The saga of science, seva and student activism in India

Dr. Janhavi

There are different debates and discussions which continuously happen in the various streams of sciences but one concept scientists agree unanimously upon is ‘science is not static’. It is like flowing river rather than a static pond. It gives and receives directions to and from circumstances, instances and situations around it. During the early 20th century, when the world wars disheveled, governments of several countries diverted research funds to focus on military advancements. Thus, science progressed in the direction of research with military applications, such as unearthing the secrets of nuclear energy for military use. In the past, market forces have contributed to scientific advancements. For instance, companies and corporations seeking investment and returns through medical treatment, drugs and vaccine productions, cosmetics, and agriculture etc. They have supplied and maintained an increasing number of resources for molecular and biotechnology research. This resulted in breakthrough findings in DNA sequencing, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, pharmaceuticals and environmental chemistry. Modern science is now witnessing a new dimension where it is now funded for socially or futuristically responsible projects, encouraging research on topics like space research, sustainable automobile advancements and renewable energy technologies and reusable materials.

But are there only these few ways by which direction of scientific advancements takes clues from?

There are innumerable facts and examples of science and its utilization in well-being of living beings and it will be quite a lengthy topic to discuss here in wholesome. Discussing about the plethora of medicines, vaccines, genetically modified organisms (GMO), renewable energy harvesting systems, satellites and other such achievements is beyond the capacity of this article but If we look at the present scenario, we can see this directional effect on the scientific discoveries and advancements. Science for Society is an initiative of UNESCO that promotes the contribution of science to the accomplishment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and raising the standard of living for people everywhere. In a variety of areas, including biodiversity of land and water, climate fluctuations, disaster management, waste renewal and sustainability, water management, and artificial intelligence, Science for Society supports scientific research, education, innovation, and communication.

The long-running debate over the application of science in social work has heated up with the growth of scientific activities and the emergence of philosophical critiques of the prevailing scientific paradigms. There are significant differences over the value of using particular research approaches, whether there is sufficient trustworthy scientific evidence to change the practice, and other such topics. Yet, scientific methods are the most effective mode of inquiry known to humanity, providing superior knowledge through a variety of approaches and real-world applications. For some of the critics, Science is viewed in social work as a procedure, not as knowledge itself. Generally, the criticism which has been around the Science in social work (science) has been about some of the experiments and their flaws (if any) rather than the ‘science’, itself. Critics attack conventional science’s epistemology (investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion), arguing it resembles Comtean positivism (Heineman, 1981). However, Science makes an effort to systematically gather and classify facts or truths. The word “systematically” is crucial here because it’s important to realize that doing science is a purposeful procedure. Scientists follow a set of preset methods to obtain information on facts in an ordered and intentional manner.


Growing trend of student activism turning towards seva

The transition of student activism towards “seva,” which entails altruistic service, signifies a constructive change in the objectives and incentives driving initiatives led by students. Student activism has conventionally been linked to the promotion of political or social transformation; however, its emphasis on service-oriented endeavours indicates a more extensive dedication to the betterment of the community, social accountability, and the overall welfare of individuals. In recent years we are witnessing students inclined towards social work. This trend is bringing change in small pockets all around the country. The coexistence of various approaches reflects the diversity of perspectives and goals within the student community. As student-led seva initiatives gain visibility, media coverage, and social media attention, they contribute to a positive narrative around student activism. This can inspire more students to get involved in service-oriented activities. This growing trend is also influencing public perceptions of the young people. It challenges stereotypes associated with activism and highlights the positive contributions that students can make to society. It is reinforcing the concept of ‘Students are todays citizens rather than tomorrow’. The following are several pivotal elements of this expanding phenomenon:

Community-Centric Approach: Instead of solely concentrating on protest-based activism, students are increasingly acknowledging the importance of direct contribution to the welfare of the communities. Seva-oriented initiatives often involve hands-on activities that address specific needs and challenges faced by local residents.


Social Impact and Sustainable Development: Student-led projects are focusing on issues such as education, healthcare, environmental sustainability, poverty alleviation, and more, with a long-term perspective on inclusive and sustainable development.

