and it is better that the cadre within any one of the media houses is strengthened with science and technology enriched minds. We do certainly have these individuals in our society. The sad situation is that they do not find their rightful places alongside the usual members of the fourth estate.

Anyway reporting without clarifications or checking for accuracy violates a basic tenant of journalism – get all sides of the story. There isn’t much support for professional science journalism. The astrology columns are common but not astronomy!

In an era of rapid technological advances, the public’s technical literacy is falling into such a low level that it is quite worrying. Technology and its services are expanding and we pride ourselves by saying that we are in a new economy. Yet in most of our efforts we strive to fill the bandwidth with negative information.

Technology may be killing the very community that it needs to ensure its healthy growth as well as to ensure that technology alone would not be construed to mean ‘living’ but with the value system intact.

As one should say, it is better to come up with solutions rather than complaints only. In this regard I appeal to the national media to follow what the Israel newspaper did. Report evenly, but emphasise the true grit and spirit – elements that should be inculcated in these turbulent times.

Ensure that science and technology gets covered and sections and personnel exist to manage the task independently. Go out and report on S&T events. Cover the local conference calendar and make an effort to participate and report.

Unless we communicate broadly and occupy a slot in the average mindset, the usual feeling is that nothing is happening in this country; no wonder students study at times with one vision. One foot in an educational institute and the other in an airline with a one way ticket!

We forget that educated masses bring about better solution-oriented opportunities. We spend less on awareness and more on implementations. Take many SWOT analyses perhaps happening in many places and issue that comes up invariably is the poor awareness and what mechanism exists to convert this weakness to strength – hold workshops.

Walk into seminars and workshops and invariably one has to go through basics most of the time as it would be futile to consider a higher level of delivery. Let us resolve to keep our democracy – where every individual counts and is counted as one – yet when one lacks the basic knowledge and awareness, you will be participating in numbers but not with your head also in the process. That is not realising the best of a democracy!

(Professor Ajith de Alwis is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is a Science Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.)

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