Academics can change the world – if they stop talking only to their peers

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What’s the point of academics producing amazing research if they don’t share it widely with the general public? Shutterstock

Savo Heleta, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

Research and creative thinking can change the world. This means that academics have enormous power. But, as academics Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr have warned, the overwhelming majority are not shaping today’s public debates. The Conversation

Instead, their work is largely sitting in academic journals that are read almost exclusively by their peers. Biswas and Kirchherr estimate that an average journal article is “read completely by no more than ten people”. They write:

Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities – 82% of articles published in humanities [journals] are not even cited once.

This suggests that a lot of great thinking and many potentially world altering ideas are not getting into the public domain. Why, then, are academics not doing more to share their work with the broader public?

The answer appears to be threefold: a narrow idea of what academics should or shouldn’t do; a lack of incentives from universities or governments; and a lack of training in the art of explaining complex concepts to a lay audience.

The ‘intellectual mission’

Some academics insist that it’s not their job to write for the general public. They suggest that doing so would mean they’re “abandoning their mission as intellectuals”. They don’t want to feel like they’re “dumbing down” complex thinking and arguments.

The counter argument is that academics can’t operate in isolation from the world’s very real problems.

They may be producing important ideas and innovations that could help people understand and perhaps even begin to address issues like climate change, conflict, food insecurity and disease.

No incentives

Universities also don’t do a great deal to encourage academics to step beyond lecture halls and laboratories. There are globally very few institutions that offer incentives to their academics to write in the popular media, appear on TV or radio, or share their research findings and opinions with the public via these platforms.

In South Africa, where I conduct research and teach, incentives are limited to more “formal” publication methods. Individual institutions and the Department of Higher Education and Training offer rewards for publishing books, book chapters, monographs or articles in accredited, peer-reviewed journals.

The department pays universities more than R100,000 per full publication unit – for example, one journal article. These funds are given to universities, which then use their own subsidy disbursement schemes to split the funds between the institution, the faculty in which the author works and the author. In some cases, academics receive more funding for articles published in international journals than in local journals.

Catriona Macleod of Rhodes University in South Africa has argued that these financial incentives are an example of the “commodification of research” and that this is “bad for scholarship”. Macleod told University World News:

The incentive system is a blunt instrument that serves the purposes of increasing university income rather than supporting scholarship and knowledge production in South Africa.

There is nothing in the department’s policy that urges academics to share their research beyond academic spaces. There’s no suggestion that public outreach or engagement is valued. And this situation is not unique to South Africa: the “publish or perish” culture is a reality at universities all over the world.

Academics have no choice but to go along with this system. Their careers and promotions depend almost entirely on their journal publication record, so why even consider engaging with the general public?

Learning to write

There is a third factor holding academics back from writing for broader lay audiences: even if they’d like to, they may not know where to start and how to do it.

Writing an article for an academic journal is a very different process to penning one for those outside the academy. Naomi Wolf and Sacha Kopp, in an article examining the issue, wrote:

Academic writing has the benefit of scholarly rigour, full documentation and original thinking. But the transmission of our ideas is routinely hampered … by a great deal of peer-oriented jargon.

Universities have a role to play here by offering workshops and courses to their academics and students. This can help develop creative non-fiction writing skills.

Time for a change

Academics need to start playing a more prominent role in society instead of largely remaining observers who write about the world from within ivory towers and publish their findings in journals hidden behind expensive digital paywalls.

Government and university policies need to become more prescriptive in what they expect from academics. Publishing research in peer-reviewed journals is and will remain highly important. But incentives should be added to encourage academics to share their research with the general public.

Doing this sort of work ought to count towards promotions and should yield rewards for both universities and individual academics.

Quality academic research and innovation are crucial. It is equally important, though, to get ideas out into the world beyond academia. It could make a real difference in people’s lives.

