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Op-eds Scicomm Science

Anti-softening science for the state

The group of ministers (GoM) report on “government communication” has recommended that the government promote “soft topics” in the media like “yoga” and “tigers”. We can only speculate what this means, and that shouldn’t be hard. The overall spirit of the document is insecurity and paranoia, manifested as fantasies of reining in the country’s independent media into doing the government’s bidding. The promotion of “soft” stories is in line with this aspiration – “soft” here can only mean stories that don’t criticise the government, its actions or policies, and be like ‘harmless entertainment’ for a politically inert audience. It’s also no coincidence that the two examples on offer of such stories skirt the edges of health and environmental journalism; other examples are sure to include reports of scientific discoveries.

Science is closely related to the Indian state in many ways. The current government in particular, in power since 2014, has been promoting application-oriented R&D (a bias especially visible in budgetary allocations); encouraging ill-prepared research facilities to self-finance; privileging certain private interests (esp. the Reliance and Adani groups) vis-à-vis natural resources like coal, coastal zones and spectrum allocations; pillaging India’s ecological commons for industrialisation; promoting pseudoscience (which further disempowers those closer to society’s margins); interfering at universities by appointing vice-chancellors friendly to the ruling party (and if that doesn’t work, jailing students on ridiculous charges that include dissent); curtailing academic freedom; and hounding after scientists and institutions that threaten its preferred narratives.

With this in mind, it’s important for science journalism outlets and science journalists to not become complicit – inadvertently or otherwise – in the state project to “soften” science, and start reporting, if they aren’t already, on issues with a closer eye on their repercussions on the wider society. The idea that science journalism can or should be objective the way science is is nonsensical because the idea that science is an objective enterprise is nonsensical. The scientific method is a technique to obtain information about the natural universe while steadily subtracting the influence of human biases and other limitations. However, what scientists choose to study, how they design their studies and what is ultimately construed to be knowledge are all deeply human enterprises.

On top of this, science journalism is driven by journalists’ sense of good and bad: We write favourably about the former and argue against the latter. We write about some telescope unravelling a long-standing cosmogonic problem and also publish an article calling out homeopathy’s bullshit. We write a scientific paper that uses ingenious methods to prove its point and also call out Indian academia as an unsafe space for queer-trans people.

Some have advanced a defence that simply focusing on “good science” can inculcate in the audience a sense of what is “worthy” and “desirable” while denying “bad science” the platform and publicity it seeks. This is objectionable on two counts.

First, who decides what is “worthy”? For example, some scientists, especially in the ‘senior’ cadre and the more influential and/or powerful for it, make this choice by deferring to the wisdom of scientific journals, chosen according to their impact factors, and what the journals have deemed worthy of publishing. But abiding by this heuristic only means we continue to participate in and extend the lifetime of the existing ways of knowledge production that privilege white scientists, male scientists and richer scientists – and sensational positive results on topics that the scientists staffing the journals’ editorial boards would like to focus on.

Second, being limited to goodness at a time when badness abounds is bad, at least severely tone-deaf (but I’m disinclined to be so charitable). Very broadly, that science is inherently amoral is a pithy factoid by this point. There have been far too many incidents in history for anyone to still be able to overlook, in good faith, the fact that science’s prescriptions unguided by human morals and values are quite likely to lead to humanitarian disasters. We may even be living through one such. Scientists’ rapid and successful development of new vaccines against a new pathogen was followed by a global rush to acquire enough doses. But the world’s industrial and economic powers have ensured that the strongest among them have enough to vaccine their entire populations more than once, have blocked petitions at global fora to loosen patents on these vaccines to expand manufacturing and distribution, have forced desperate countries to purchase doses at prices higher than those for developed blocs like the EU, and have allowed corporate behemoths to make monumental profits even as they force third-world nations to pledge sovereign assets to secure supplies. It’s fallacious to claim scientific labour makes the world a better place when the fruits of such labour must still be filtered, like so much else, through the capitalist sieve.

There are many questions for the science journalist to consider here: why have some communities in certain countries been affected more than others? Why is there so little data on the vaccines’ consequences for pregnant women? Do we know enough to discuss the pandemic’s effects on women? Why, at a time when so many scientists and engineers were working to design new ventilators, was there no unified standard to ensure usability? If the world has demonstrated that it’s possible to design, test, manufacture and administer vaccines against a new virus in such a short time, why have we been waiting so long for effective defences against neglected tropical diseases? How do the racial, gender and ethnic identifies of clinical trials affect trial outcomes? Is it ethical for countries that hosted vaccine clinical trials to get the first doses? Should we compulsorily prohibit patents on drugs, therapies and devices important to ending pandemics? If so, what might the consequences be for drug development? And what good is a vaccine if we can’t also ensure all the world’s 7.x billion people can be vaccinated simultaneously?