Personal Growth and Holistic Education: Engaging in seva activities allows students to mature personally and ethically. The experience of serving others does contribute to the cultivation of values such as empathy, kindness, and a sense of social responsibility. The trend towards seva aligns with a more holistic understanding of education that extends beyond academic knowledge. It recognizes the importance of nurturing well-rounded individuals who are not only academically competent but also socially conscious and actively involved in making positive contributions to society.

Collaboration and Partnerships: Seva-oriented student initiatives often involve collaboration with local NGOs, community groups, and other stakeholders. This collaborative approach enhances the effectiveness of projects and fosters a sense of shared responsibility for community well-being. Students engaging in seva often tailor their initiatives to address specific needs within their communities. This personalized approach allows for a more nuanced understanding of social issues and the development of targeted solutions.

Skill Development: In addition to academic learning, students engaged in seva gain practical skills relevant to community development. This includes project management, teamwork, leadership, and communication skills, which are valuable in both academic and professional contexts.

Global Citizenship: Seva-oriented student activism reflects a sense of global citizenship, where students recognize their role as contributors to a larger global community. This perspective emphasizes interconnectedness and the idea that positive change at the local level can have broader implications.

Application of data analytics and artificial intelligence in identifying individuals or communities at a higher risk

The use of data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance service delivery and decision-making processes is one creative scientific addition to social work. Many examples of how these technologies can help social work are provided below:

Predictive analytics: It can assist social workers in identifying people or groups who are more likely to experience certain social difficulties, such as child abuse (Lanier et al., 2020), domestic violence, or substance abuse (Russell, 2015), by evaluating huge datasets and historical patterns. This makes it possible for social workers to use resources more wisely and to take early action to stop or lessen these issues.

AI-powered solutions: It can help social workers manage and assess cases more effectively. Case notes, client interviews, and other pertinent data can be analysed using Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithms to spot patterns, pick up on important details, and recommend the best solutions. By doing so, social workers may operate more efficiently and give their clients more individualised support.

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Social network analysis: Social workers frequently deal with people and families who are a part of intricate social networks. AI and social network analysis can be used to find important connections, backup plans, and potential risks in these networks. Social workers can create treatments that build on existing social capital and bolster support systems by comprehending the dynamics and relationships between people.

Sentiment analysis: Examining data from social media and other online platforms can provide important information about how the public feels and what the community needs. It can also be utilized to comprehend the dominant feelings, worries, or new problems within a certain group of people or geographical region. This knowledge can direct the creation of focused treatments and help social workers interact with communities more successfully.

In general, social workers can better assist their clients, make wise judgements, and enhance the general wellbeing of individuals, families, and communities by utilizing technology (Moore, 2019).

Science background and its importance in Social work

Having a science background can be an asset in certain areas of social work  such as  medical social work and public health. (Alexander & Speizman, 1983) (The Scientific View of Social Work, 2011). Despite being a human-centered profession, social work has connections to many other disciplines, including the natural sciences. Therefore, scientific background can be useful in social work in the following ways.

Medical Social Work: Knowing biological sciences can be very useful when working in a medical setting. Understanding medical terms, procedures, and the effects of illnesses on people’s life is made possible through this. This information enables you to offer patients and their families knowledgeable support, particularly when dealing with health-related issues.

Mental Health: In the field of mental health, having a thorough grasp of neurobiology and psychology turns out to be helpful. Social workers benefit from having a better understanding of mental health issues, therapeutic methods, and the biological roots of behaviour and emotion.

Substance Abuse Treatment: Your knowledge of the chemical processes involved in substance abuse and addiction can help working in substance abuse treatment programmes. Developing successful therapies and support programmes requires an understanding of the neurobiological elements of addiction.

Aging and Gerontology: When working with older persons, biological understanding of the ageing process and age-related health conditions is essential. It aids social workers in creating care plans that are suitable for the physical and mental health requirements of ageing people.

Public Health and Community Development: Understanding health disparities, environmental health concerns, and community health issues benefit from having a basic understanding of biological sciences. Public health interventions and community development initiatives can benefit from this knowledge.

