Covering science


got me thinking about my first few months as a professional science journalist, and where along the way my views of science changed significantly.

One common theme and source of disillusionment was, and is, that there are many more announcements of scientists developing a product or a solution targeted at a common, well-known problem in society than there are announcements of these products or solutions having been properly and gainfully implemented. I can’t count the number of times some institute or other has announced that its researchers have built a sewer-cleaning robot, but it’s nowhere to be found a year later. Do you know how easy it would be to run a digital science ‘news’ publication with articles based just on press releases the IITs send out?

Many of these releases talk about some scientists who’ve invented or built something and how that’s amazing because a) the thing would be made in India (obviously), and b) the thing is testimony to the scientists’, and their respective institute’s, commitment to public welfare. What use is scientists knowing how to build the thing? Yet such claims have come to dominate, and even replace, the thing itself. For examples, scroll through the list of articles syndicated by India Science Wire, of Vigyan Prasar (the quality of whose reporting, I must say, nosedived roughly around the time Dinesh C. Sharma left as its managing editor) or perhaps just google for AI-related work at IITs. This is unfortunate because, unlike ‘blue-sky’ research (which I’ve a soft spot for but with which I have a separate set of issues), the value of application-oriented research is in its application, not in the elucidation of its prospects. Or so I thought.

Now, I realise that university press offices are largely to blame for hyping up what is often something much less sensational, but the problem doesn’t end there. I’d put the fact that the hype never quite dies out even after it exits the press office down to four factors. (A zeroth factor is the prevalence of subpar reporting, but let’s set that aside for now.)

First, most news reporters and/or outlets report on these ‘developments’ too soon – before they’ve been tested adequately or without accounting for costs and challenges associated with scaling up the solution, for example.

Second, once these things have been reported, only a few are ever followed up – say, one or two years later. By that time, of course, most sewer-cleaning robots or whatever else have you are likely to have become stuck in some bureaucratic maze or similar, but to not pursue these ‘stories’ because they’re no longer science stories would be to overlook a considerable fraction of what it means to do science in India.

Third, the glut of reports of the “here’s something awesome Indian scientists did” variety – incentivised by a politico-business nexus that drives more advertising revenue towards publishers that front news items that stoke nationalistic fervour – has skewed public perception of how much ‘important’ or ‘useful’ science happens in the country. The grouse from my PoV is that it’s next to impossible to convince many people, like, say, my grandmother or uncle, or a friend who’s been getting his news from the front page of Google News for a few years now, that Indian science isn’t in particularly good shape except in a few elite pockets (and even there, it’s often dominated by one caste group).

The final factor: do the institutes sending out these press releases really not know that they’re making mountains out of molehills? A related issue, taking the last two factors together, is an increasingly distorted sense, certainly among many people but also likely among many news outlets, press officers and even some scientists, of what constitutes an achievement. That is, it’s been becoming increasingly easier to be mediocre.

After about a year of pursuing such ‘stories’, based on institute press releases, I got the sense that I was being taken for a ride by an academe-driven knowledge pipeline that was (and still is) perfectly content to keep trickling. So I stepped away.