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Public engagement with science in India: Making the whole greater than the sum of its parts

Sarah Iqbal & Banya Kar

Over the last year and a half, we have seen a burgeoning of efforts at communicating (COVID-19 ) science to the public. But, did we have a pandemic-ready science communication machinery in the first place? In this article, Sarah Iqbal and Banya Kar, authors of a recent survey report by India Alliance on public engagement with science in India, make a case for the why’s and how’s of engaging public with science before the next health crisis hits us.

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Researchers of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad engaging with the public at their Open Day in 2019. Credit: CCMB.

RT-PCR, antibodies, mRNA — words once restricted to the scientific lexicon have now entered the public consciousness. Communicating sense and science during the pandemic, however, has been anything but easy. The task was challenging not only because of the evolving behaviour of the virus (and humans!), but also because there was no precedent for science communication during a crisis in the country. Except for the well-meaning but disjointed efforts of a few individuals and organisations, there existed no peacetime science communication machinery that could be set in motion during the pandemic. 

While the hashtag scicomm’ circulates regularly on social media, where we are headed with this trend in the country remains unclear. This is confirmed by lack of funding and professional capacity for science engagement as well as the absence of large-scale, impactful public engagement initiatives in the country. This gap is also reflected in the poor coverage of science in the mainstream Indian media, and abysmal literature from India on public understanding of science and science communication. While Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP 2020) draft and policy on Scientific Social Responsibility (SSR) by the Government of India are critical developments that demonstrate a formal commitment to enabling public engagement with science, it would not be incorrect to say that there is currently no well-integrated, evidence-based strategic framework or roadmap to implement these policies. 

Having said that, in just the last few years, the number of public engagement initiatives by the government, researchers and their institutions, and the independent sector have risen significantly in the country. These efforts, however, need to be integrated such that they remain individually unique but collectively impactful — to make the whole of public engagement with science’ greater than the sum of its parts.

Why promote public engagement with science?

While this question has been probed for decades now, the rift between the opinions of the scientists and the public has persisted. A survey by Pew Research Centre found that, on questions like whether genetically modified foods are safe to eat or if climate change is due to human activity, a 30-point difference or more was observed between the opinion of scientists and the public. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us exactly how filling up this rift is critical for rational and evidence-led decision making by the public on one hand, and for science to be responsive to local and global challenges on the other. 

Most of the respondents observe that while the public in India is interested in science, their understanding of it is low primarily due to lack of access to scientific information.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest — but there are many other clear issues like global water shortage, air pollution, antibiotic resistance, mental health and climate change. While science leads the path in identifying the problem and finding solutions, it’s the public – policymakers included – that needs to make informed decisions to implement these solutions. 

A recent survey by the science funding public charity, DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance (India Alliance) posed this question to its funded researchers. The respondents identified contribution to public understanding of science, informing the public/​raising awareness about research’, and learning from public groups and ensuring that research is relevant to society’ as the top three reasons for scientists to engage with the public. Interestingly, most of the respondents observe that while the public in India is interested in science, their understanding of it is low primarily due to lack of access to scientific information. 

Whose job is it, anyway?

But who is responsible for taking science to the public? Is it the researcher who generates scientific knowledge, or public-funded institutions that host or fund research, or are other actors like media, science communicators, policymakers, and NGOs equal stakeholders in this endeavour? In India, public communication of science has largely been the domain of government science agencies, the scientific community and a handful of science or health journalists.

As producers of scientific knowledge, researchers are inherently an indispensable part of this science communication and public engagement ecosystem. While India is witnessing an upward trend in researchers showing interest in communicating their research to non-scientific audiences, the quantity or quality of formal initiatives for public engagement remains low and fairly patchy. On that account, we need to ask if researchers are willing and sufficiently equipped to engage with the public in the first place?

The India Alliance survey did not throw any major surprises here; instead, reinforced the absence of enabling structures and incentives for researchers to undertake science engagement activities. While the majority of the surveyed researchers expressed their interest to engage more with the public, they also observed that multiple competing pressures on their time, their lack of training in engaging with the public, and insufficient specialist staff at the institution to support their public engagement efforts, significantly limited their ability to do this. Not surprisingly, the survey respondents primarily employed traditional one-way communication methods and a majority (80%) indicated the absence of formal training opportunities in public engagement at their institution.

