Scientists, for the first time ever, are asking the Indian public what they should be studying. What, according to the public, are the most important questions to ask about the natural world – the plants, animals, habitats and the people that interact with them? There are a multitude of threats that these systems face in India and the public’s opinion is imperative. This has prompted fifteen scientists across seven organisations to come up with a nationwide internet survey: The Horizon Scanning India. This simple two-stage questionnaire aims to pinpoint priority areas of future research that Indians think are necessary to protect biodiversity, ecosystems and natural assets across India.
This method of using surveys to obtain information is not new. The process of searching for trends (in the case of the Horizon Scanning India initiative, opinions) that could inform policy and management in any field is called horizon scanning. A familiar tool in business management, horizon scans did not figure too prominently in ecological or conservation research until 2006. Biologist William Sutherland, then at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom (UK) and his colleagues identified the hundred most important questions of ecological significance which were most pertinent to policy in the UK using this method. They obtained feedback from policy makers, their advisors, lobbyists and scientists for this study. But this is where the UK survey and the Horizon Scanning India project differ: the latter is not restricted to certain experts or sections of the society. If they can access the internet, Indians from all walks of life can take part.
This very aspect of the survey however, could be its biggest challenge. Scientists will need a lot of responses to work with. It is vital, therefore, that as many people pitch in by taking part in the survey: the more, the better.
But why do we need such a survey in the first place? “It’s very simply that this is a large country with a lot of different and complex environmental and ecological issues. But the community of scientists studying them is small and they typically tend to focus on areas they’re specialised in. An attempt such as this one to scale up to the national level and get the views of a wide array of people should enable a much broader view of issues that need to be prioritised, and may also throw up issues that may have been overlooked,” says Jayashree Ratnam, post-doctoral fellow at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore and part of the initiative.
And why are these researchers asking for the public’s opinion – something scientists hardly ever do? “The environment is something that is certainly not the exclusive province of the ecologists who try to understand it, the policy makers who deliberate on laws and policies, or the managers who try to protect it. I think the biodiversity and its conservation is something that concerns every citizen,” says M. D. Madhusudhan, a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, who has been involved with the project. “As a community of scientists we have a tremendous amount to learn because we aren’t exactly great at reaching out to people. This survey is a small attempt to engage a wider public constituency. We really want to hear a wide range of voices,” he adds.