Amplifying the voice of Indian science

Sarah Iqbal* & Madhankumar Anandhakrishnan**

doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.21 Published online 18 February 2019

The need for scientific enterprise to take social responsibility is more keenly felt than before, but there is a long way to go.

© Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

“A scientist has to be neutral in his search for the truth, but he cannot be neutral as to the use of that truth when found. If you know more than other people, you have more responsibility, rather than less.” — C P Snow

At every point in a scientist’s career, effective communication of research is a necessity. It could be in various forms: academic manuscripts, funding proposals, conference presentations, public talks or representation at institutional and government-level meetings. Communication is an integral part of a scientist’s career and inextricably linked to its advancement. As C P Snow decreed, ethical research cannot afford to be confined to the lab bench or the desk.

Popular science communication is as important, if not more so, as its scholarly counterpart. Public communication of science is not about marketing or public relations; it is about humanising science and cultivating a culture of questioning, reasoning and logic. Such communication is important to create awareness of contemporary science issues, to inspire the next generation of researchers, to enhance the relevance and impact of research, to add the scientific community's voice to public discourse and, above all, to help societies take independent decisions in matters that need scientific knowledge.

For scientists and public research funding organisations, it is a moral duty to ensure that the public understands the value of the research and its potential implications for society. Besides, regularly communicating science to a broad audience helps scientists get societal perspectives on the relevance of their research, retain focus on the big picture, refine their thought processes, and seek public partners to solve complex problems that affect everyone.

Keeping the lines open

In spite of a series of recent local and national-level science communication efforts, public communication of science in India remains peripheral, especially when compared to leading scientific nations. Traditionally, scientists in India have seldom given adequate attention to communicating science to their peers or the public, and have generally not considered it as part of their job. However, there have been notable efforts by the government as well as non-governmental organisations and individuals to popularise science in the past decades — science magazines such as Chakmak (1985) by not-for-profit Eklavya Foundation, Matchstick Models and other Science Experiments by Arvind Gupta, Turning Point (1990s), a weekly science show on Doordarshan, Vigyan Pragati (Progress of Science, 1952) and Science Ki Dunia (World of Science, an Urdu quarterly, 1975) by the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, are examples of such efforts. The India government's recently launched science hour 'DD Science' on national television is also a laudable effort in this direction.

In recent times, there have been significant institutional efforts such as Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR)’s public outreach programme Chai and Why that not only aims to raise public awareness of science but involves the layman in science conversations. The annual science journalism course organised by the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), that has been teaching the art of popular science writing, is yet another example. Since its launch in 2008, biomedical research funding agency Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance (or India Alliance) has strived to make its funded research accessible to everyone, and encouraged and enabled scientists to communicate their research to the wider public. As well as making all its funded research open access, through a public lectures series and innovative art and science collaborations, the India Alliance has supported efforts by diverse individuals and organisations that aim to bridge the science and society gap.

The need for scientific enterprise to take social responsibility, is being more keenly felt than before in India, but there is a long way to go.

Helping artists to spread the word

Scientists in India do not receive sufficient training in communication; it is not considered necessary during their scientific training. Communication initiatives at national and institutional-level are urgently needed. 

The India Alliance identified this training gap and crafted a two-day science communication workshop in India in 2012. The workshops have since trained more than 600 PhD students, early-career researchers and clinician scientists. Looking at the high demand for such training, the India Alliance subsequently introduced one-day variants of these workshops training more than 2,000 budding researchers in the country. Through a 'Visualising Science' workshop with Nature India and FameLab India with the British Council Delhi, the funding body has encouraged scientists to explore creative media and innovative approaches for communicating their work. 

The India government's AWSAR (Augmenting Writing Skills for Articulating Research) scheme to encourage popular science writing through newspapers, websites, magazines, blogs, and social media is also a welcome move.

Society's access to knowledge

In some of India Alliance’s public engagement outings, participants have expressed a wish to know what scientists are broadly working on, and how that research will help society. Public access to science is deficient in India. It is as if the walls around research institutions are both literal and figurative.

The public mostly wants to understand in simple terms how scientific research will impact their lives — the purpose, and not the complex details, of science. Providing this access is particularly important if the scientific community in India wants to garner trust and lasting support for scientific research. This situation is exacerbated by an uneasy relationship between scientists and the media. Though the dynamic is changing, journalists and mass media in India remain the key source of popular science news.

The long period of research before a scientific breakthrough might be of interest to the media. It is therefore important that scientists get people excited about the process of doing science and not just the outcomes.

The same is true for fundamental research, the basis for translational research and technological applications, but attracting much less attention. In light of the digital access and social media, and the rising menace of predatory journals, communicating science truthfully in a timely manner has become even more important, to counter the spread of misinformation and false news.

Introducing media/journalism fellowships could help scientists and journalists understand each other’s process of enquiry and collectively explore ways to engage the public with science.

Lingua franca: Finding common language

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for Indian scientists is the language of science. Scientists are increasingly specialising, making it difficult for them to process, and then communicate their research within a broader context, sometimes even to their own peers. Many scientists fear ‘dumbing down’ their science for public communication. One way to encourage the practice of simplifying their work could be for funding agencies and scientific publishers to make it mandatory for scientists to write accessible summaries of their research when applying for grants or submitting progress reports or manuscripts. In India Alliance's fellowship applications, such summaries of proposed research are routinely sought. Grantees are encouraged to summarise their published research in non-technical language; these summaries are shared widely through India Alliance’s website and social media platforms.

With more than 20 official languages in India and many other dialects, ensuring that scientific information reaches a person in their language, is an enormous challenge for scientists and science communicators in India. There have been local initiatives, but concerted and sustained efforts are needed to build capacity for quality science communication in regional languages in India.

Engaging with science

Citizen science projects have been initiated around the world, in which public can meaningfully contribute to current research, rather than as passive recipients of information. Unfortunately, most public outreach events in India are designed as a one-way passing of information. Public engagement is supposed to be a two-way process, in which the scientists and the public share knowledge and insights to tackle issues that affect us all.

Public engagement does require scientists to shift their attention from research, which is unappealing for them. This points to a need for communication officers and public engagement practitioners at research institutions who can make engagement time-economical and effective. They can also act as training personnel for scientists and science journalists.

Funding agencies and institutions should strive to be more supportive of scientists’ engagement efforts. Introducing awards, dedicated funding for public engagement in large research grants, stipulating time within working hours for such activity, recognition of public engagement initiatives and outcomes in performance assessment and tangible opportunities to inform policy through their work, could be possible incentives.

Conscious and coordinated effort to include as many stakeholders as possible in the processes of scientific discovery and policy deliberation will go a long way in ensuring due consideration of multiple key viewpoints. Funding agencies need to remain committed to devising and implementing mechanisms to broaden the voice of Indian science, nationally and internationally.

(*Public Engagement Officer, Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance. **Madhankumar Anandhakrishnan, Grants advisor, Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance.

[Nature India Custom Edition: Decade of Discovery]