The pandemic isn’t a particularly ‘easy’ example either. For example, if the government promises to develop new supercomputers, who can use them and what problems will they be used to solve? How can we improve the quality and quantity of research conducted at institutes funded by state governments? Why do so many scientists at public universities plagiarise scientific papers? On what basis are the winners of the S.S. Bhatnagar Award chosen? Should we formally do away with subscription-funded scientific journals in favour of open-access publishing, overlay journals and post-publication peer-review? Is methane really a “clean fuel” even though its extraction and transportation will impose a considerable dirty cost? Why can’t we have more GM foods in the market even though the science is ‘good’? Is it worthwhile to invest Rs 10,000 crore in a human spaceflight programme that lacks long-term vision? And so forth.

Simply focusing on “good science” at our present time is not enough. I also reject the argument that it’s not for science journalists to protect or defend science simply because science, whatever it’s interpreted to mean, is not the preserve of scientists. As an enterprise rooted in its famous method, science is a tool of empowerment: it encourages discovery and deliberation; I’m not sure if it’s fair to say it encourages dissent as well but there is evidence that science can accommodate it without resorting to violence and subjugation.

It’s not for nothing that I’m more comfortable holding up an aspirin tablet for someone with a headache than a jar of leaves from the Patanjali Ayurved stable: being able to know how and why something works is power in the same way knowing how the pharmaceutical industry manipulates markets, how to file an RTI application, what makes an FIR valid or invalid, what the election commission’s model code of conduct stipulates or what kind of land a mall can be built on is power. All of it represents control, especially the ability to say ‘no’ and mean it.

This is ultimately what the GoM report fantasises about – and what the present government desires: the annulment of individual and institutional resistance, one subset of which is the neutralisation of science’s ability to provoke questions about atoms and black holes as much as about the circumstances in which scientists study them, about the nature, utility and purpose of knowledge, and the relationships between science, capital and the state.


Addendum

In January 2020, the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the Government of India organised a meeting with science journalists and communicators from around the country to discuss what the two parties could do for each other. Us journalists and communicators aired a lot of grievances during the meeting as well as suggestions on fixing long-standing and/or particularly thorny problems (some notes here).

In light of the government’s renewed attention on curbing press freedom and ludicrous suggestions in the report, such as one by S. Gurumurthy that the news should be a “mixture of truth and untruth”, I’m not sure where that leaves the PSA’s plans for future consultation nor – considering parts of the report seemingly manufactured consent – whether good-faith consultation will be possible going ahead. I can only hope that members of this community at least evoke and keep the faith.

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Scicomm Science

A meeting with the PSA’s office

The Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) organised a meeting with science communicators from around India on January 27, in New Delhi. Some of my notes from the meeting are displayed below, published with three caveats.

First, my notes are not to be treated as the minutes of the meeting; I only jotted down what I personally found interesting. Some 75% of the words in there are part of suggestions and recommendations advanced by different people; the remainder are, broadly, observations. They appear in no discernible order not because I jumbled them up but because participants offered both kinds of statements throughout. The meeting itself lasted for seven or so hours (including breaks for lunch and tea), so every single statement was also accompanied by extensive discussion. Finally, I have temporarily withheld some portions because I plan to discuss them in additional blog posts.

Second, the meeting followed the Chatham House Rules, which means I am not at liberty to attribute statements uttered during the course of the meeting to their human originators. I have also not identified my own words where possible not because I want to hide but because, by virtue of these ideas appearing on my blog, I take full responsibility (but not authorship) for their publicisation.

Third, though the meeting was organised by the Office of the PSA, its members were not the only ones of the government present at the meeting. Representatives of some other government-affiliated bodies were also in attendance. So statements obviously uttered by a government official – if any do come across that way – are not necessarily attributable to members of the Office of the PSA.


“We invest a lot in science, we don’t use it imaginatively enough.”

Three major science related issues:

