This blogger called out to readers about a week ago to write in with what they thought of science communication in India. Here's a compilation of what they said.

Dramatis personae

The Hindu has been a national daily since 1878, and is South India’s highest selling newspaper and one of the highest in the country (Circ. 1.4m). More than anything, it has a “respected” voice, is generally unadventurous, and has (had) a leftist leaning.

The Copernican is The Hindu’s science blog, currently written only by me. I launched the entire blogs section in December, 2012, as a way to experiment with new styles of story-telling and to unlock the journalistic potential of stories the newspaper might not have space for.

Every Thursday, The Hindu publishes an S&T page with a carefully chosen clutch of stories written by in-house science writers.

The feedback

What do people think are wrong in/with Indian science communication?

1. Coverage of Indian science news is low in the Indian and foreign presses

2. Science stories in the Indian press are not very ‘relatable’

3. Different stories have been simplified to different extents

4. Among those who responded, different people found different subjects interesting – with very little common ground (except for physics*) or broader vision, i.e. they couldn’t speak for other science readers

5. Most people didn’t want any more news about gadgets but more of the science that goes behind them

6. Two new concepts of The Hindu, ‘Week in science’ and ‘Why it matters’, were widely appreciated. ‘Week in science’ is a weekly round-up of remarkable science, tech., health and environment stories from around the web. ‘Why it matters’ is a collection of three or more snippets, each a minute-long read, explaining obscure developments in science & tech.

7. The Copernican’s writing style and choice of subjects was found to be better than that of The Hindu’s S&T page*.

There were some interesting points that a few people made:

1. Science is simply a way of looking at the world – keep this in mind when you write

2. Some – less than half – of the people who responded wanted more local science news, i.e. in the city

3. There are many Indian-origin scientists doing great work, albeit in other countries for other governments – the stories of their decisions to leave the country are science stories, too

Last: Most agreed that writing for a high-school-aged audience would be best.

*The Copernican usually hosts physics or physics-related articles, so there could be a selection-bias.

Some thoughts

‘Relatability’

Many readers wanted the stories to be more relatable. This immediately brought a recent episode in the science writing community to mind (thanks to Akshat Rathi). Dan Vergano, an American journalist, wrote on August 1 that science stories around the world had been ‘ghettoized’, that people were writing more about obscure phenomena that had nothing to do with the human condition than otherwise.

… science reporting has largely become a secret garden walled off, and walling itself off, from the rest of the world. Instead of reporting on the scientific aspects of news stories — whether Iran really will have the bomb, whether Quantitative Easing will spark inflation, whether Peak Oil is a real concern — we write pretty entertainments about mummies, exploding stars and the sex life of ducks.

Ed Yong, another famous science writer, had responded to Vergano's statement with this comment:

On the one hand, you have the entirety of the world–galaxies, animal behaviour, cells, subatomic particles, billion of years of evolution, and so on.

On the other hand, you have the tiny subset of that which directly affects humans, and our politics, economics, and lives.

I find it sad, peculiar and almost incomprehensible that someone could compare these two things, and see the LATTER as being what matters, and the FORMER as being ‘trivial’ and ‘ice cream and cookies without any sirloin’ and ‘walled off’ in some ‘ghetto’.

When our readers wrote in saying they wanted the stories to be more relatable, I’m assuming they meant Yong’s interpretation of Vergano's views: that they’re saying The Hindu is writing more on pure science and less on relatable science. We’ve received this comment before, and that’s why we mooted the ‘Why it matters’ column.

But when picking stories for the paper, we don’t get opportunities to make this distinction. I, for one, have borne the brunt of these complaints: I focus on high-energy physics or related stuff. Reaching the human condition from the Higgs boson’s spin is slightly difficult – the only quick connect I have is “… billions of tax dollars were spent…”. Nevertheless, these are important scientific discoveries.

Honestly, I fear that there are some articles we must force upon the Indian science reader – at least at this point in time – lest they’re left playing catch-up later.

The communication gap

In my call-out, I’d asked readers to go beyond the usually blamed issue of there being a communication gap between journalists and Indian scientists. Recently, a delegation from the British High Commission visited The Hindu and proposed an Indian Science Media Centre like the one in the UK to resolve just this problem – with the help of the newspaper.

If an Indian SMC is set up, I think it could go a long way in resolving many of the problems mentioned above, perhaps even be conducive to a The Conversation-model of journalism. Until then, it’s up to us to build a network, but this is where we hit a wall. For those who didn’t know, for example, ISRO scientists are forbidden to speak to mediapersons. Only the director or some high-up official like that may interact with us.

One more thing…

Read this piece by Dr. D. Balasubramaniam, who writes a fortnightly column on our science page. Toward the end, he talks about how many Indian scientists choose to be published in foreign journals because they have higher impact factors. Oftentimes, the best place to look for Indian science news happens to be Science or Nature, where they’re often also lost in a tide of other similar articles.

The response

If you ask the right questions, I don’t think Twitter and Facebook can be written off yet in the country for answers. I gave out my Twitter handle and The Hindu email address on my blog and I received more than a hundred responses on the microblogging site and over 40 emails. The post was also shared more widely than I’d expected it to be on Facebook.

Special thank you to Subbiah Arunachalam, Nidhi Subburaman, Charlie Petit, Linda Billings, Rohit Gupta, Achintya Rao and Akshat Rathi, and the Facebook page of the Department of High Energy Physics, TIFR, and everyone else who shared, tweeted, blogged and pinned my call-out.

Note

If you want to write in in response to this post, or if you want to add to the feedback due to the previous one, leave a comment, mail me at vasudevan.m@thehindu.co.in, or find me on Twitter as @1amnerd. I’m always listening.