If you can’t get your scientific findings across, you can’t go far. How professional is science communication in India?

Streets in South India wore a unusually deserted look on February 16, 1980. It was the first total solar eclipse of the century; and a misguided and pseudoscientific media along with the already existing superstitions related to solar eclipses had resulted in mass hysteria. Cities like Madras and Hyderabad almost shut down in fear.

Fifteen years later, on Diwali day in 1995, the phenomenon occurred again. The difference this time was palpable. Hundreds of thousands of people watched the total solar eclipse this time, with the necessary precautions of course.

What was different this time? Months before the eclipse, the scientific community launched a national awareness campaign. There were volunteers educating the public, safe solar filters were being produced on a large-scale, and the media pitched in with a much more responsible role this time around. “This was one of the instances where good science communication made a real difference to people’s lives,” says Biman Basu, former editor of Science Reporter magazine.

What is Science Communication?

Science communication is exactly what its name suggests, the communication of science in a range of settings — politics, media, advertising, but most importantly, directly to the public. “This is even more so in our country because of the superstitions that still persist in our daily life,” emphasises Basu.

Inadequate communication to the public about fields of science that concern them can unnecessarily antagonise people to science, as illustrated by the solar eclipse incidents.

So who are these science communicators?

The people who do the science themselves, scientists, are the first tier of science communicators. It is tremendously challenging for a scientist to successfully convey his or her research to the public. This is primarily done via articles/papers they publish in scientific journals. Some scientists go the extra mile and talk to the media about their research if they think it significant enough.

But as veteran science writer Basu points out, many eminent scientists who are remarkable in their field are not as good at communicating to the public.

Developing communication skills is crucial for science students, feels Dr. Sunil Pandya, a neurosurgeon and Editor Emeritus, Indian Journal of Medical Ethics. “Without the ability to understand, formulate and communicate thoughts and findings one cannot get far.” And as Indians, we have a long way to go.

Indian scenario

Since higher education is often compartmentalised in our country, a person specialising in one field is often isolated from other subjects. As a result, our science journals often end up very one-dimensional, and uninteresting to the general public. “Scientists in India are not familiar with literature, arts and history, and neither are they trained in the writing of papers and making presentations,” says Dr. Pandya. “Their papers and talks are often drab and lifeless, and the reader or listener switches off.”

But things are changing, according to Basu, as can be seen in the arena of defense and nuclear science with more and more information being released to the press. More encouraging is the evidence of scientists joining the social network bandwagon. Dr. T.A. Abhinandan’s “nanopolitan” blog (now co-contributed by Dr. Arunn Narasimhan) and Dr. Rahul Siddharthan’s “E's flat, ah's flat too” are just two examples of Indian scientists using blogs to write about interesting advances in their areas of interest.

The next level of science communication is the media. Unfortunately, science communicator Basu himself regrets that in some cases media’s reputation of sensationalising tends to act as an impediment to scientific awareness instead of accelerating it.

Fortunately, it’s a better scenario today. Subbiah Arunachalam, veteran science journalist, points out, “Science pages in newspapers do not bring in ads, yet there are some good writers writing on science in newspapers and magazines.”

So where does that leave us?

Good science communicators are the need of the day. So if you have a reasonably strong science background, you find that you can’t restrict yourself to the lab, and you love to write and interact with scientists, then science writing is for you.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of training programmes for science writing in our country yet. Lack of funding is the main reason for this, and the few courses that exist are not hugely popular because science writing is not yet seen as a viable career.

Basu explains that it is extremely difficult for independent science magazines to sustain themselves financially in India. Science Reporter, of which Basu was Editor, is published by the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (NISCAIR), a government agency. Magazines like Scientific American, which used to have an India edition, did not last long.

“We desperately need at least one national science journal aimed at lay persons,” stresses Dr. Pandya.

He adds, “All you need is clarity of thought and concept, honesty in presentation of findings, objectivity, brevity and a dash of humour to be a good science writer.”

Start today

You don’t even have to wait till you graduate. Begin by keeping abreast of developments in your fields of interest through the abundant resources available today. Interact with the authors of papers you read and other scientists — with email and Twitter they’re more accessible then you think! Start a science blog today, share your views on controversies, breakthroughs, or indulge your readers in some popular science.

With all the free software available today, you can even make your very own science podcast! Scientists today are no longer expected to be solemn all the time, so it’s okay to be yourself.

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