Columns Indian Scenario

Communicating science in a changing India

Shreya Ghosh

What is the role of science journalism in the rapidly transforming India of the 21st century? What challenges does it face, and how secure is its future? On August 20 — 21, 2018, scientists, journalists and communicators gathered together in the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, to discuss and hash out some key points on the subject of Science, Journalism, Media: Communicating Science in a Changing India”.

Communicating science in a changing India
Communicating science in a changing India 

In spite of increasing scientific output and a variety of outreach efforts, the vast majority of scientific knowledge generated by Indian researchers rarely finds its way into public understanding or appreciation. One of the ways in which this widening gap between scientists and the society at large could be bridged is strengthening the foundations of science journalism and science communication in the country.

In order to discuss and understand the present scenario surrounding science communication and journalism in India, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, and the Indian Academy of Sciences jointly organized a workshop titled Science, Journalism, Media: Communicating Science in a Changing India” on August 20 — 21, 2018, in Chennai. The attendees were from varying backgrounds and professions, and included scientists, print and TV journalists, science communicators, as well as a few educators and students. The aim of the meeting was to address the role of science journalism in today’s India, to investigate the lacunae in its present forms and formats, and to discuss the way forward as a community.

What do scientists and science journalists really want?

Spread over two days, ten different panels discussed a multitude of subjects spread across ideas and disciplines (a complete list can be found here). Each day commenced with a session focused on understanding the expectations of scientists and science journalists from each other. A point that was made over and over was that a basic trust deficit” exists between these two communities. While many scientists hold a dismissive view of journalists as only being interested in flashy” stories and operating under the dictatorship of entertainment and profit, scientists are often perceived as esoteric, eccentric and closed-off individuals.

When asked what scientists want from science journalists, the first panel consisting of Sutirth Dey (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune), D Indumathi (IMSc, Chennai), Srikanth Sastry (Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bengaluru) and Mukund Thattai (National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru) stressed on ensuring accuracy during reporting, as well as depicting science as a process instead of a product. While many science news stories focus on the awe-inspiring side of new technologies or discoveries, very few succeed in bringing out the human angle of doing research. What is missing…is a personal dimension,” said Sastry.

During this panel, Thattai also stressed on the fact that the basic expectation from both categories (scientists and science journalists) is to act as professionals and do their respective jobs. They both have an obligation to something bigger – society,” said Thattai, adding that scientists want their stories represented in a manner where it is not conducive to being misunderstood. Similarly, journalists want scientists to communicate their ideas in a way that they are not misunderstood.

Panelists during the conference
From left to right, Vasudevan Mukunth (The Wire), Mukund Thattai (NCBS) and Pallava Bagla (NDTV) (Photo: IMSc, Chennai)

The corresponding panel discussion on what science journalists want from scientists involved Pallava Bagla (NDTV news), Shubashree Desikan (The Hindu), Mayanglambam Merina Leimarenbi (Eastern Chronicle (Manipur)), Vasudevan Mukunth (The Wire) and Aathira Perinchery (The Hindu). Journalists often find themselves frustrated when it comes to accessing scientists and getting them to speak out on matters relevant to both the scientific community and the society beyond. Desikan pointed out how in spite of writing repeatedly to multiple institutions to obtain the facts and figures related to sexual harassment in academic workspaces, almost no one responded to the same.

Similarly, when it comes to giving expert opinions on news stories, scientists often remain inaccessible. Some don’t reply, some don’t have time, some don’t reply in time,” said Perincherry. Journalists also protested the problem of hierarchy in many research institutions, where young scientists are ready and willing to speak to the media, yet are seldom allowed to do so by their supervisors or institute directors.

During a discussion with the audience, Prasad Ravindranath (The Hindu) emphasized that while many science journalists know and understand the scientific process, scientists largely remain unaware of the newsroom tussle. Subhra Priyadarshini (Nature India) asked for a reality check”, urging scientists to come out of their labs and visit the newsrooms to understand the news cycle and the constraints that journalists operate under. 

One suggestion which emerged out of these discussions was to create a platform where scientists (as well as journalists) can give feedback on stories reported in the media. A second initiative could be to create regularly updated and publicly accessible lists of science communicators and scientists who are ready and willing to cooperate with each other. Following the meeting, the first of these lists was recently created by members of the Indian Academy of Sciences Dialogue initiative and can be accessed here.

On representation and stereotypes

Another subject which was discussed at length in the workshop was the issue of representation and stereotyping when science stories are reported in the media. S Krishnaswamy (IMSc, Chennai) spoke about various scientific studies which explored the stereotypes often associated with scientists – including the fact that in the public imagination, science is largely an indoor activity involving beakers and chemicals.

