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Boosting public understanding of science and technology in developing countries

Eduardo Martinez
Regional specialist, science and technology management
Unesco office, Montevideo, Uruguay

Email: emartinez@unesco.org.uy

'The popularization of science and technology is intended to to provide broad sectors of the population with the challenge and satisfaction of understanding the universe in which we live and, above all, being able to imagine and build possible new worlds'.

Today there are societies that produce knowledge, and those that are essentially consumers of it; there are societies that progress, build and create, and others that passively contemplate such progress, with little chance of understanding and adapting to the changes that progress implies.

One of the major challenges facing developing countries is to make science and technology an essential part of the culture of the people. A number of historical, cultural, political, social and economic situations have given rise to the need to develop strategies that favour the popularization of science and technology in developing countries. Despite the wide variety in such situations, each is concerned with efforts to generate an endogenous scientific and technological culture.

The popularization of science and technology must make such knowledge a central component of culture, of social awareness and of collective intelligence. It must also contribute to an effective integration of cultural, ethnic, linguistic, social and economic issues.

The technical possibilities of gaining access to information are changing our vision of the world and transforming the relationship between human beings and the appropriation and dissemination of knowledge. Today, access to knowledge is synonymous with development, well-being and quality of life; in this context, scientific and technological literacy is a social and ethical right of all human beings.

But formidable challenges face developing societies in the increasing technological capacity to store, retrieve and transmit information. The popularization of science and technology must contribute to the difficult task of separating 'transcendental' knowledge and information from that which is banal, superficial, ephemeral or unnecessary.

The areas to be reached by science and technology must be broadened to integrate formal education and communication with informal efforts in both fields, academic discourse with colloquial language, and laboratory materials with domestic objects and ordinary daily achievements. It is also essential to make scientific and technological knowledge available to the ordinary citizen, in order to allow him or her to form opinions on such matters that can form part of daily conversations in the same way as politics and sport.

We must address our efforts in at least three directions: the general public, children and young adults, and politicians and entrepreneurs. Of course, efforts to make scientific and technological knowledge available and familiar to the general population should be supplemented by educational reforms that promote the role of science teaching in primary and secondary education, as well as a significant expansion in hands-on experimental activities; science is, after all, an experimental endeavour.

But a programme concerned with popularizing science and technology is easier to achieve than such educational reforms, and could certainly lead more efficiently and rapidly to a more positive social attitude towards science and technology.

Activities aimed at the popularization of science and technology point in various directions, from the 'distribution' of information in the mass media to formal education, and from the democratizing function of science and technology interactive centres to the creation of diverse spaces or processes for non-formal participation. All try broaden the public that can be linked actively in the discovery, understanding and appropriation of scientific and technological knowledge.

Activities leading to the popularization of science and technology must be based on interdisciplinary dialogue and work, integrating diverse fields of knowledge and different theoretical and methodological approaches. The popularization of science and technology is a process of communicating and appropriating scientific and technological knowledge aimed at broad sectors of the population. It is similar to a pyramid which rests on four components:

  • Science and technology interactive centres;
  • Multimedia programmes for science and technology popularization;
  • Mass media and the dissemination of science and technology; and
  • Formal education/science learning.

    In the past few yearsmany interdisciplinary teams have been formed in Latin America to tackle the problem of communicating science and technology to large audiences. The popularization of science should be taken care of by scientists, communicators, educators, artists; by those who know the scientific content of the message, and those who know how to make its transmission and learning more efficient.

    The Latin American interactive centres, some of which have been in operation for several years, have shown their usefulness to local communities. First, they serve as friendly community centres in which individuals can spend leisure time, which might by itself justify their construction and operation. In practice, these centres soon become cultural centres as welltoo, attended by movie goers and theatre and concert fans. Second, they are good substitutes for school science labs, which are not easy to build and operate, mainly due to a lack of capable science teachers. And thirdly, a visit to a science centre ha proved to be a good way to guide more than one youngster down the road of scientific and technological research.

    Many isolated experiences that had been developed in Latin America with varying results found a common ground when the Network for the Popularization of Science and Technology in Latin America and the Caribbean (Red-POP) was established in October 1990 (in Rio de Janeiro) following a proposal by UNESCO's Science, Technology and Society Programme.

    Red-POP is an interactive network that bring together centres and programmes, and operates by means of regional co-operation mechanisms which foster the exchange, training and use of resources among its members. It is the largest science related network in Latin America and the Caribbean, embracing over 70 S&T popularization centres and programmes.

    The last biennial meeting of Red-POP, which was held in La Plata, Argentina, in April 1997, was attended by over 200 centres and programmes, half from 16 Latin American and other countries - including the United States, Spain and France - and half from Argentina. It is expected that the next Red-POP Meeting, due to be held next month in Rio de Janeiro, will be attended by a larger audience.

    For further details of the activities of Red-POP, click here.

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