SciComm Huddle 2024: Bringing India’s science communicators’ together

Ankita Rathore, Karishma Kaushik & Sarah Iqbal

The day-long SciComm Huddle at the recent India Science Festival (ISF) 2024, held on 19 January 2024 at IISER Pune, marked the first in-person SciComm Huddle. It addressed the current state of science communication (SciComm) in India, with a focus on SciComm’s scope, institutional roles, capacity building, and the interface with media, emphasising the need for strategic discussions, diversity, innovative approaches, and rigorous research in the field.

Sci Comm Huddle 2024 title image
Picture credits: ISF 2024 organisers, compiled by Ankita Rathore.

The day-long SciComm Huddle at the recent India Science Festival (ISF) 2024, held on 19 January 2024 at IISER Pune, marked the first in-person SciComm Huddle. The Foundation for Advancing Science and Technology (FAST India) organised the first SciComm Huddle online in December 2021, as an integral component of its ISF 2022. The second Huddle occurred informally as a meetup in Hyderabad at ISF 2023.

Sarah Hyder Iqbal, consultant at FAST India, led the formation of groups of science communicators and public engagement professionals in India to examine the current state of science communication in India and to develop roadmaps to advance the field. 

After nearly 6 months of regular discussions and drafting, the SciComm Huddle at ISF 2024 at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune brought together 39 participants from the SciComm ThinkLabs and other experts in science communication (SciComm) and public engagement (PE). The Huddle was intended to facilitate discussions on the findings and outcomes derived from the working groups of the ThinkLabs, as well as address broader themes within the realm of SciComm and PE in India. 

Iqbal kicked off the day-long SciComm Huddle by giving a brief introduction to the work of FAST India and its recent initiative — SciCommThink Labs. She highlighted the need for platforms for focused and strategic discussions in SciComm and PE towards streamlining and professionalising these fields in the country. While there’s a lot of interest in SciComm in India today, there is presently no clear professional roadmap or defined objectives and scope for communicating science and engaging the public. The ThinkLabs and Huddle aim to catalyse discussions and action on these topics in order to strengthen the Indian SciComm and PE ecosystems to make it responsive to current realities. 

SciComm landscape in India

The introductory note was followed by a keynote lecture titled The Layered Landscape of SciComm in India,’ delivered by Usha Raman, Professor, University of Hyderabad. Drawing from her diverse experiences in various science communication roles, she highlighted a disconnect between knowledge and practice in the field. Raman emphasised the necessity for collective recognition of contributors and activities in Indian science communication. The talk critically examined the misuse of the term scientific temper’ and identified four key players shaping the science communication landscape: civil societies, media (with disproportionate influence), scientific institutions, and the public. She identified a challenge in the current state of institutional science communication, proposing a reevaluation to address the perceived alignment with Public Relations in Science,’ urging for strategic reforms and a clearer delineation of (scientific) communication goals.

Raman also underscored the existing mistrust between scientists and the public, advocated for collaboration between Science and Technology Studies (STS) and science communication, and reflected on the historical shift from journalists to scientists engaging in science communication. Raman concluded by stating, 

Science communicators are interlocutors for the media. Science communication and science journalism are different, and there is a need to bring them together.

Inclusive engagement with science

At the SciComm Huddle, Lewis Hou, founder, and director of Science Ceilidh, delivered a talk on Fostering Inclusive Engagement through Arts and Culture.’ Drawing on his background in neuroscience research, Hou addressed topics such as science, public and community engagement, and cultural participation, particularly in reaching diverse communities. During his presentation, Hou talked about the potential of using the arts, specifically the Scottish traditional dance Ceilidh, as a means to communicate scientific concepts. Advocating for a shift in focus towards building scientist-public relationships and achieving social outcomes, he highlighted the often-overlooked aspect of social impact in science communication. 

Hou’s approach involves integrating art forms like Ceilidh to enhance inclusivity and engagement in the communication of scientific ideas. You can find examples of Ceilidh as a means of science communication with these science-themed dances and resources. Another interesting program discussed by him was the The Ideas Fund’ a science outreach program that places communities at the centre of the initiative. In a flipped version of the traditional science outreach model, where scientists or institutes receive funds to reach out to communities, this initiative provides funds to community members or organisations for them to use to develop meaningful connections with scientists.

Lewis Hou at the SciComm Huddle. Credit: ISF 2024 organisers.
Lewis Hou at the SciComm Huddle. Credit: ISF 2024 organisers.