Trauma-Informed Care: Social workers can more successfully provide trauma-informed care and support trauma survivors when they are aware of the physiological and neurological effects of trauma.

Program Development and Evaluation: Social workers may, in specific capacities, be involved in developing and accessing projects related to environmental protection, nutrition, or health. Data analysis and programme development may benefit from scientific expertise.

This amalgamation of knowledge can be better understood with the examples of scientists who utilized their scientific knowledge for the benefits of masses directly and instantly rather than the usual long path scientific achievements take to reach them. It is usually hard for a scientist to manage the cut throat competition of science world and social work at the same time but out of several famous and not so famous faces of this arena here are some to be thought of.

Discovery of ORS

One of the famous examples of interworking of science, seva and society is discovery of ORS (Oral rehydration solution). In nine out of ten cases, your relatives and friends would reach for a packet of Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS) if their bowels began to act up, because anyone with a basic understanding of medicine knows that ORS can replace the fluids lost by the body during a bout of diarrhoea better than any other treatment. With just a little worth of sugar, salt, and fresh water, oral rehydration solutions (ORS) are possibly the most affordable medical treatment ever. They can cut toxigenic secretory diarrhoea mortality by 50 times or more (Nalin & Cash, 2018). Unknown to majority of us, this solution was conceived by a soft-spoken Indian man named Dr. Dilip Mahalanabis. Diarrhea is a symptom whose causes include food poisoning and microbial infections; it is not a disease. Children below the age of five are especially vulnerable to diarrhoea, and in cases of severe dehydration, their mortality rate frequently surpasses 50 percent. During the Bangladeshi War of Independence, Dilip Mahalanabis led the difficult task of treatements in the refugee camps. During the Bangladeshi liberation war, tens of thousands of refugees fled to refugee camps on the Indian side of the border.They did not have any access to drinking water and sanitation and everyone, especially children, was dying of diarrhoea. A simple solution of salt-sugar and water miraculously decreased the overall mortality rate, This solution was used by the women in the camps for their diseased children which was observed by scientists and later became such a lifesaving solution. ORS was possibly the most important medical development of the 20th century. A formula which was also adapted by WHO (Nalin et al., 1970).

Image: Dr Dilip Mahalanabis (https://swarajyamag.com)

The late Dr Dilip Mahalanabis was awarded the Padma Vibhushan posthumously this year.


Iodine Dot Bindi

Another example is of ‘Iodine dot Bindi’. Many nations have attempted to supply iodine as an additive, such as iodised bread in New Zealand, iodised toffee in Mexico, and iodised fish sauce in East Asian nations. (Jones et al., 2016) (Pongpaew et al., 2002). The adhesive of the Life Saving Dot contains 150-200 micrograms of iodine. A woman obtains 12% of her daily iodine dose by wearing the Bindi all day long. Even at this level, the current iodine intake is a substantial improvement over previous level. The bindis act similarly to nicotine patches and are inexpensive to produce.

In both of the previous examples, there is one thing in common: the answer or solution did not originate from sophisticated investigations in molecular biology alone. In both the cases the answer came to those with sound science knowledge and strong roots in social understanding. Where they understood the scientific logic behind an uneducated mother’s love for their children in the salt-sugar solution and the need of Indian women to wear a Bindi beyond their respective religions and using this cultural adaptation as a tool for iodine deficiency.

Chimpanzees can make us rethink ‘What it means to be human’

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In her work with wild chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, ethologist and conservationist Jane Goodall redefined what it means to be human and established best practises for behavioural research (Goodall, 2010).

Her ground-breaking research emphasized the interdependencies between people, animals, and the environment and the importance of caring for the earth. The work of Dr. Goodall has sparked social and environmental activism, involved locals in sustainable lifestyles, and supported conservation initiatives.

She has developed community-based conservation initiatives through the Jane Goodall Institute, an organisation she founded to empower local communities and advance environmental education, sustainable livelihoods, and habitat preservation.

She also created Roots & Shoots, a global youth program that empowers young people to take action for animals, people, and the environment. Her all-encompassing strategy, which combines scientific study and community involvement, has promoted environmental and social reform. Dr. Goodall’s contributions go beyond biology to motivate people, groups, and decision-makers to take action in support of social justice, environmental preservation, and animal care (Peterson, 2008).

