The SciComm Huddle – exploring pathways to connect science and society

Sarah Iqbal

The Foundation for Advancing Science and Technology India (FAST India) organized The SciComm Huddle on 15 – 16 December, 2021 as part of its India Science Festival (ISF2022). In this report, Sarah Iqbal, convener of The SciComm Huddle, highlights the key takeaways.

Photo by Sarah Iqbal.
Superheroes Against Superbugs. Photo by Sarah Iqbal.

Science communication (SciComm) has gained tremendous momentum in recent times. Primarily initiated by governments and the scientific community, SciComm is used to make scientific research accessible to non-specialist audiences and responsive to societal needs, values and aspirations. Different regions in the world are at distinct stages of building socially-engaged science and technology ecosystems, which provide a significant opportunity for cross-learning and resource-sharing at a global level.

The field of science communication is undergoing rapid evolution in India and, therefore, requires its practitioners to stay up-to-date and continually upskill themselves to do relevant and impactful work. Motivated by these developments, the Foundation for Advancing Science and Technology India (FAST India) organized The SciComm Huddle on 15 – 16 December, 2021 as part of its India Science Festival (ISF2022).

The event brought together science communicators, engagement experts, educators, creatives, media professionals, researchers, and students from around the world to share skills, knowledge and experiences towards bridging the science and society gap. Through various knowledge-sharing sessions and discussions led by experts, the event explored local as well as global trends, practices and formats in science communication, and deliberated upon innovative and actionable ideas to enhance science and society engagement, which is critical for building a healthy and sustainable future for all. Banya Kar (Science Communicator) and Suchitha Champak (Founder of SciRio) served as facilitators on Day 1 and 2 of the event, respectively. 

Day 1

Science and Society: Global Trends and Perspectives

The first discussion explored the evolution of science communication and current trends in the respective countries of the speakers.

Clockwise (from left to right): Iain Stewart, Marina Joubert, Siuli Mitra, Banya Kar, Jenni Metcalfe.

Marina Joubert, Senior Science Communication Researcher at CREST, Stellenbosch University, South Africa traced the evolution of science communication in South Africa and its interplay with social and cultural histories, present-day politics, and governance of science and technology. Siuli Mitra, Communications Associate, Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, laid out the evolution of science communication in India through its rhetoric in government science policy documents and people science movements, which started with educating the masses to now recognizing them as key stakeholders in the science and technology enterprise.

Jenni Metcalfe, Director, Econnect Communication and President, Public Communication of Science & Technology Network shared the positive transformation of the science communication landscape in Australia: from science communicators in most research labs now to more courses in science communication, increased research in science communication, and the non-scientific public increasingly looking up to scientists instead of politicians for explanations for current challenges. 

Speaking from the United Kingdom (UK) context, Iain Stewart, Professor of Geoscience Communication at the University of Plymouth, UK, and Director of its Sustainable Earth Institute, UK, raised the issue of an instrumentalized view of science communication wherein scientific knowledge is seen as a product to sell to the public that hasn’t asked for that particular knowledge, in the expectation that knowledge will somehow trickle down and somehow be useful.”

The discussion touched upon the need for expanding and refining the scope, repertoire and purpose of science communication and that of its practitioners. The speakers impressed upon the importance of a two-way dialogue between science and society and the need for humanising science to make it more relevant and relatable. 

Art and science collaborations

The first Show and Tell’ session, themed around art and science collaborations, traced the path of creative, new-age science engagement projects, from their ideation to execution.

Argha Manna: From Droplets to Cloud

Argha Manna, artist, talked about his comics project From Droplets to Cloud, a collaboration between a scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), United States of America (USA), and himself that was triggered by research questions around respiratory disease during the pandemic.

Abraham Mamela, a public engagement professional from Botswana, talked about science engagement through creative art projects Genome Adventures’ and Arting Health For Impact’ and the process of forming interdisciplinary and community collaborations for effective science engagement.

Clockwise (from left to right): Lewis Hou, Abraham Mamela, Banya Kar, Argha Manna.

The brief presentation by Lewis Hou, Founder of Science Ceilidh, Scotland, on Exploring Equitable Community Science Engagement’ showcased the tremendous potential of traditional arts in making science more accessible and relevant, particularly for marginalized communities, and in building science capital.

The speakers also addressed questions such as What are the starting steps for conceptualizing a science and art project?”, and What are some key considerations in embedding science in culture?”.

Building Communities of Practice in Science Communication

The next discussion was a reflection on the status of science communication in India and the need for building communities of practice in this field. It was led by Subhra Priyadarshini, Chief Editor, Nature India, and Siddharth Kankaria, Communications and Program Coordinator, NCBS, India. They pointed out that science communicators, including science journalists, not only convey scientific information to the public but also act as knowledge producers themselves and can influence the process of science by providing new insights and relaying feedback from the public and communities to researchers.

Clockwise (from left to right): Subhra Priyadarshini, Siddharth Kankaria, Banya Kar.

It’s only when we start listening to and working with people together, building a community of practice together, that we can really get to a place where we can make new novel discoveries and insights and push science further.”, said Kankaria.

