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.


Talking scicomm at NCBS – II

I was invited to speak to the students of the annual science writing workshop conducted at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, for the second year (first year talk’s notes here).

Some interesting things we discussed:

1. Business of journalism: There were more questions from this year’s batch of aspiring science writers about the economics of online journalism, how news websites grow, how much writers can expect to get paid, etc. This is heartening: more journalists at all levels should be aware of, and if possible involved in, how their newsrooms make their money. Because if you retreat from this space, you cede space for a capitalist who doesn’t acknowledge the principles and purpose of journalism to take over. If money has to make its way into the hands of journalists – as it should, for all the work that they’re doing – only journalists can also ensure that it’s clean.

2. Conflicts of interest: The Wire has more to lose through conflicts of interests in a story simply because there are more people out there looking to bring it down. So the cost of slipping up is high. But let’s not disagree that being diligent on this front always makes for a better report.

3. Formulae: There is no formula for a good science story. A story itself is good when it is composed by good writing and when it is a good story in the same way we think of good stories in fiction. They need to entertain without betraying the spirit of their subject, and – unlike in fiction – they need to seek out the truth. That they also need to be in the public interest is something I’m not sure about, although only to the extent that it doesn’t compromise the rights of any other actor. This definition is indeed vague but only because the ‘public interest’ is a shape-shifting entity. For example, two scholars having an undignified fight over some issue in the public domain wouldn’t be in the public interest – and I would deem it unfit for publication for just that reason. At the same time, astronomers discovering a weird star billions of lightyears away may not be in the public interest either – but that wouldn’t be enough reason to disqualify the story. In fact, a deeper point: when the inculcation of scientific temper, adherence to the scientific method and financial support for the performance of science are all deemed to not be in the public interest, then covering these aspects of science by the same yardstick will only give rise to meaningless stories.

4. Representation of authority: If two scientists in the same institute are the only two people working on a new idea, and if one of them has published a paper, can you rely on the other’s opinions of it? I wouldn’t – they’re both paid by the same institution, and it is in both their interests to uphold the stature of the institution and all the work that it supports because, as a result, their individual statures are upheld. Thankfully, this situation hasn’t come to be – but something similar has. Most science journalists in the country frequently quote scientists from Bangalorean universities on topics like molecular biology and ecology because they’re the most talkative. However, the price they’re quietly paying for this is by establishing that the only scientists in the country worth talking about apropos these topics are based out of Bangalore. That is an injustice.

5. Content is still king: You can deck up a page with the best visuals, but if the content is crap, then nothing will save the package from flopping. You can also package great content in a lousy-looking page and it will still do well. This came up in the context of a discussion on emulating the likes of Nautilus and Quanta in India. The stories on their pages read so well because they are good stories, not because they’re accompanied by cool illustrations. This said, it’s also important to remember that illustrations cost quite a bit of money, so when the success of a package is mostly the in the hands of the content itself, paying attention to that alone during a cash-crunch may not be a bad idea.