The first conference of SJAI: Building bridges with India’s scientific ecosystem

Ankita Rathore & Shruti Sundaresan

SJAI organised its inaugural conference at National Institute of Immunology (NII), New Delhi on 24 and 25 November 2023. The conference, the first of its kind in India, was themed Strengthening Science Journalism in India: Global trends, regional media, and the science-society connect”. In this article, we highlight the key takeaways from the various talks and discussions held during the conference.

SJAI conference title image
The SJAI conference organising team. Picture credits: SJAI team

Science journalism plays a pivotal role in disseminating accurate and credible information about scientific advancements, technological breakthroughs, policies, and their societal impact. In India, this field encounters challenges due to resource limitations, limited access to scientific expertise, inadequate support from media entities, and a general lack of public understanding of science. The Science Journalists Association of India (SJAI), a professional body of science journalists and communicators, aims to address these challenges by providing a platform for science journalists to network, exchange expertise, build skills, and interact with scientists, policymakers, and communication professionals.

SJAI organised its inaugural conference at National Institute of Immunology (NII), New Delhi on 24 and 25 November 2023. The conference, the first of its kind in India, was themed Strengthening Science Journalism in India: Global trends, regional media, and the science-society connect”. 

The program featured themes including use of artificial intelligence (AI) in science journalism, DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) in science stories, climate change reportage, covering science in regional languages, health and space journalism and more. This article spotlights key takeaways from various sessions held during the conference.

The Inaugural Address

The conference commenced with Subhra Priyadarshini, Chief Editor at Nature Portfolio and founder member of SJAI, underlining the importance of collaboration in science journalism. Priyadarshini pointed the myriad challenges that science journalism faces in India, including shrinking media space for science, limited accessibility to credible resources, and lack of skill building avenues for journalists and communicators.

She highlighted the challenges of communicating science in regional languages and bringing the latest trends in journalism into resource-crunched newsrooms. She also addressed concerns about pseudoscience, anti-science sentiments, and misinformation affecting India’s science ecosystem.

The key mission of SJAI is to up-skill and upscale science journalism in India.

Following this, Debasish Mohanty, Director, NII, extended a warm welcome to the conference delegates at the host institution, expressing their institution’s keen interest in and support for bringing science closer to society.

AI in Science Journalism

A keynote address by Helga Reitz, ETH AI Center, highlighted the prevalent issues with Artificial Intelligence (AI)-generated stories.

Science reporting is a human task. We must ensure human oversight when incorporating AI-generated content into science journalism.

Reitz pointed out the challenges of understanding bias in data, potential conflicts of interest, and the limited expertise on AI within newsrooms. Reitz proposed leveraging AI for repetitive, mundane tasks in newsrooms, citing examples such as auto-summarising past events like the war in Ukraine from archives, and developing assisted editing tools for referencing in scientific writing and reporting.

Abhishek Prasad, Rytstory, and Sahana Ghosh, Nature India, led a workshop on utilising AI in science journalism, highlighting its applications in monitoring the latest advancements in research fields and employing tools like ChatGPT and Bard to craft simplified research paper summaries.

The audience at SJAI conference. Picture credits: SJAI.
The audience at SJAI conference. Picture credits: SJAI.

Science journalists bridging the science-society divide

A panel on journalists’ role in connecting science and society, featured Sarah Iqbal, FAST India; Helga Reitz, ETH AI Centre; Shubha Tole, TIFR Mumbai; and was moderated by Ankur Paliwal, Queerbeat. The panel emphasised the significant role of journalists in India in bridging the gap between science and society, stating that the public primarily receives scientific information through the media.

Proposed solutions included insights from Iqbal, who outlined the success of the India Science Media Fellowship, aiming to bridge the gap in science media coverage by up-skilling journalists. She mentioned FAST India’s ScicommThink Labs which is gathering data to address the science-media disconnect. If you’re looking to share your insights on the connection between science and media, you can access the survey via these links: for journalists here and for scientists/​science communicators here. The concept of a residency for journalists at research institutions in India was suggested as another potential solution.

A listening session, moderated by independent journalist Virat Markandeya and Dinsa Sachan from DNDi (Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative) centred on how journalists can improve public understanding of science. A key concern raised was scientists’ discomfort in engaging with journalists, driven by fears of misrepresentation. One of the participants stated,

It’s high time institutes moved beyond conventional press releases as their only interface with the media.

Exploring diverse formats of science storytelling

The panel on the latest trends in science storytelling featured science journalist Shreya Dasgupta; Rohan Chakravarty, Green Humour; Devika Mehta, Vishwas News; Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa, Reuters; and Kartik Chandramouli, Mongabay India, as the moderator. Dasgupta discussed the transition from text-based journalism to podcasts and videos, highlighting her podcast Imagined Tomorrow’. Kawoosa shared insights on data journalism, stressing the importance of understanding audience interests.