Citing the example of the newly-formed Science Journalists Association of India (SJAI), Priyadarshini shared that creating such communities of practice can be challenging on many fronts – legal, professional, and financial.

The Engaged Campus: Public Communication by Research Institutions

This session showcased how various institutions and universities, through bespoke strategies and activities, incorporate public engagement in research, knowledge exchange, teaching, and social responsibility. 

Talk by Rajesh Gopakumar

The speakers — Rajesh Gopakumar, Director, International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bengaluru, India, Priyanka Dasgupta, Communication and Marketing Fellow, European Council for Nuclear Research, CERN, Switzerland, Namrata Sengupta, Program Manager for Scientific Public Engagement, Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, USA and Yukti Arora, Senior Manager, Academic Communications, Ashoka University, Haryana, India — presented vastly different motivations and pathways for public communication that largely dependent on institutional mandates, available resources and local socio-cultural contexts. However, they unanimously demonstrated institutional commitment as a key driver for public engagement with science. 

Leveraging Research Communication for Impact

Brian Lin, Director, Editorial Content Strategy, EurekAlert! American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), provided an engaging overview of how institutions can leverage research communication to improve their visibility and impact. Lin talked about the basic functions of an institutional communications office and its staff and the evolution of these institutional roles and structures with the changing information communication landscape globally. 

Day 2

Science communication in 21st century: The Challenge of Language

T. V. Venkateswaran, Scientist and the National Coordinator for Vigyan Bhasha, Vigyan Prasar, Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, traced the evolution of the science communication agenda in India in line with the aspirations of a newly-independent country. He pointed out various challenges for science communication today including misinformation, distrust in science, and faith-based world views.

Engaging Communities

The second Show and Tell’ session on engaging communities traced the path of innovative projects that involve working in and with communities to make science more accessible.

Mary Chambers from Oxford University Clinical Research Unit (OUCRU), Vietnam shared her project YAAR, which brought together young people from four countries in the Global South to help address the challenge of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) or drug-resistant infections. Mohamed Soliman Daoud of American University in Cairo, talked about his project The Funlab: Reaching the Unreachable, which uses edutainment-based hands-on activities to ignite curiosity and interest in young children about science.

Presentation by Edward Duca.

Edward Duca described the nuts and bolts of putting together a science festival in Malta and adapting to virtual mode during the pandemic. Sarah Jenkins, Director & Principal Consultant, Jenesys Associates Ltd, UK, unpacked the why, what and how of evaluating science engagement practices and emphasized on embedding evaluation in a science communication project right from the very outset and to use it for reflection and learning’ and not merely judgement’.

Presentation by Mohamed Soliman Daoud.

The general public generally perceives science as a beneficial force in human affairs. At the same time, public knowledge of the details of scientific knowledge is extremely low (in Egypt). There are barely any talk shows that invite scientists, and no science TV shows. When they depict scientists in the movies, they are usually wearing white coats with big fuzzy hair or it is a Breaking Bad version of scientists. But recently, I can see that there is tendency to bring scientists to the front lines especially with current pandemic as the media started to value science and scientists in general.”, said Mohamed Soliman Daoud, American University in Cairo, Egypt.

Lessons From a Crisis: Has the pandemic rewritten rules for SciComm?

This discussion with Sean Ellis, The COVID Vaccine Group, The Jenner Institute, Oxford University, UK, Anastasia Koch, Eh!Woza, South Africa and Madhushree Kamak, Science Gallery Bengaluru, India, deliberated on how the COVID-19 pandemic offered new lessons for science communication and may have redrafted some rules for communicating scientific evidence and public engagement during peacetime.

Clockwise (from left to right): Suchitha Champak, Sean Ellias, Madhushree Kamak, Tasha Koch. 

The speakers shared how their existing capacity and community networks helped them in communication and engagement efforts during the pandemic, though engagement via digital channels was challenging as it was not a preferred or frequently-used mode of public engagement before the pandemic. 

Key ideas that emerged from The SciComm Huddle

  • The science communicator, scientist and institution should identify a clear purpose’ for science communication and public engagement.
  • Science communication can humanise science and support two-way dialogue between science and society.
  • Need to recognize the variety of roles and repertoires of science communicators.
  • Interdisciplinary, creative collaborations make science communication and public engagement inclusive and effective.
  • Embedding reflexive evaluation practices enhance the impact of science communication.
  • Communities of practice in science communication can promote cross-pollination of diverse ideas, perspectives and expertise, thereby, improving its quality and influence.
  • Institutionalization of science communication can potentiate the impact of science and technology on society.

The videos of the various sessions at the Huddle can be watched here. The first edition of The SciComm Huddle was designed to provoke reflections and cross-learning in science communication and public engagement through the exchange of ideas, perspectives and knowledge among its practitioners. In the coming years, we hope The SciComm Huddle becomes a vibrant, participatory platform to catalyze new ideas, learning and collaborations to advance science communication and public engagement practice, research and policy in India and globally.

Written By

FAST India & Superheroes Against Superbugs