Her work has influenced social work through fostering environmental awareness, empowering communities, and arguing for sustainable and equitable practices. This is done by highlighting the value of biodiversity conservation and the connection between humans and the natural world.

She is a woman who redefined what is a man.

“Silent Spring” the global environmental movement

A marine biologist, activist, and author Rachel Carson made a significant impact on the environmental movement. Her work highlighted the damaging effects of pesticides, particularly DDT, on the environment, wildlife and public health.

The widespread use of chemical pesticides and its damaging effects on ecosystems, especially the reduction of bird populations, were detailed in the book “Silent Spring” she authored. The book is widely regarded as having inspired the development of the modern environmental movement and the founding of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. The public was drawn to Carson’s thorough research and persuasive writing, which sparked a national discussion about the effects of industrial agriculture on the environment and the need for environmental legislation. Carson’s writings brought attention to the interconnectedness of nature and public health. She emphasised the interdependence of ecosystems as well as potential long-term environmental repercussions of human activity. She advocated for the

preservation of natural ecosystems and wrote numerous other books and articles on marine biology and conservation during her career. She underlined the need for ecological preservation and the significance of practising good environmental stewardship.

Worldwide environmental activists, scientists, and policymakers continue to draw inspiration from Carson’s work. Her efforts serve as a reminder of the precarious equilibrium that exists between humans and the natural world. The legacy of Rachel Carson is a potent reminder of the significant influence of one person’s voice and scientific knowledge in directing environmental advocacy and conservation initiatives.

Indian community eye care

India’s accomplishment of the WHO Universal Eye Health: Global Action Plan 2014–19 objectives to reduce the occurrence of preventable visual impairment by 25% when compared to the initial prevalence in 2010 is undoubtedly remarkable. The accomplishments over the past ten years have been noteworthy, with India exceeding its goals for VI and blindness by roughly 47% and 52%, respectively. According to this poll, the estimated number of blind individuals in India has been decreased from the 2010 WHO estimate of 62 million to little under 34 million (Vision Atlas, n.d.). Anecdotal evidence suggests that the prevalence of blindness and visual impairment has not only slowed but reversed in recent years, despite a growing and ageing population. (Kumar & Vashist, 2020).

Communication between scientists and social workers and its benefits

Scientific advancements in water purification, sanitation, nutrition, food science, green energy, assistive technologies, telemedicine, child development, neuroplasticity, global health initiatives, disaster preparedness, and social determinants of health have significantly reduced waterborne diseases, improved public health, and enhanced the quality of life in communities. Additionally, they have improved community resilience and reduced natural disaster impacts. By integrating evidence-based practices and innovative approaches, social workers can effectively address complex social challenges and improve the well-being of individuals and communities.

Bio-psycho-social assessments: It helps  the social workers in understanding the clients needs and challenges, considering physical health, genetic factors, and medical history. They work in gerontology, mental health, substance abuse, trauma-informed practice, child welfare, disability services, healthcare social work, public health and community health. They use biological science to understand health disparities, design health promotion programs, and advocate for policies that address social determinants of health. By incorporating biological knowledge into their work, social workers can provide comprehensive support and promote healing for individuals.

In order to comprehend human behaviour, interactions, and societal systems, social work makes use of scientific theories and concepts. Frameworks for examining individual and group behaviours, societal influences, and social inequities are provided by several disciplines. Social workers can analyse the needs, provide interventions, and promote societal change with the aid of this information. Science in a variety of fields, such as psychology, sociology, economics, and criminology, aids social work. Informed by scientific research, policy choices are made, and the body of knowledge supporting social work practice is expanded. Social workers may offer individuals, families, and communities better knowledgeable and efficient services by incorporating research findings into their practice.

