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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

The Lab-newsroom disconnect

Media has been wanting in building public interest in science.

Written by Shahid Jameel |
Updated: March 8, 2019 4:48:40 am
Media, fourth estate, social media, Lootyens journalists, journalists abused, Modi government, Indian express column There is also a surge in science journalism. However, neither has impacted the public understanding of science.

I was hoping to time this with the National Science Day, which is celebrated on February 28 to remember C V Raman’s Nobel-winning discovery. But the events since precluded any discussion of science. Even when the prime minister decided to give out the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar prizes on the day, the news of these most prestigious awards in Indian science barely made it to the front pages of the three newspapers I read.

This should surprise no one. With few exceptions, there is little or poor reporting of science stories in media. The Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards is given out to print and broadcast journalists in 25 categories, but not one is focused on the reporting of science. And this is presented by a media group that does rather well in covering science.

As in previous years, the India Today Annual Policy Conclave 2019 would again bring together thought leaders, all of whom are politicians, business leaders, authors, musicians, sportspersons and Bollywood celebrities. This reveals a mindset that expects science and technology to improve lives, while not one scientist in the country is considered worthy of providing a vision to shape the nation’s future.

Society demands from science magical solutions to its problems. But, there is very little understanding of the scientific process or recognition of scientists. This is like wanting good music without musicians. This problem is mutual. Scientists who populate many of the country’s scientific bodies remain largely oblivious to the need to communicate, participate.

Dorothy Nelkin, the American sociologist best known for her work on science and society wrote that, “for most people, the reality of science is what they read in the press”. Most of us believe what we read about science in the media, which remains an important source of information for the public. Research carried out in laboratories and universities, and reported in scientific journals and conferences, is written about and broadcasted in a form that is easily understood by the public. This reporting informs society and impacts many decisions people make in their daily lives.

With sustained and increasing funding for over two decades, Indian science has grown in both capacity and capability. There is also a surge in science journalism. However, neither has impacted the public understanding of science. Indian science and its academies should be world class, and so should science journalism in India. Unfortunately, just as there is a lot of research that apes the West — the quality of debate in media is low on intellectual thought and analysis.

Scientists are expected to ask good questions, dive deep into the subject and communicate their findings — mainly through research papers. The same is expected of science journalists, except that they communicate the results of research to society. Both need to clearly understand the issues before they can communicate effectively.

India’s scientists and journalists both aspire for standards set elsewhere — aiming for quantum leaps instead of incremental changes that make their work better with time. Mathematicians and musicians are good examples to emulate. Both set their own standards and continuously push themselves towards higher goals.

There is also much to learn from successful science-driven projects in India such as polio eradication and the space programme. Both would not be possible without the tools provided by science — the polio vaccines and diagnostics, the satellites and delivery vehicles. Another key factor was excellent communication that fired people’s imagination and secured their participation. For example, the Pulse Polio Programme vaccinates about two million children every six weeks. This would be impossible without clear communication and effective management.

Indians clearly have an appetite for science. A recent report showed that almost 70,000 books on science and technology were borrowed from the Delhi Public Library last year, second only to fiction. Unfortunately, they read more about pseudoscience dished out in the media than about real science that is addressing food shortage, antibiotic resistance, clean energy or climate change.

The theme for this year’s National Science Day was “Science for the People, and People for the Science”. To benefit people, science and evidence should drive policy. To improve the levels of public trust in science, scientists should engage with people. For that, science should be reported accurately, simply and in an interesting way.

Good stories are important to communicate what scientists do and how their work can change lives. Understanding science empowers the society to question and to make choices. Meaningful dialogue between journalists and scientists can achieve this.

The writer is CEO of The Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance, Delhi. (Views are personal)

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