Sandhya Koushika (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai) pointed out how scientists are often seen as experts on a broad range of subjects which they may not have specialized in, and how this often exacerbates the imposter syndrome that they feel. Mukund Thattai also drew attention to one category of people that are neglected constantly in media depictions of science and the scientific process, yet who generate most of the scientific output from the country – the graduate students. 

A panel chaired by Mathangi Krishnamurthy (Indian Institute of Technololgy (IIT) Madras) briefly discussed the issue of underrepresentation of minorities and women in science and what scientists, journalists and institutions can do to contribute towards building a more equitable atmosphere. During the discussion, Nandita Jayaraj (The Life of Science) also raised the question of under-representation of minorities within the journalistic community itself.

Science and Society

Audience interactions
The audience was an active participant in the discussions (Photo: IMSc, Chennai)

Any discussion on science communication is incomplete without touching upon the position of science in our society. In recent times, this position has been precarious with pseudoscientific claims stepping repeatedly into the public spotlight. Speaking in a panel about the best way to distinguish pseudoscience from real science, D. Balasubramaniam (L V Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad) proposed that the litmus test of whether a theory is based in science or pseudoscience lies in the question – Is a given theory falsifiable?”. Vasudevan Mukunth, however, pointed out that falsifiability’ is not a concept that can be intuitively grasped by someone not familiar with it, and therefore requires some effort on the part of scientists to explain it well.

Explaining why something is pseudoscience to the general public is not easy,” said Niruj Mohan Ramanujam (Astronomical Society of India – POEC), explaining that when you look at science as a collection of facts given to us by an authority figure, it is difficult to distinguish science from pseudoscience. He emphasized that the only way to combat pseudoscience is using the scientific method, and not the scientists’ position of authority. It is important to find a way to provide a way to supplant the pseudo-theory, not just counter it. We don’t vaccinate the public against pseudoscience, we just keep giving them antibiotics,” he said during a later panel. 

A number of journalists present at the meeting commented upon the uncertainty of present times, and a rise in hostile atmosphere surrounding certain kinds of journalism. There is a lot of fear. There is a lot of apprehension. There is a lot of hate,” said Pallava Bagla. The message from people in power is that Scientific temper is on the back-burner. It can be attacked with impunity’,” said Gauhar Raza (CSIR-National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (NISCAIR), Delhi).

A few discussions also touched upon the deeper question of who is the public’ and the society’ and how do we reach them. Raza pointed out that there is very little actual research on public understanding of science, even though theories abound about the same. We know nothing about the public. Absolutely zilch. And we don’t want to know,” he said. 

Panelists during the conference
From top left, clockwise; D Balasubramaniam (LVPEI), K Vijayraghavan (PSA, GoI), Kollegala Sharma (CSIR ‑CFTRI), Narmadha Devi (Dinamalar) and Gauhar Raza (CSIR — NISCAIR) (Photo: IMSc, Chennai)

K Vijayraghavan, Prinicipal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, made a point of stressing on the importance of coming up with solutions instead of simply stating and restating problems. When we say something is wrong, are we doing sufficient work to change that?” he asked. He added that programs of scientific communication and outreach often fall flat because they do not meet the criteria of exemplary + sustainable + scalable”. Many panelists as well as attendees emphasized that communication is the responsibility of all scientists, particularly those who accept government funding. We can no longer live in ivory towers, ” said D Indumathi (IMSc, Chennai).

If science journalism has to penetrate into the masses throughout our country, it needs to break the largely self-imposed barriers of language and geography. A panel consisting of Narmadha Devi (Dinamalar), Pathik Guha (Anandabazar and Desh), Dileep Mampallil (IISER Tirupati), Peer Mohamed (ippod​hu​.com), Gauhar Raza, Kollegala Sharma (CSIR-Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) Mysuru) discussed their experience of communicating science regional languages, including the various challenges involved. It was pointed out during this panel that what is required is not just translations, but original content created in the regional languages by people with a clear understanding of both the science and the nuances of the language.

While it is impossible for a two-day meeting to solve the many challenges faced by scientists or science journalists operating in a country where the latter can still be argued to be in its nascent stage, this workshop brought together a group of people committed towards looking for solutions, and paved the way for opening up crucial conversations through similar initiatives throughout the country. 

Videos from the meeting can be found here.

A series of articles on issues raised in the meeting by Gautam Menon (IMSc, Chennai) one of the organizers of the workshop, can be found here.

The previous discussion thread about this workshop can be accessed here.

Written By

Program Manager - Science Communication