Columns Indian Scenario

Making a case for an Indian SciComm conference: Reflections from PCST 2023

Siddharth Kankaria

The article discusses the growing momentum of science communication (SciComm) in India and the need for further development in the field. Siddharth draws insights from his experiences at the Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) 2023 conference in Rotterdam, emphasising the importance of dedicated SciComm conferences as ways to enhance the practice, foster collaboration, and address challenges faced by the Indian SciComm community.

Visual summary of PCST themes (Credits: Carolina Pereira Marghidan)
Visual summary of PCST themes (Credits: Carolina Pereira Marghidan) 

Science communication – commonly referred to as SciComm” – has gained a lot of momentum in India over the last decade or so. It has transitioned from being (viewed as) an auxillary activity for promoting research in scientific institutions, to an increasingly sought after non-academic career in the country. This has also been accompanied by a gradual proliferation of multilingual SciComm efforts as well as more innovative approaches for engaging publics with STEM. SciComm as a field is thus slowly coming into its own.[1]

But there’s still a long way to go before it becomes an integral and inalienable part of the scientific process itself. A number of aspects merit urgent attention if we want to nudge this adolescent’ field in India towards complete maturity. For instance, SciComm as a field could benefit from more rigorous evaluation and impact measurement metrics; better competencies for critical reflexivity and introspection; and a more systematic and locally embedded facilitation of multidisciplinary research in SciComm. Importantly, the discipline also needs to continue lobbying for improved access to funding, infrastructure, resources and positions; as well as ways to generate more value and appreciation for the field for people who still remain sceptical of its potential.

Need for dedicated communities of practice

An essential prerequisite for enabling these aspirations is the creation of dedicated spaces for discussing the state of Indian SciComm and ways to improve it further. While there have been many efforts to bring together Indian science communicators [2], most of these initiatives haven’t moved beyond conversations on job opportunities, infrastructure, funding, and capacity-building efforts. This is not necessarily a critique of these initial efforts – given how critical it is to sort out these foundational concerns in the field – but rather a call for going a step (or two) further.

I would argue that there’s now a critical mass of people, functionalities, opportunities and interest within Indian SciComm ecosystem that allows us to build on these foundational efforts, and engage in higher-order deliberations on the scope, modalities and future of Indian SciComm. 

Creating a professional body of Indian science communicators (as many others have argued too) could be one way of coalescing and catalysing these conversations. But such a professional body has yet materialise fully and become functionally significant enough to drive change. Even if such a body were to be founded soon, several aspects of its day-to-day functioning would need to be ironed out, including legal recognition, funding, staff, executive functioning, and perhaps most importantly, ensuring it is truly representative of the breadth and diversity of SciComm professionals across the country.

Making a case for an Indian SciComm conference

Another alternative (or parallel) approach for nurturing such a community of practice could be the organisation of a dedicated SciComm conference(s) by, of and for the Indian science communication community. Such a conference should ideally be organised annually (or biennially) and be spread over a few days, rather than being restricted to a few isolated sessions within larger scientific conferences or science festivals. 

An dedicated SciComm conference could create much-needed space and time to reflect and deliberate on various challenges facing the Indian SciComm community and come up with potential solutions for these. They could also help build an appreciation for the peculiarities of doing SciComm within Indian contexts [3], facilitate continuous professional development and capacity-building efforts, and allow for better theorisation and reflexivity in the practice of SciComm.

An exclusive science communication conference could therefore be a game-changer, enabling deeper insights, nuanced discussions, and lots of reflections on practices within the field, as well as serve as a platform for active networking and exchange of ideas that could accelerate the field of (Indian) science communication significantly. 

In light of this proposition, I want to share some of my own experiences and learnings from attending the PCST 2023 conference in Rotterdam earlier this year, which is one of the oldest and largest international SciComm conferences organised biennially by the Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) Network.

About the PCST Network

The PCST Network was established in 1989 in Poitiers, France, as an organisation aimed towards bridging the gap between researchers and practitioners of science and technology communication. Over the last 3 decades, it has significantly grown both in size and scope to become an international SciComm network with over 800 members spanning across 80 countries. 

The network has organised an international SciComm conferences every two years since its inception, and also hosts several local symposia and online webinars. These events not only focus on original research in science communication and allied fields, but also create space for reflections on practice, skill-building workshops and demonstrations, as well as facilitate networking and mentorship events aimed at building a truly global community of practice, research and teaching in science communication.

PCST 2023 Conference in Rotterdam, Netherlands

Held between April 11th to 14th, 2023 in Rotterdam, Netherlands, the 17th International Conference of the PCST Network kicked off with a series of pre conference sessions, including a day of in-person workshops on April 10th, as well as 3 days of virtual sessions from April 3rd to 5th to allow participants who couldn’t travel to Rotterdam to join in virtually.

