That monthly reminder…

(I can speak only for myself here) I certainly seem to be needing a monthly reminder that to focus on pure science as a journalist is not in any way an abdication of one’s responsibilities as a citizen of India. The more forceful the reminder – i.e. the stronger the argument made – the longer it lingers in memory, in my consciousness, but these days its lifespan seems limited to 30 days at best.

Why is this reminder necessary? As people involved with an industry founded on the pursuit of truth, it’s important to know that what we’re doing (individually) is relevant and in the public interest. This compulsion frequently, and easily, supersedes personal interest.

This morning, I wanted to write about dynamic equilibrium in a droplet of liquid gallium trapped on a positively charged graphite ring. I thought it was cool – but there was the overwhelming sense that I could be spending my time and words better. And if you read the newspaper every day, you know better is applied science, science policy, administration, women in STEM, higher ed, public/private GERD, research misconduct, faculty hiring, IoEs, etc.

It’s very difficult to hold in your mind the importance of being interested in and even focusing on fundamental research when there is very little, if any, public dialogue or even public interest in/on it.

If you broach it, there will be zero immediate validation. It will always be contested, by the people and many scientists alike. A debate like this may be good in the bigger scheme of things – but in the absence of any sort of go-to resource to top up your conviction with on this line of argument, support for non-applied science remains islanded, devoid of opportunities for consensus. In other words, there is NIL institutional motivation to writing about non-applied scientific research.

I’ve personally grown tired of resorting to complex arguments about research always paying off in the long run to convince people that it’s important. History and economics together make nuanced suggestions about the “right” course of action but their careful study is like the climate, whereas I’m talking about the weather here.

One kind of argument that works with Left liberals who say “we have finite resources and we should put them to best possible use” is to offend their intellectual desire to negate the Modi govt’s policies. So I reply: “we have finite resources because the govt isn’t investing enough, and you choosing to ‘spend it wisely’ is no different from buckling under pressure, preparing to legitimise govt underspending by letting it affect your actions”.

Obviously this isn’t an objectively good argument because it only works when the govt and one particular political class is vehemently at odds. Instead, what we need is an ‘all-weather’ argument that works irrespective of one’s moralities. In my (new) case, that argument is “BECAUSE IT’S FUCKING COOL!”

It’s clearly not the best argument, it’s not even independent of my morals, etc., but it’s the argument that I need to just work. And by all means it should because what’s life without “wow”? I also realise my privilege here in that I’m a full-time science journalist with incredible freedom about what I write on. But somehow this acknowledgment feels similar to expecting one to thank nutjobs for not lynching you to death.

Then again, I’m also uncomfortable with being given a responsibility to make people go “wow” all the time. I would edit the mandate to say – as @anilananth said – “You’re on science’s side”, and add “while ‘wow’ is good, it’s the road to ‘wow’ that’s really cool.”

I hope you’ll quickly see a meta-problem here. If you ask any journalist as to why covering politics is important, the minimum viable answer is “Because.” Ask them why writing about ‘heartbeats’ in gallium is important, and it’s not just “Because.” It’s always something longer, and deliverable in full only to someone who already professes interest and has time. So in other words, I need a reason to write about non-applied science whose labour cost-of-rationalisation is comparable to that for politics or business journalism.