Savo Heleta, Manager, Internationalisation at Home and Research, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

India should show sustained commitment to science: Venkatraman Ramakrishnan


The  culture of innovation has to be cultivated, says Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramapkrishnan. – Photo: R. Prasad

In an hour-long interview, Nobel Laureate Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, who called the Indian Science Congress a “circus”, discussed the implications of some of the Indian government policies on science and technology. He summarily rejects the idea of scientists needing permission from directors before discussing the results of a public-funded, published work with the media or public. He is optimistic that India can be a science powerhouse by 2030 if it does the right things. He was the chief guest at the Infosys Prize 2016 award ceremony held in Bengaluru on January 7. Excerpts.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said India will be among the top three countries in science and technology by 2030. Do you think it is at all possible given the low funding and priority for science in India?

It’s true that R&D funding is low [in India] but I think that these things can be changed. You can invest in R&D and encourage much more private R&D. The government investment may be low but private funding is much lower. I think the culture of innovation has to be cultivated.

I heard many of the talks at the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance. They were of the calibre that scientists could have been at some place in the west for the kind of work they are doing. The government structure of the India Alliance is quite efficient. You get the fellowship money on time and there is flexibility. If scientists want to do innovative work they need flexibility and they need the money to show up on time.

I have heard that the governance of the India Alliance is slowly filtering into other agencies. If this culture spreads administration of science will become efficient. People should be given enough autonomy and they need to be well funded at a young age, when they are creative and bold.

There is no reason why India couldn’t become a stronger science power. Demography is in its favour. So if it does the right things between now and 2030 we don’t have an idea what’s possible. But it requires a sustained commitment to science, requires very good governance of science, flexibility and autonomy for investigators.

CSIR labs have been asked to generate half of their funds. Do you think this will be possible considering the low private R&D spending in India?

CSIR labs have been funded for decades and to make a sudden transition is going to be really quite difficult. I don’t see how that can be done. But they can be encouraged to get more of their funding from the industry. They were originally set up to help the industry. People in the west do it all the time. But the transition cannot be abrupt. Industry also should be open to collaboration. Industry should also take advantage of expertise. A lot of industries in India are still at a stage of implementing technologies developed elsewhere. That’s my impression.

China is still not as innovative as the west. But China was not so innovative 20 years ago. As countries grow economically and start investing in R&D that will help in maintaining economic strengths.

If you are going to be among the top science countries by 2030 it requires sustained commitment. China had sustained commitment. Singapore and especially South Korea have very sustained commitment to R&D. Without that it is not going to happen.

At the same time, CSIR labs have been asked to focus its resources to meet the social and economic objectives of the government. Do you see inconsistency in policy?

In Britain all governments in the last 100 years have subscribed to some extent to what is called the Haldane principle. What that means is that it is the right of the elected government to set overall priorities. However, it is usually done in consultation with scientists to see what’s feasible. Nobody elected scientists so scientists can’t decide whatever they want to do with the money. The government has a right to set an overall priority. But having set priorities, it is not for the government to tell scientists how they should be doing things. They shouldn’t be interfering in the implementation of the goals.

If you want to broad base science, you should spend on basic research. You cannot spend all your money on applied science because applied science depends on the knowledge of basic science. Basic science also develops the knowhow of future.

If you have no basic scientists in India you won’t even be able to take up new technology even if they are developed in the west. So you need a certain amount of basic science.

How do you think the menace of predatory journals can be tackled, especially since India is home to most of these bogus journals and many scientists even from government institutions publish in these journals?

The whole issue of predatory journals is a difficult one. We had a meeting of the Royal Society, the French Academy and the German Academy. The three academies issued a statement on publishing. We have deplored the rise of predatory journals.

It is the job of the [institutional] review committee, heads of departments and senior colleagues to discourage it. It all depends on good governance. It will be difficult to do away with predatory journals. It will be difficult to prove in a court of law. Better would be to have good review process.

