Science communication: ‘There is a huge price to pay when scientists remain in a cocoon’

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Dr. Somak Raychaudhury, Director of IUCAA, Pune explaining to journalists the significance of gravitational wave discovery.

Altmetric, a non-traditional alternative to impact-factor, measures the attention that research papers published in journals get from mainstream news outlets and social media. In 2016, Altmetric tracked over 17 million “mentions” in different platforms of 2.7 million different research outputs. Among the 100 “most-discussed” papers, three papers had 43 authors from India. This is much more than China and many European countries.

A February 11 paper on gravitational waves in the journal Physical Review Letters, with 41 authors from a few Indian institutions, has an Altmetric score of 4,694. The paper was covered by 92 news outlets (133 stories). A May 2 paper on Earth-sized planets transiting an ultracool dwarf star in the journal Nature had one Indian author. It has an Altmetric score of 2,064 and the paper was covered by 222 news outlets (260 stories). And the third paper on safety of injectable combination hormonal contraceptive in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism has an Altmetric score of 2,258. The paper was covered by 234 news outlets (307 news stories).

The paper on gravitational waves was covered by most leading newspapers in India without hype or distortion, while the other two papers hardly got any mention here. The work on gravitational waves is surely not pop-science nor is the one on contraceptive an abstract piece of work. When co-authors of the last two papers outside India had interacted with journalists in their respective countries, what is holding back our scientists from interacting with the media?

Journalists in India who regularly write on science know the reasons for this: The Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) had alerted the media about the paper on gravitational waves in advance and also held a press conference to disseminate the news. Many senior IUCAA scientists patiently explained the significance of the paper to journalists over phone. But there was no attempt by the authors of the other two papers or their institutions to communicate their work with the media.

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(From left) Dr. K. Thangaraj, Dr. Veena Parnaik and Dr. Lalji Singh of CCMB, Hyderabad during a press meet to discuss the results of the Nature paper.

Changing trend

Most reputed universities abroad have dos and don’ts for researchers on interacting with journalists when their papers are published. But many Indian scientists whose research and/or salaries are paid for with taxpayers’ money do not consider it their responsibility to communicate the results of their work either directly or through the media. (VIDEO: Scientists have a responsibility to share the findings of their research with the general public especially where scientists are in receipt of public funds, says Andrea Morello from the University of New South Wales, Australia.) Thankfully, this trend is slowly changing, at least among the younger lot, particularly as funding is becoming an issue.

Surely, not all types of research are amenable or suitable for newspaper stories. But even when they are, scientists in India rarely get in touch with journalists who regularly write on science. Many still have a notion that “scientists serve a society best by simply carrying out high-quality research” and publishing them in reputed journals “leaving others to judge how it should be used”. (Read the Counterview by Prof. Gautam Desiraju from IISc.)

Except for a tiny fraction, the vast majority of newspaper readers are lay people. The task before a science journalist is, therefore, to make the essence of the work accessible to lay readers. To scientists, newspapers articles, at best, serve to alert them and they would rely on original papers for detailed information. Many scientists in India fail to realise this.

While good science journalists are adept at conveying even complex topics in an accessible manner without compromising on scientific accuracy, in the hands of non-specialists, the information many times gets obscured or is even conveyed patently wrong. It is for the researchers to separate the wheat from the chaff and not shy away from the media completely.

It must be remembered that the media alone is not responsible for hyping up science. A paper published recently in PLOS ONE found that “many exaggerations were already present in university press releases, which scientists approve. Surprisingly, these exaggerations were not associated with more news coverage”.

Social media does play an important role in disseminating information without distortion as scientists have full control over content. But it can at best supplement mainstream media and cannot substitute it. One hundred and forty characters are too little to convey any meaningful message. And scientists are no Amitabh Bachchans with a huge following so their reach is hugely limited.

