A woman holder her right index finger over her lips, indicating silence.

Indian scicomm’s upside-down world

Imagine a big, poisonous tree composed of all the things you need to screw up to render a field, discipline or endeavour an elite club of just one demographic group. When it comes to making it more inclusive, whether by gender, race, ethnicity, etc., the lowest of low-hanging fruit on this tree is quantitative correction: increase the number of those people there aren’t enough of. Such a solution should emerge from any straightforward acknowledgment that a problem exists together with a need to be seen to be acting quickly.

Now, the lower the part of the tree, the easier it should be to address. There’s a corresponding suckiness figure here, denoted by the inverse of the relative height of the thing from the ground: not plucking low-hanging fruits and throwing them away is the suckiest thing because doing so would be the easiest thing. For example, the National Centre for Science Communicators (NCSC) recently organised an event composed entirely of men – i.e. a manel – and it was the suckiest thing because manels are the most fixable solutions available to address gender disparities in science and science communication without requiring any cultural remediation.

The lidless eye of @IndScicomm picked up on this travesty and called the NCSC out on Twitter, inadvertently setting off an avalanche of responses, each one more surprised than the last over the various things the NCSC has let slip in this one image. Apart from the sausage fest, for example, all eight men are older (no need to guess numbers, they all look like boomers).

It’s possible:

  1. Each one of these men, apart from the one from the organising body, wasn’t aware he was going to be on a manel,
  2. They don’t recognise that there’s a problem,
  3. They recognise the problem but simply don’t care that there aren’t any women among them – by itself a consideration that limits itself to the smallest modicum of change but in its entirety should include a variety of people of various genders and castes, or
  4. They believe the principles of science communication are agnostic of – rather transcend – the medium used, and the medium is what has changed the most since the boomers until the millennials.

I find the last two options most plausible (the first two are forms of moral abdication), and only the last one worth discussing, because it seems to be applicable to a variety of science communication endeavours being undertaken around India with a distinct whiff of bureaucracy.

In December 2018, one of the few great souls that quietly flag interesting things brought to my attention an event called the ‘Indian Science Communication Congress’ (ISCC), ep. 18, organised by CSIR NISCAIR and commemorating the 200th year of ‘science journalism in India’. What happened in 1818? According to Manoj Patairiya, the current director of NISCAIR, “Science journalism started in India in 1818 with the publication of monthly Digdarshan published in Hindi, Bengali and English, carrying a few articles on science and technology.” This is a fairly troublesome description because of its partly outdated definition of science journalism, at least if NISCAIR considers what Digdarshan did to be science journalism, and because the statement implies a continuous presence of communication efforts in the country from the early 19th century – which I doubt has been the case.

I didn’t attend the event – not because I wasn’t invited or that I didn’t know such an event existed but because I wouldn’t have been the ideal participant given the format:

It seems (including based on one attendee’s notes) the science communication congress was a science of science communication + historical review congress, the former a particularly dubious object of study for its scientistic attitude, and which the ISCC’s format upholds with barely contained irony. Perhaps there’s one more explanation: an ancient filtration system (such as from 1951, when NISCAIR was set up) broke but no one bothered to fix it – i.e. the government body responsible for having scientists speak up about their work is today doing the bare minimum it needs to to meet whatever its targets have been, which includes gathering scholars of science communication in a room and having them present papers about how they think it can be improved, instead of setting new targets for a new era. This is the principal symptom of directive-based change-making.

Then again, I might be misguided on the congress’s purpose. On two fairly recent occasions – in August 2018 and September 2019 – heart-in-the-right-place scientists have suggested they could launch a journal, of all things, to help popularise science. Is it because scientists in general have trouble seeing beyond journals vis-à-vis the ideal/easiest way to present knowledge (if such a thing even exists); because they believe other scientists will take them more seriously if they’re reaching out via a journal; or because writing for a journal allows them to justify how they’re spending their time with their superiors?

The constructive dilemma inherent in the possible inability to imagine a collection of articles beyond journals also hints at a possible inability to see beyond the written article. But with the medium have changed the messages as well, together with ways in which people are seeking new information. Moreover, by fixating on science communication as a self-contained endeavour that doesn’t manifest outside of channels earmarked for it, we risk ignoring science communication when it happens in new, even radical, environments.

For example, we’re all learning about the role archaeological findings play in the construction of historical narratives by questioning the Supreme Court’s controversial verdict on the Ayodhya title case. For another, I once learnt about why computational fluid dynamics struggles to simulate flowing water (because of how messed up the Navier-Stokes equations are) during a Twitch livestream.

But if manel-ridden conferences and poster presentations are what qualify as science communication, and not just support for it, the hyperobject of our consternation as represented in the replies to @IndScicomm’s tweet is as distinct a world as Earth is relative to Jupiter, and we might all just be banging our heads over the failures of a different species of poisonous tree. Maybe NCSC and NISCAIR, the latter more so, mean something else when they say ‘science communication’.

Maybe the ‘science communication’ that The Wire or The Print, etc. practice is a tradition imported from a different part of the world, with its own legacy, semantics and purpose, such as to be addressed to English-speaking, upper-class urbanites. At a talk in Chennai last year, for example, a prominent science communicator mentioned that there were only a handful of science journalists in India, which could’ve been true if he was reading only English-language newspapers. Maybe these labels are in passive conflict with the state-sponsored variety of ‘science journalism’ that the government nurtured shortly after Independence to cater to lower-class, Indian-languages-speaking citizens of rural India, which didn’t become profitable until the advent of economic liberalisation and the internet, but which today – and perhaps as seen from the PoV of a different audience – seems bureaucratic and insipid.

Then again, the rise of the ‘people’s science movement’ in the 1970s, led by organisations like Eklavya, Kalpavriksh, Vidushak Karkhana, Vigyan Shiksha Kendra and Medico Friend Circle would suggest that ‘science communication’ of the latter variety wasn’t entirely successful. Thanks also to Gauhar Raza, the scientist and social activist who spent years studying the impact of government-backed science communication initiatives and came away unable to tell if they had succeeded at all, and given what we’re seeing of NCSC’s, NISCAIR’s and the science congress’s activities, it may not be unreasonable to ask if the two ‘science communications’ are simply two different worlds or a new one still finding its footing and an older one whose use-case is rapidly diminishing.

Ultimately, let’s please stop inviting discussion on science communication through abstracts and research papers, organising “scientific sessions” for a science communication congress (which seems to be in the offing at a ‘science communicator’s meet’ at the 2020 Indian Science Congress as well) and having old men deliberate on “recent trends in science communication” – and turn an ear to practising communicators and journalists instead.