  1. Climate change
  2. Dramatic consequences of our growth on biodiversity
  3. B/c of these two, how one issues addresses sustainable development
  • Different roles for journalists within and without the government
  • Meeting is about what each one of us can do — but what is that?
  • Each one of us can say “I could do better if only you could better empathise with what I do”
  • Need for skill-sharing events for science journalists/communicators
  • CSIR’s National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources has a centre for science and media relations, and a national science library
  • Indian Council of Medical Research has a science communication policy but all press releases need to be okayed by health minister!
  • Knowledge making is wrapped up in identity
  • Regional language communicators don’t have access to press releases, etc. in regional languages, nor access to translators
  • Department of Science and Technology and IIT Kanpur working on machine-translations of scientific content of Wikipedia
  • Netherlands Science Foundation published a book compiling public responses to question ‘what do you think of science?’
  • In the process of teaching kids science, you can also get them to perform science and use the data (e.g. mapping nematode density in soil using Foldscope)
  • Slack group for science communicators, channels divided by topic
  • Leaders of scientific bodies need to be trained on how to deal with journalists, how to respond in interviews, etc.
  • Indian Space Research Organisation, Defence R&D Organisation and Department of Atomic Energy need to not be so shut off! What are they hiding? If nothing to hide, why aren’t they reachable?
  • Need structural reforms for institutional research outreach — can’t bank on skills, initiative of individual science communicators at institutes to ensure effective outreach
  • Need to decentralise PR efforts at institutions
  • People trained in science communication need to find jobs/employment
  • Pieces shortlisted for AWSAR award could be put on a CC BY-ND license so news publications can republish them en masse without edits
  • Please hold meetings like this at periodic intervals, let this not be a one-time thing
  • Issues with covering science: Lack of investment, few people covering science, not enough training opportunities, not enough science communication research in India
  • Need local meet-ups between journalists and scientists to get to know each other, facilitated by the government
  • Outreachers needn’t have to be highly regarded scientists, even grad students can give talks — and kids will come to listen
  • Twitter is an elite platform — science communicators that need to stay in touch need to do more; most science communicators don’t know each other!
  • Can we host one edition of the World Conference of Science Journalists in India?
  • What happened to the Indian Science Writers’ Association?
  • Today the mind is not without fear! The political climate is dire, people can’t freely speak their minds without fear of reprisal — only obvious that this should affect science journalism also
  • ISRO is a darling of the media, the government and the masses but has shit outreach! Rs 10,000 crore being spent on Gaganyaan but the amount of info on it in the public domain is poop.
  • CSIR’s Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology is very open and accessible, director needs to be kept in the loop about some press interaction but that’s it; perhaps the same template can be recreated in other institutes?
  • Outreach at scientific institutions is a matter of trust: if director doesn’t trust scientists to speak up without permission, and if PR people don’t respond to emails or phone calls, impression is that there is no trust within the institute as well as that the institute would like journalists to not be curious
  • People trained in science communication (informally also) need a place to practice their newfound skills.
  • Private sector industry is in the blindspot of journalists
  • People can more easily relate to lived experiences; aesthetically pleasing (beautiful-looking) stories are important
  • Most people have not had access to the tools of science, we need to build more affordable and accessible tools
  • Don’t attribute to malfeasance what can be attributed to not paying attention, incompetence, etc.
  • Journalistic deep-dives are good but lack of resources to undertake, not many publications do it either, except maybe The Wire and Caravan; can science communicators and the government set up a longform mag together?
  • Create a national mentorship network where contact details of ‘mentors’ are shared and mentees enrolled in the programme can ask them questions, seek guidance, etc.
  • Consider setting up a ‘science media centre’ — but can existing and functional models in Australia and the UK be ported to India without facing any issues?
  • Entities like IndiaBioscience could handle biology research outreach for scientific institutes in, say, the South India region or Bangalore region with some support from the government. That would be better than an SMC-from-scratch.
  • Consider including science communication in government’s new draft Scientific Social Responsibility policy and other S&T innovation policies
  • Allocate a fixed portion of funding for research for public outreach and communication (such as 2%)
  • Need more formal recognition for science communication researchers within scientific institutions; members currently stuck in a limbo between outreach office and scientists, makes it difficult to acquire funds for work
  • Support individual citizen science initiatives
  • Need better distinction between outreach groups and press offices — we don’t have a good press office anywhere in the country! Press officers encourage journalistic activity, don’t just promote institute’s virtues but look out for the institute as situated in the country’s overall science and society landscape
  • Any plans to undertake similar deliberations on philosophy of science (including culture of research, ethics and moral responsibilities)?
  • Scientific institutions could consider hosting journalists for one day a month to get to know each other
  • What’s in it for the scientist to speak to a journalist about their work? Need stronger incentives — journalists can provide some of that by establishing trust with the scientist, but can journalists alone provide incentives? Is it even their responsibility?
  • Consider conducting a ‘scientific temper survey’ to understand science literacy as well as people’s perceptions of science — could help government formulate better policies, and communicators and journalists to better understand what exactly their challenges are
  • Need to formulate specific guidelines for science communication units at scientific research institutions as well as for funding agencies
  • Set up fellowships and grants for science communicators, but the government needs to think about attaching as few strings as possible to such assistance
  • Need for more government support for regional and local newspapers vis-à-vis covering science, especially local science
  • Need to use multimedia – especially short videos, podcasts illustrations and other aids – to communicate science instead of sticking to writing; visuals in particular could help surmount language barrier right away