RCTs (randomised controlled trials) for public health interventions: RCTs have been performed widely to evaluate the efficacy of public health treatments (Victora et al., 2004). These studies frequently compare various health outcomes improvement treatments or tactics, such as vaccination campaigns, health education initiatives, or the provision of preventive tools like mosquito nets (Deaton & Cartwright, 2018). For example, The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment in 2008 which examined Medicaid coverage’s impact on healthcare access, utilization, financial well-being, and health outcomes (Finkelstein et al., 2012) and the Dr. Jonas Salk’s 1950s polio vaccine trial which demonstrated effectiveness, widespread adoption, and near eradication, demonstrating the vaccine’s safety and efficacy (Salk & Salk, 1984).

Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR): CBPR is a strategy that entails working with local residents to address social or health issues. It involves partnerships between researchers and affected individuals for effective study (Jagosh et al., 2012). This approach places a strong emphasis on community involvement throughout the research process, ensuring that treatments are appropriate from a cultural standpoint and suited to the requirements of the community.

Cross-Cultural Studies in Health and Psychology: To compare health beliefs, habits, and outcomes across cultures, researchers frequently perform cross-cultural studies. These studies seek to comprehend how cultural variables affect practices, attitudes, and decisions relating to health. For instance, research have looked at cultural variations in beliefs about mental health, behaviours associated with seeking help, and perspectives on sickness (Lewis-Fernández & Kirmayer, 2019). Modifying evidence-based therapies for cultural situations enhances interventions’ efficacy and acceptance across diverse populations.

Anthropological Studies of Health and Healing Practices: Anthropologists frequently carry out ethnographic research in order to examine traditional medical practices and health ideologies across distinct cultures. These studies shed light on ancient medical procedures, indigenous knowledge systems, and the influence of culture on physical and mental health (Lock & Nichter, 2003).

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Policy Analysis and Advocacy: Science aids social work by supplying empirical data that supports analyses of public policy and advocacy initiatives. Findings from research can affect social welfare policies and laws, as well as promote evidence-based policy suggestions. To promote social justice, equity, and structural change and to enhance the wellbeing of vulnerable and marginalized communities, social workers use scientific research.


Science provides solutions to everyday problems and aids in our endeavour to solve the greatest mysteries of the universe. Thus, science is one of the most important sources of knowledge. It performs a variety of duties for the benefit of society, including the creation of new information, the improvement of education, and the enhancement of the standard of living. To enable individuals to make informed decisions about their personal and professional lives, it is essential for the public to comprehend and engage with science. Parliaments must pass laws addressing societal issues that require the most recent scientific knowledge, and governments must base their decisions on credible scientific data regarding issues such as health and agriculture. Governments and organizations must comprehend the research underlying urgent global problems such as freshwater security, biodiversity loss, climate change, and ocean health. Governments and the general public both need to become scientifically literate in order to meet the problems of sustainable development. On the other hand, researchers must be aware of the challenges that policymakers encounter and work to make their findings understandable to the general public.

Today’s challenges encompass the entire innovation lifecycle, from research to knowledge development and implementation. If wars, chronic capitalism and individuals can change the track of science, why shouldn’t humanity and love for fellow beings be the new change maker? Afterall, we belong to a country where “vasudhaiva kutumbakam” (everyone on the earth is one family) is the philosophy and way of life. Irrespective of the area of our expertise, maybe we need to ask ourselves, Is there any way possible to increase the quality of our fellow lives? Are we in any way helpful for people beyond our known family and friends? How is our knowledge helpful for or community/country?

We need to visit hospitals, slums, government schools, tribal areas, villages and every such places where questions are standing unanswered. We as science community have moral responsibility of trying to find these answers because this is what we do, right? We find solutions and answers. For example, in the 2 years of Corona pandemic, science educated individuals were best equipped to make common people understand the need of masks as well as isolation. We know the best as science students! But did we really got out of our comfort zone to spread that much needed awareness? Or we just kept on blaming this and that system? We need to ponder and self-analyze.

It is high time to bring this amalgamation of science and social science. As this is only way out for sustainable development and growth of our world. Afterall, we have only one planet and we need to take care of it as a family. Let us be leaders of this change rather than followers. There are young entrepreneurs and researchers who have already started with finding answers of environmental, health, agricultural crisis and are doing remarkably well on these less travelled paths.

Let us think more than just ‘I’, to ‘WE’.

(Author is Assistant Professor of Kirori Mal College, DU)



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