On AWSAR, Saransh, etc.

The Indian National Young Academy of Sciences has announced a “thesis competition for PhD students” called ‘Saranash’. A PhD student will have three minutes, and three slides, to describe their work via video, and winners stand to receive Rs 10,000, Rs 6,000 and Rs 4,000 in cash, for the first three places. It’s a good opportunity, quite like the Department of Science and Technology’s ‘Augmenting Writing Skills for Articulating Research’ (AWSAR) programme, in which PhDs and postdocs in any science stream are invited to share short articles based on the following criteria (among others):

Entries would be invited from research scholars and PDFs who wish to publish their research in way that would interest non-scientific audiences. The story should focus on the answering the queries such as why does my research matter? Why is it important? Why does it interest researchers? Why should it interest the reader? objectively. The article must be based on the research undertaken by the individual researcher.

My question is: why do both AWSAR and Saransh ask students to communicate their own work? Is this a conscious decision on the part of the governing bodies or is it the opposite – a lack of application of mind? I think the difference matters because it’s no secret that effective communication of any form, and on any level, is nascent at best in this part of the world. This is why initiatives like AWSAR and Saransh exist in the first place. This said, if the decision to have participants write about their own work is an attempt to foster communication by eliminating one group of variables, of deciding which other work to pick and then assimilating it, that’s great – if it is going to be followed up and nurtured in some way.

For example, what happens to a participant after they win an AWSAR award, and what happens to their work? I think it lies idle, and will probably wind its way to an archive or compilation that a few people will visit/read; and the participant will presumably continue with their science work. (I raised this issue at the meeting with the Principal Scientific Advisor in January 2020; his colleagues made a note of it, but then COVID-19 happened and I don’t have my hopes of change up.) The AWSAR website also says “all awardees will be given an opportunity to attend Science Film Training Workshop organised by Vigyan Prasar”.

As such, it seems, AWSAR assumes that those who are interested enough to participate will also continue to communicate their work at regular intervals, and work to improve themselves. This is clearly far-fetched. The ramp should be longer and reach higher, leading up to a point where effective communication becomes second nature. And if the first step is to present one’s own work, the logical next is to present someone else’s work; ultimately, useful communication will require one to do both. And both AWSAR and Saransh, by virtue of being initiatives that already recognise the value of communicating science to an audience of non-experts, are well-placed to make this happen. At the least, they need to find some way to emphasise that communication is an endless process.

(One simple solution came to mind – to require winning students to use their prize-money on communication-related efforts, such as to start a blog or produce a multimedia story for publication in the press. This is related to another idea tossed around at the January 2020 meeting, that the Principal Scientific Advisor’s office help set up a network of journalistic editors with whom scientific communicators could consult. But where money from the government is concerned, the first thing that comes to mind is its failure to pay science students’ fellowship amounts on time – often being delayed by many months, even during the COVID-19 epidemic – so to be fair there ought to be no say in how students choose to spend their money.)

But if I’ve assumed wrong, and both competitions focus on communicating one’s work because they don’t see the difference between that and communicating something they haven’t spent a few years studying – leading all the way up to an absolute ignorance of issues like conflicts of interest (too many scientists take offence when I tell them this is why I’m turning their article, on their own research paper, down) – then AWSAR, Saransh, etc. could easily become gateways to a ‘corrupt’ form of communication that is synonymous with serving one’s own interests.

A similar symptom of these programmes’ organisers not having thought things through is that the eligibility criteria make no mention of how participants can and can’t communicate their work. The AWSAR and Saransh web-pages are special in the sense that they will be visited predominantly by people who aren’t yet prolific communicators but are interested in the art. As such, including, say, a suggestion that participants should not treat their audience as one big empty vessel, or an opportunity to engage in discussions with audience-members (instead of restricting that to Qs and As or, in Saransh’s case, queries from jury members), could ensure in a significant way that many people’s future efforts evolve from the right substrate of principles.