The surveyed researchers feel that raising awareness about the importance of public engagement and professional recognition for researchers’ public engagement work could greatly enhance uptake of public engagement activities. Further, the institutionalization of public engagement support through training, funding and dedicated support staff at institutions could act as key enablers. These enablers can be added to the proposed integrated science communication and engagement framework; however, implementing such a framework would require a shift in mindset and culture.

So, are researchers the only players in the equation?

While in the India Alliance survey, 87% of the respondents agreed that engaging with the public on matters of science and health is a responsibility of researchers, evidence from countries with flourishing science communication ecosystems shows that successful public engagement with science involves multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral efforts that leverage existing resources and build specialised infrastructure and capacity. In many countries, science museums, centres and festivals, along with various NGOs and CSOs play a catalytic role in connecting science with society despite having little to no direct role in generating scientific knowledge. This is largely because these spaces allow for reflexive and sustained experimentation in styles, formats and channels of communication and engagement, which is generally not supported within academic settings.

Public engagement has moved beyond merely imparting scientific information. It now involves sharing social and cultural meanings of science…

In today’s fast-changing information and communication environments, our agility in adapting to this change is important for influencing mindsets and behaviours. One can say that the scientific community is bound by ethics to play an active role in taking science to their communities and the public. Concurrently, other actors, who formally or informally contribute to science engagement, need to be recognized and integrated into the ecosystem.

Winds of change

Talking about change, the traditional science popularisation’ approaches are giving way to more dialogic and innovative public engagement methodologies. Take for example Maki Naro who uses comics to explain concepts of science. Kasha Patel has been successful in sneaking science into stand-up comedy. You can visualize the history of science through the art by Arghya Manna and the global impact of disease in the Glass Microbiology sculptures of Luke Jerram. Popular web videos like Kurzgesagt — In a Nutshell, science cafes like Pint of Science or Chai and Why?, and podcasts like the Science & Nature ones of BBC, are exploring multiple disciplines of science and reaching thousands. Wellcome Photography Prize inspires thought and action through visual stories of health. Planet Divoc 91 – a participatory project – used comics, art, articles, interviews, and short films as tools to explore challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic and bring together different levels of the society for dialogue, contemplation, and action. Public engagement projects like Dustbunny, Deadinburgh, The Heart and Lung Convenience Store, It’s Ok To Talk, Contagion and Sphere are building multidisciplinary, innovative structures that help the public to participate in science and research. 

These and other examples illustrate that public engagement has moved beyond merely imparting scientific information. It now involves sharing social and cultural meanings of science, receiving new perspectives through dialogue with the public, and embedding public engagement in research practice. And therefore, it is becoming increasingly clear that public engagement is no longer the job (or hobby) of an individual, but of diverse teams and collectives where the disciplinary barriers seem to have dissolved.

Seeding a new culture of science

An evolved culture of science that promotes public-science engagement by dismantling knowledge hierarchies and helps us all to make better sense of the world would require effective communication and innovative engagement practices at its core. Realising this lofty objective would need a change in our research culture — a research environment where funding agencies, academic institutions and researchers accept public engagement with science as part of the research process. Here, taking a cultural approach to embed science in society would be critical for mutually beneficial science-society engagement that can be sustained through social, cultural, economic, and political upheavals.

The way forward for building this culture of science is by laying the foundation through an evidence-based framework, which is reflexive and clearly defines the vision, inputs and outcomes of science communication and public engagement for the country and maps various actors needed to implement this. Equally important is to plug all gaps in our ecosystem through capacity building and resource mobilization. Systematic integration of public engagement practice in the STI ecosystem would ensure that these activities have a real-world impact while making STI efforts more ethical, socially relevant, and useful. 

There will be another health crisis; it is only a matter of time. We are curious whether we would have moved beyond making a case for public engagement when this next crisis hits us. The time has come to develop a well-oiled science engagement machinery that not only catalyses the public’s engagement with scientific evidence and research, but one that forges a partnership with them to address the many challenges that the future holds.