A panel focused on the necessity of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in science storytelling, featured Nandita Jayaraj, The Life of Science; Ankur Paliwal, Queerbeat; Neena Bhandari, freelance journalist; and moderator Aditi Tandon, Mongabay-India. Jayaraj highlighted a recent survey as a step towards transparency in science communication labour in India. The panel highlighted the need for transparency in science communication, especially concerning accessibility, and suggested greater collaboration among newsrooms to share contacts and collectively identify newsworthy pieces that promote DEI.

A panel on science journalism in regional languages. Picture credits: SJAI.
A panel on science journalism in regional languages. Picture credits: SJAI.

Science journalism in regional languages

The panel focused on bolstering regional science journalism, featuring Hirra Azmat, independent journalist; Parmananda Barman, CSIR-NIScPR; Shailesh Malode, Akashvani-Prasar Bharti; and moderator Kollegala Sharma, CSIR-CFTRI. Barman emphasised the importance of science communication in Assamese, while Sharma advocated for the inclusion of regional media in the broader media landscape, forecasting a future driven by citizen science. The panel discussion was followed by the listening session on How to support local science journalism moderated by Aarti Halbe, Gubbi Labs; and Parmananda Barman.

A session spotlighting case studies in regional languages, steered by Utsav Thapliyal, FAST India, touched upon the power of communicating credible science stories to communities to foster public understanding of science. Akshay Madavkar, Mumbai Tarun Bharat, talked about a Marathi video series on a women-led mangrove eco-tourism aimed at raising awareness about species habitats in the Kalinje village of Maharashtra. Suchibrata Borah, Mongabay, showcased a book translated from English to Assamese, while Sulhaf Wandoor, Madhyamam Daily, presented a report on Athira Preetha Rani, an Indian-origin woman from Kerala chosen for NASA’s space programme training.

Covering health, climate and space sciences

Public health reporting is paramount to ensuring transparency, accountability, and equity in healthcare systems. A panel discussion, moderated by independent journalist T V Padma, featured Mahima Jain, an independent journalist; Jaya Sreedhar, Internews; Kavita Singh, DNDi; and Banjot Kaur, The Wire. The discussion explored various dimensions of public health reporting, emphasising access to data and evidence, addressing health inequities, understanding reporting on gender in health, and shedding light on neglected diseases. Following this discussion, a listening session steered by journalist Puja Bhattacharjee focused on diversifying health journalists’ reportage.

What constitutes climate misinformation? Why is it problematic? How does it spread, and how can journalists prevent its dissemination? In the workshop titled Separating Climate Science Fiction from Fact,’ conducted by Aditi Tandon, Mongabay-India, and Shakoor Rather, Press Trust of India (PTI), common myths surrounding climate change were debunked, and methods to counter their propagation in the media were provided.

A fireside chat featuring Akhilesh Gupta, Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB), and Rekha Dixit, IIT Madras Shaastra magazine, touched upon the necessity, scope, and roadmap of the National Research Foundation (NRF) to rejuvenate India’s research ecosystem. In another fireside chat, Dipankar Banerjee, ARIES Nainital, and Nigar Shaji, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), joined U Tejonmayam, The Times of India. This discussion veered around how space science can be made more attractive for lay people and the challenges of writing about space and accessibility of space scientists.

Science themed dance performance by Shimran Zaman. Picture credits: SJAI.
Science themed dance performance by Shimran Zaman. Picture credits: SJAI.

Other bespoke events

The event featured diverse sessions:

  • Listening Sessions: Conducted after each panel, listening sessions allowed for open feedback, aiming to gather diverse opinions and recommendations for actionable points for SJAI’s future endeavours.
  • Alternate Careers in Science | Lightning Talks: Focused on careers beyond academia for science scholars, speakers from various institutions shared insights about science communication, journalism, outreach, education, diplomacy, and publishing. An interactive Q&A with the audience allowed for a deep-dive into these professions.
  • Mobile Journalism workshop: Conducted by In Old News founders, the hands-on workshop focused on the role of mobile journalism in engaging wider audiences. Participants learned video recording and editing using smartphones to create impactful science stories.
  • Science-themed dance performance: In a harmonious fusion of science and art, Shimran Zaman, a classical dancer specialising in Odissi, Kuchipudi, and the Chhau martial art dance form, traced the genetic ancestry of the Indian population through a narrative grounded in scientific evidence.
    ion through a narrative grounded in scientific evidence.

Future directions of SJAI

SJAI’s inaugural conference shed light on several crucial needs within India’s science journalism and communication community. These encompassed the necessity for journalists to be updated on the latest trends and securing funding for science journalism and communication projects. SJAI aims to address these concerns highlighted by participants, striving to cultivate enhanced opportunities for its community of peers.