On September 8, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully launched the weather satellite INSAT-3DR into the Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). It was good to see the Twitter and Facebook accounts of ISRO providing information about the launch, a welcome change from the low-profile of some of the previous launches.
Social media outlets have revolutionised science communication the world over. It has become essential for any research organisation to have a dominant social media presence for effective science communication. How are other Indian research institutes doing on this front? The picture is bleak, to say the least. Take the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), one of India’s premier research institutes. The handle TIFR on Twitter brings up a dormant account of a US-based website. On Facebook, one finds an unofficial account for TIFR.
It currently shows 27 posts of people celebrating the Ganesh festival, followed by many student selfies, but hardly a post about science. TIFR’s website does a much better job of showing interesting information about various experiments, after a little bit of searching. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is a welcome exception. It has quite an active Facebook and Twitter accounts. The Pune-based Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) has a nice website called Scipop that provides comprehensive information about various science popularisation programs. Scipop has an active Facebook page but its Twitter account is mostly dormant.
Perhaps the worst example is Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science (IISc) which has an unofficial Facebook page. Normally it shows student selfies, but at the last viewing, it seemed to have been hacked and was showing porn videos. The social media accounts of most Indian research institutes show a distinct lack of coordinated efforts. The activity usually comes in spurts, followed by periods of inactivity. While many of these institutes have websites with detailed information, they seem to have overlooked the fact that this is an era of social media. This is ironic because these institutes work at the forefront of science and technology and they should be the ones picking up trends before anyone else. People do not regularly visit websites anymore unless directed by links shared on social media.
According to a UN report released in 2014, India has the largest youth population of 356 million 10-24 year-olds. As the cliché goes, we have to catch them young. With smartphones becoming a necessity, social media outlets are the place where young people spend their most of their time. If you want to communicate with them, you have to go there.
NASA is a good example of how effective science communication is done. As soon as a social media outlet starts getting popular, NASA gets there. Their social media feeds are flooded with eye-catching videos, images and information.
Admittedly, considering the difference in their respective budgets, comparing Indian institutes with NASA is unfair. However, the good news is that it does not cost much to have active social media engagement. The social media outreach of an institute working in the frontiers of science and technology should no longer be handled by students or researchers . There is a need for professional experts who can work full-time on science outreach. This is the kind of investment that will reap immense rewards in the long run — from finding future scientists to developing a culture of scientific literacy.
Meanwhile, the large viewership numbers in India haven’t gone unnoticed. The company Nobel Media just signed an MoU with the Indian government for hosting the Nobel Prize Series in India for five years. The series is a programme combining a conference, lectures, roundtables, an exhibition and other meetings with Nobel Laureates and other experts. US-based science magazine Physics Today announced one million page likes for its Facebook page from Indian users alone. Indians, especially the young, are hungry for interesting science. If we don’t act, someone else will.