A culture of communication

Srinavasa Chakravarthy, presumably a mathematician going by a reference in his post, penned an open letter for TH Read about how Indian scientists

… rarely follow the scientific work of [our] Indian colleagues, perhaps because such attention has no practical and material consequence. Thus, we constantly face what is popularly called a double whammy. As it is, the Western academics care two hoots about our work and, what’s more, we are also written off by our beloved compatriots.

In all, Chakravarthy’s is an impassioned plea to his peers to fumble in the dark the way they were told scientists generally do, and forge their own paths instead of kowtowing after their Western counterparts. There are many dimensions to this entreaty. For example, @polybiotique, @Vasishtasetty and @leslee_lazar – all students of science – engaged in a discussion on Twitterabout whether Chakravarthy was disingenuous in not citing the many examples of scientists and science journalists who are, in fact, being Indianand original in their work.

As a science writer and editor myself, I found this part of his plea to be a bit annoying:

The somewhat dogmatic mindset has crept beyond the walls of our academic campuses also. How often do we see the local media covering the scientific work of an Indian colleague? I once saw a piece of work on computational neuroscience from a United States university reported in a local Chennai paper. It is a standard piece of work. Many of us in India have more interesting things to say. Why isn’t it talked about as much? I asked. I was told that the media doesn’t like to cover Indian science, as much as it does science from abroad, simply because the readers don’t like to read about it.

It is odd that Chakravarthy chose to lead with the example of a “local Chennai paper” when he could have chosen the national Chennai paper, The Hindu, and its famous science section. Indeed, analogous to the Twitter discussion, science journalists I have spoken to often feel a twinge of pain when their work isn’t being read or acknowledged. Part of the problem is that consumers of science journalism – just as with the scientists in Chakravarthy’s piece – stick to their usual sources and passively, though not inexcusably, miss instances of it that are goodIndian and original. So on this count, I would say Chakravarthy comes off as disingenuous for not expanding his science-writing menu.

At the same time, his choice of a “local Chennai paper” is instructive. While change must begin somewhere, it is at the level of the local paper that it will be most impactful. (Let’s think in terms of voltage: the potential difference between those writing about science and those reading about it is higher the more local you take it.) However, to expect local papers to change first would be silly. In the realm of incremental changes, a large problem is solved first where it is easiest to solve, so national newsrooms are leading the way.

At this point, in order for me to not seem disingenuous to my peers, I should mention that half the reason any Indian newsroom with a science section struggles to cover science is the Indian scientist. Just as much as you need an earnest science journalist to reach out to a scientist, you need an earnest scientist to respond meaningfully and in time. Many of my writers regularly receive the following response from scientists they’ve reached out to: “All the information is there in the paper” – betraying a severe lack of understanding of what science communication is for and/or about. My personal favourite is a researcher who responded (on a story about amorphous superconductors) after two months and then complained that his quote wasn’t used.

On the other hand, it is easy to write about Western science because scientists in the West are so damned prompt. The cost of writing a science story is much lower if, on average, I have to work with Western scientists. And if we’re wondering whether this problem reflects or contributes to a hierarchy, the answer is ‘yes’ both ways.

Let’s call it the cost tree: the lowest branches are populated by Western scientists, and the point is to bring Indians higher up to lower ground. Those Indian scientists already there include those educated in the West, those exposed to – and who endorse – the culture of communication, or both. For example, it is very ease to draw a quote from a scientist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru but very difficult to get one from a researcher at BITS Pilani. It also matters what the scientist thinks of the journalist. A researcher will sooner speak to someone from The Hindu than to someone writing for The Wire (although this is a strictly personal opinion). More broadly, a scientist is likelier to speak to a more engaged journalist than to a less engaged one, and the former cost more to commission and are typically approached for longer stories. TL;DR: There needs to be empathy on both sides for this to work.

One quick-fix for this problem is to eliminate a simple barrier: that of the unknown-unknowns. For scientists who are unaware of good, Indian and original science writing, a common reference list can be curated by scientists and media-persons alike, and added to with time. For science journalists, a similar list of Indian scientists who are available to speak to, and who have been known to respond meaningfully and in time can be curated.

Recently, an effort was made over Twitter to curate a list of scientists for science journalists. Thanks to my poor record-keeping, I’m not able to find the resulting spreadsheet right now – although here’s a Twitter list compiled by Pranesh Prakash that you can sign up to. Now, establishments like the Times of India, which regularly present bad science, and Hindustan TimesDeccan Chronicle, etc., which do so less frequently, have one less excuse to publish unverified/unqualified reports.

IMO, this is the easier part: English-speaking science journalists can be expected to congregate on Twitter; those who aren’t on the platform still have colleagues or peers who are. If you work for a digital newsroom, you’re expected to have a functional Twitter handle. However, how many scientists – who aren’t required to be on Twitter – are? More importantly, is there one forum where Indian scientists congregate? I’m all ears.

Featured image credit: Pavan Trikutam/Unsplash.