Ask me anything about EurekAlert! & SciComm 

The final session of the day was a freewheeling chat led by Brian Lin, Director, Editorial Content Strategy, EurekAlert!, the online news service powered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Lin started by discussing his life and career journey, from being an immigrant twice (to Canada and then the United States) to how not choosing to be a medical doctor paved the way into journalism and science communication. He then went on to share the vision of EurekAlert! to foster high-quality scientific press releases from across the world and build a diverse pipeline of scientific content. The participants at the SciComm huddle had an interesting set of questions when Brian opened up the discussion. These ranged from offsetting costs for LMIC states to engaging with EurekAlert! to better understand the business model of the organisation. More information on EurekAlert! and its programs can be found here. Lin ended his talk with these compelling lines,

As an immigrant, LGBTQIA+ person, and a man of short stature, I realised it is important for me to be seen’ in my scientific work. Along the same lines, it is important for each of us to be seen as science communicators.

Deliberations for the SciComm ThinkLabs 

The SciComm ThinkLabs were formed in August 2023 as community-led groups actively examining the current state of SciComm and PE in India. Their goal was to develop actionable roadmaps, frameworks, and recommendations to professionalise and advance this field in the country, thereby enhancing the impact of science on society and vice versa. Each working group shared their findings and outputs in breakout groups as well as with the larger group at the Huddle to receive feedback and inputs from other participants. The final report, along with the outputs of each WG, will be published on the FAST India website in a few months. 

Comprising a diverse set of individuals engaged in SciComm, PE , policy, journalism, teaching, and research, the four working groups (WG) at the SciComm Huddle, particularly in the context of India, were as follows:

1) Scope of SciComm WG: This working group focused on defining the scope and benchmarking SciComm and public engagement practices in India. The WG members included Banya Kar, NII; Priyamvada Chugh, India Health Fund; Siddharth Kankaria, NCBS; Sudhira HS, Gubbi Labs; and Janet Orlene, an independent communicator. 

2) Institutional SciComm WG: The focus of this working group was to create a concise guide for Indian institutions regarding the diverse roles of communication offices. Their roles involved defining functions, emphasising importance, and suggesting strategies based on global best practices. The WG members included Anusheela Chatterjee, TIFR Hyderabad; Banya Kar, NII; Niruj Mohan; Somdatta Karak, CCMB; Varuni P, IMSC; and Yukti Arora, Ashoka University.

3) Capacity Building in SciComm WG: This working group’s objective was to formulate a blueprint for developing academic and training programs that would enhance the nation’s capacity in science communication and public engagement. The group is in the process of developing a modular framework for a short-term course on SciComm training that can be integrated into the current academic framework. The WG members included Siuli Mitra, DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance; Shreya Ghosh, EMBL; Shriya Naidu, FAST India; Shruti Sunderesan, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies; Suchitha Champak, SciRio and Mohit Kumar Jolly, IISc. 

4) Science and Media WG: The goal of this working group was to investigate the interface and exchange between scientific enterprise, the media, and the public. Their aim was to make concrete recommendations to improve the public communication of science through the media. As an output, the WG presented a scoping report summarising findings from a survey on the practice of science journalism in India and a framework for a journalist in residence program for scientific institutions in India. The WG members included Ankita Rathore, IndiaBioscience; Debdutta Paul, ICTS; Sayantan Datta, Krea University; Shruti Sunderesan, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies; Suchibrata Borah, Mongabay; Utsav Thapliyal, FAST India. 

Working group discussions at the SciComm Huddle. Credit: ISF 2024 organisers.
Working group discussions at the SciComm Huddle. Credit: ISF 2024 organisers.

Key takeaways

As this edition of SciComm Huddle marked the inaugural in-person gathering with a primary focus on strategic discussions in SciComm and PE, many participants found themselves navigating this unique experience for the first time. Overall, the participants, 

  • recognised an urgent need for platforms fostering the exchange of ideas, knowledge, and strategies among SciComm and PE practitioners in India.

  • emphasised the necessity for the growing SciComm community in India to prioritise diversity and inclusivity.

  • advocated the shift from traditional to innovative and disruptive SciComm approaches, particularly targeting audiences routinely excluded from scientific conversations.

  • stressed the importance of employing rigorous research methods to articulate and measure the scope and impact of SciComm/​PE interventions.

  • acknowledged the need to define and benchmark the scope of SciComm and PE in institutional setups and broadly within the country.

  • highlighted the demand for capacity and skill-building programs in SciComm and PE in India.

  • advocated for innovative programs and opportunities aimed at bridging the gap between science and media (e.g., journalist-in-residence program, media fellowships), contributing to a more connected and informed society.