Hurdles to cross

But even when willing, the worst part is the bureaucratic hurdles many researchers have to face. It may come as a surprise to many that it is mandatory for researchers in many institutions to first seek the permission of their directors before discussing their work with journalists, even when their paper has already been published! Such stone-age policies set in stone are in place not just in many CSIR, ICMR and ICAR institutions but also a few IITs and IISERs.

There is a huge price to pay when scientists remain in a cocoon. The most dramatic example of the negative fallout of scientists shirking their responsibility of communicating with the public is the misconceived notions among people about the safety of genetically modified organisms. And climate change best exemplifies the “negative consequences of poor communication between scientists and the public”. It is to prevent nanotechnology from going the GM way that a few years back the Royal Society successfully engaged scientists to explain the basics, the advantages and disadvantages of nanotechnology with the public early on.

In Bob Dylan’s words, “the times they are a-changin’”. It is encouraging to see younger scientists and research scholars from premier institutions open to discussing their work. The ability of many PhD scholars to explain complex details of their work in an accessible way surprises me at times. What they sometimes lack is the ability to see the big picture. But they are sure to master it with time.

Only a couple of newspapers in India have a dedicated weekly page on science. In China, every newspaper has a daily page exclusively on science; there is a science newspaper as well. Indian scientists, science journalists and media organisations have much to do to improve and increase science coverage.

Published in The Hindu on January 1, 2017

5 Thoughts

  1. Very important issue, which lacking in not only India, but also in many developed countries. I found that, the reason for the ignorance by majority about the preventive strategies adopted by the public health departments in order to curb the spread of infectious diseases are the communication gaps. Either the responsible people are not communicating effectively or the public is not readily accepting what was communicated by media persons or even by celebrities (to increase the reach, many organizations uses celebrities to communicate). This can be overcome by providing adequate training to health care professionals on mass communication

  2. “There is huge price to pay when scientists remain in a cocoon” , The article succinctly articulates the consequence of lack of communication between scientists and public. Dr. Prasad referred to the “misconceived notions among people about the safety of genetically modified organisms”. Let me hasten to add all matters associated with ‘radiation’ and ‘nuclear energy’ are two other examples. It is already too late. Deliberate propaganda by strongly motivated groups is hurting national developments. Scientists must get out of their comfort zones and face the issues squarely. They can no more rely on political patronage to carry the day. Dr. Prasad gave hints on the impediments coming in the way of young scientists who wanted to communicate their work. These issues are more complex. Scientists must interact with senior journalists to sharpen their talent to communicate. The Hindu’s exceptional efforts to publicize scientific developments in our labs may inspire the young scientists.

  3. Agree! If I remember right, it was a marvellous National Geographic documentary on Climate Change I recently watched ( Before the Flood: https://youtu.be/8dxAgt9XXPU ) which termed politicians worldwide as being not leaders, but “followers” of popular opinion—so if leapfrog funding approvals are desired out of onerously contributed and/or collected taxes, its not only an OBLIGATION but is also quite practical that a predicate popular opinion be cultivated, organically.

    Increasingly, news too is being consumed via the world wide web, for example news.google.com (see also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_News). They aggregate not only news sources, but also multiple media: videos for one, and audio-only podcasts though I’m yet to see any getting referenced.

    This post references a video: http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/multimedia/66266 — the common difficulty mentioned in it can be efficiently addressed through a ‘Playlist’ of well curated sequence of videos to prepare laypersons to significantly understand the work of the scientist by building a context and/or a conceptual background. For example, here’s a 2 hour playlist of 8 + 1 GREAT videos: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8H5VdtDcAdZ10U73ryfmNWrfyziJ8Vfh.

    Likewise, public talks have begun getting streamed live by institutions but they ought to be recorded in GOOD QUALITY video, and audio! Apart from quality, their other attribute is interactivity. Fully interactive webinars wherein online attendees can interrupt the physical speaker—much like s/he could have if attending in-person—by speaking into the microphone will serve well the duty of connecting scientists to the public!

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