On the other end is the pressure to publish in Science, Nature and Cell, what I call as high-impact vanity journals. People are taking shortcuts to publish papers in these journals. So that’s also creating very bad pressures. If you publish in a good, solid journal, if it is a nice piece of work it shouldn’t matter that it is not in some high-impact journals. It’s the failure of the system to evaluate the work rather than where it is published.

Scientists in many government institutions, some IITs and IISERs need the director’s permission before discussing their published work with the media. Do you subscribe to the idea that scientists should be free to communicate the results of a public-funded work to the public?

Some scientists are very poor communicators. And it wouldn’t be a good idea to force every scientist to be a communicator. Some people are best left alone to do their work and some others are good communicators and they should be encouraged. Scientists as a community owe it to the public to explain why public money is spent for various things; it is a duty to communicate to the public. But it is not reasonable to force every scientist to be involved in communication. So we need to be a bit flexible.

But scientists should be free to talk to the media or public about their work. In the U.K., if you are representing your organisation’s views, and it goes for me as well if I am representing the Royal Society’s views, it has to be cleared. But I can certainly talk as an individual about my work, especially published work. There is no reason why someone should give permission for scientists to talk about their work, unless there is some issue like if the information is classified or has security implications. For example, the institute may be in the process of filing a patent. In that case they can’t talk to the press. But if the work is already published then there is no reason why they should not talk freely. In the case of published work, I would have no problem discussing with the press.

You did mention in an interview last July that scientists in leadership positions would convene to work out a coherent response to Brexit even before a new cabinet was in place. How successful has the scientific community been in conveying its the concerns to the government?

We had a number of interactions with the government. We have had some success in that we have managed to make a case to the government on various policies. The first was we were concerned that U.K.-based scientists would be disadvantaged in applying for EU-based programmes for fellowship, grant etc. Because many if these are five-year grants and if Britain were to leave after two years the granting panel may say why should we fund this person as we don’t know what will happen after two years. So very quickly the Chancellor announced that the U.K government ill underwrite all British applicants for the full duration of the fellowship. That was a very positive step. The EU funding agencies don’t have to worry that the person is from the U.K. It can decide the case on merit and the U.K. component will be funded regardless of what happens.

The other thing that happened is in the Autumn statement the Chancellor announced a very significant increase in funding [up to £2 billion a year by 2020] for science and technology. It was one of the largest increases in recent times in science funding. This is really important because if Britain is going to leave the EU then it has to succeed based on an innovation-based economy.

What about the mobility issue, particularly of scientists?

EU citizens based in Britain should simply be allowed to stay. There we don’t have any firm statement because the government doesn’t want to act unilaterally as there are a lot of British in continental Europe. But the government has made it clear that during the negotiation as long as the EU allows British people to stay in the EU then the U.K. government would reciprocate.

I would prefer the government to make a strong unilateral statement right away because 30 per cent of staff are foreigners and half of them come from the EU. A strong statement that they don’t have to worry would reassure them. Otherwise, there is a danger that they might decide to leave. Talking to various government officials, there is a sentiment even among ministers who are pro-Brexit that they definitely want free movement of talent if not a free movement for everybody. They also feel that EU citizens staying in the U.K. will not be a problem.

Will the U.K. continue to be a part of the major EU programmes?

We would argue that the idea of the U.K. science community is to continue participation in the EU programmes. Whether we are able to do so or not depends on how the negotiations go. But the government is taking the views of the science community into account in preparation for the negotiations.

I see several scenarios. One is things continue as they are. Another is we become a third country and bind into these programmes. What we wouldn’t want is to bind the programmes and not lead the consortia. Currently, the U.K. is a strong science country and many consortia are led by U.K.-based scientists. So if we were to only participate and not be leaders that would be suboptimal. The last option if all else fails is we have a U.K. fund that is separate and replicates much of what we get through the EU programmes. We could have programmes for collaboration with EU and we have collaborations worldwide and not just the EU. I wouldn’t say there is all gloom and doom. I think we should be agile and forward thinking about how we go about.

Published in The Hindu on January 15, 2017

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


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.


(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.

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.

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