Nobel winners in town? Yawn!

Nobel winners in town? Yawn!

Did you know this? A dozen Nobel Prize winners and another 10 top-class scientists came to Allahabad last week to attend a science conclave at the local Indian Institute of Information Technology. The press release on this event bills it as “the biggest Asian gathering of international Nobel laureates". This event was held at around the same time that some of the world’s best economists—including Nobel winners—flew down to Delhi to commemorate Amartya Sen, who completed 75 years recently.

Neither event attracted much media attention. S. Charanjit Singh Atwal, the deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha who inaugurated the Allahabad science fest, criticized the print and electronic media for its obsession with sports and entertainment. Our online search for news items on the science conclave threw up very little, expect for the press release and a handful of items on the dance performed by Hema Malini and her troupe on the occasion.

Atwal spoke on an important problem, even though his solutions were full of statist moralizing: The mass media should look beyond ratings and readership numbers to focus on nation building and be agents of social change. Yet, it is worth asking why science, technology and the arts get such short shrift in our newspapers and TV channels.

One part of the problem lies with the audience. India’s best and brightest have seceded from public life, preferring their epicurean bubbles to engagement with harsh realities of the outside world that the best thinkers draw attention to. This behaviour can itself be traced to the cynicism and corruption that erode our public life. The audience has turned inward in response to the overwhelming helplessness it feels. The mass media reflects that.

The commercialization of mass media is inevitable, and there is nothing morally wrong about this. But there is also space for public interest journalism and broadcasting that focuses on broader social and intellectual issues. Not a revival of the grey-on-grey Doordarshan, but perhaps variants of broadcasters such as America’s National Public Radio, which are independently funded by citizens. In short, India needs both a vibrant commercial media and non-profit outlets as well.

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