Social literacy for scientists

Scientists recognize (and bemoan) the fact that scientific and technological issues are often distorted and misrepresented in the media.  As a result, we are usually prompted to promote scientific literacy of the general populace to enable it to understand the complex scientific and technological issues that frequently come up. The obverse side of this coin (usually unrecognized) is that, as scientists, we need to acquire social literacy : that is, to recognize our social responsibility in

  • clearly presenting scientific and technological aspects for public understanding of public issues
  • separating scientific and technological from societal aspects of these issues
  • clearly understanding the scientific AND societal imperatives that drive us to develop, and apply, new technologies.

Only then can we fully comprehend the myriad implications of applying the technologies that we enable.

Constructing an informed opinion

This conviction, that we need to promote the social literacy of scientists, drives aspects of my teaching and other professional activities.  I believe that we need consciously to think about the path by which we come to hold the opinions that we do: how do we construct our opinions?

As a step toward this,  my students analyze and discuss societal implications of biotechnological applications by learning to carefully to separate the biological from the societal aspects of these complex issues in a class discussion.

Similarly, I have tried to familiarize myself with developments in biotechnological applications to better understand some of the socio-political controversies and ethical issues involved in such applications, communicate such insights to other scientists, and to encourage, and participate in, discussions of these issues.

Inside the classroom
One of the objectives of my undergraduate course on Plant Diversity at Stony Brook was to enable students to integrate information derived from different levels of organization.  While this theme ran throughout the course, students applied the approach explicitly in a class discussion on aspects of genetic engineering.  The aim was to have students carefully analyze a particular technology (e.g., “terminator technology”, “pharming”) so as to clearly distinguish its molecular biological, organismal, and ecological (including agricultural) features.  This exercise led to discussion on societal issues (e.g., intellectual property rights, regulatory measures) associated with the technology.  These issues directly led to aspects of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).  In a graduate seminar in Spring 2003, we examined the biological and social issues and rationale behind the establishment of the CBD, and tried to analyze specific case studies to acquire more direct understanding of some of the issues.

Outside the classroom
The application of molecular genetic engineering for the improvement of crop plants has become highly controversial.  The genesis and development of a specific controversy, the introduction of cotton genetically modified (GM) to contain Bt, a protein toxin derived from a bacterium, is a very complex issue.  A preliminary assessment of the issues in India was presented at a symposium (1), written up in a paper (2), and extended to a comparative analysis of India and the USA (3).  A natural extension of this work was a co-authored chapter (4) in a book on bioethics for scientists.  Similarly, thinking and teaching about the CBD led to an investigation of the institutional affiliations of taxonomists (5,6), a matter with policy implications at national and international levels.

[I did more of this while at Stony Brook but, sadly, not as much at Delhi University]

  1. Bharathan, G. 1999. “Genetically engineered seeds: a perspective from India.” Symposium on Ethics and Risks in Plant Biotechnology, XVI International Botanical Congress, St. Louis, USA.  August 4.
  2. Bharathan, G.  2000. “Bt-cotton in India: anatomy of a controversy.” Current Science 79:1067-1075.
  3. Bharathan, G., and Chandrasekharan, Shanti. 2000. “Genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton: perspectives on a controversy.” Poster presented at: “Stake holders’ Dialogue on Agricultural Biotechnology: Biosafety and Economic Implications,” TERI, Gurgaon, Haryana, India, August 14, 2000; and “New Frontiers in Science and Technology Policy,” GRC, Plymouth, NH, USA, August 20-24, 2000.
  4. Bharathan, G., Chandrasekharan, S., May, T. and Bryant, J. 2002. “Crop Biotechnology in Developing Countries.”  in “Bioethics for Scientists” Bryant, J., Baggott-La Velle, L. and Searle, J. [eds.]. John Wiley & Sons.
  5. Geeta, R., Levy, A., Hoch, J. M., Mark, M. 2003. “Where do most taxonomists work, and does it matter?” Poster. Annual AIBS conference on “Bioethics in a changing world,” Washington, D. C., USA, March 21-23, 2003.

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