With over 700 delegates from all over the world, the conference was an extraordinary logisitical symphony performed at the De Doelen convention centre in Rotterdam, and featured some excellent programming, catering and hospitality arrangements. The three-day meeting included an exciting array of events, including plenary sessions, panel discussions, visual and oral presentations, mini-workshops, and even some captivating live performances.

Under the overarching theme of Creating Common Ground”, the conference focussed on 5 key sub themes summarised by the acronym VOICE’: Values, Openness, Inclusivity, Collaboration and Expertise. The sessions at the conference explored and interpreted these sub themes both individually as well as in novel permutation and combinations.

The conference prioritised a number of diversity, equity, inclusivity and accessibility (DEIA) measures in its planning, programming and organisation (although there’s always potential for improving these further). For instance, the plenary sessions being recorded and having dedicated online pre conference sessions both helped in making these discussions more accessible to broader global audience. The conference featured an all-female line-up of 7 keynote speakers from across the globe, and was led by PCST’s first female President since its inception. The conference also instituted a number of bursaries and fellowships to try and make the costs of attending the conference more accessible.

My experiences at PCST

Having been a member of the PCST Network since 2020, I have greatly benefitted from its rich array of events, initiatives and networking opportunities, and have likewise, also contributed to many of its events and activities. For instance, I delivered two talks at the PCST 2020+1 conference (1, 2), was a part of three PCST webinars (in Oct 2021, Sep 2022, and Mar 2023, respectively) and been an active member of the PCST Teaching Forum since 2021. I also wrote a blogpost for the PCST website in November 2020, and helped draft an DEIA and territorial acknowledgement statement for PCST last year. 

The PCST 2023 conference was a powerful experience for me, filled with many valuable learnings, as well as an opportunity to meet several friends & colleagues in person, who I had been interacting with virtually over the past few years . I was also fortunate enough to be one among the six people awarded the Rotterdam Fellowship for attending the PCST conference this year.

In addition to attending some really fantastic sessions, I also got a chance to collaborate with many exceptional colleagues to put together a variety of sessions for this year’s conference, including:

  1. A pre-conference workshop helping participants prioritise and embed DEIA principles into their science engagement practices. 
  2. A roundtable specifically discussing the challenges faced by early-career SciComm practitioners. 
  3. A roundtable debating the potential structure and functions of a global centre on science communication as well as the challenges in building it. 
  4. A problem-solving workshop brainstorming on ways to make our SciComm practices more inclusive and equitable. 
  5. A roundtable deliberating on the challenges faced by Global South communities in effectively communicating their science. 

While the 4 days at PCST 2023 were really hectic and jam-packed for me, they also ended on a high, as I was elected into the Scientific Committee of the PCST Network on the last day of the conference. I’m really honoured and grateful for this recognition and excited to be working together with colleagues across the world to build a more global, equitable & impactful ecosystem of SciComm events, outputs, and interfaces together.

Learnings from PCST 2023

The PCST 2023 conference provides several learnings for planning and organising a dedicated (and recurring) SciComm conference in India.[4] For instance, the conference was an excellent case study on developing and curating a conference theme that cuts across the boundaries of SciComm formats, approaches, experience, expertise, languages as well as cultural contexts. 

It provided several valuable lessons in effortlessly coordinating the logistical nitty-gritties of organising such a large international meeting with 700+ attendees. PCST 2023 also proved to be a fantastic opportunity to learn more about creating common ground using a combination of science engagement research, practice and teaching interventions, and featured a wide diversity of presentation formats to allow a greater number people to participate in its sessions. 

The conference also curated an excellent set of events and opportunities for meeting, networking, and exchanging ideas with people from across the globe. It explicitly enabled cross-fertilisation of ideas and insights from different disciplines to help better inform and strengthen research, practice and teaching in science communication.

Further, the conference prioritised several measures for improving the equity, diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility of the conference and also had a code of conduct in place. It also facilitated critical reflections on the importance of science communication as a discipline, as well as the role of trust, emotions, collaborations, openness and dialogue in bridging science-society interfaces in more effective, entertaining and ethical ways.

The next PCST conference is scheduled to be held at Aberdeen, Scotland from May 27th to 29th in 2025. I would encourage more Indian SciComm’ers to try and attend this conference, as well as participate in the various events and activities of the PCST Network, by becoming a member of the global organisation.

But even more importantly, I would urge the Indian SciComm community to begin discussing, deliberating, and reflecting on the future of Indian SciComm with greater depth, reflexivity and rigour. A functional (and national) community of practice and a dedicated annual conference can really be two critical tools for catalysing this coming of age of Indian Scicomm.