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Would deliberations at the IISF 2019 Science and Technology Media Conclave lead to traction in India’s science communication scene?

Read time: 5 mins
Would deliberations at the IISF 2019 Science and Technology Media Conclave lead to traction in India’s science communication scene?

From the 5th of November 2019 to the 8th, India saw one of its extravagant science events, the India International Science Festival, organised in Kolkata. The event was organised by the Ministry of Science & Technology and Earth Sciences, Government of India, in association with Vijnana Bharati (VIBHA) and hosted many conferences, conclaves and exhibitions aimed at anyone enthusiastic about science. Although this was the fifth edition of the science festival, it was the first time a dedicated Science and Technology Media Conclave was held as a part of IISF—a move that had many science communicators, writers and journalists enthused. It was spread over two days, the 6th and 7th of November, at the legendary Bose Institute.

The Media Conclave comes at a time when the need for science dissemination has started to gain traction and a section of the media and academia have realised the need for it. Many are of the view that unless the findings of public-funded science are conveyed back to the public—the ultimate beneficiaries—very little is served with all the toil. Hence, the conclave aimed to “bring in diverse perspectives from India and abroad to crystallise an ideal vision for science and technology content and its dissemination.”

The two days of the conclave saw six panel discussions with journalists, including those who write about science, science communicators, science writers and professors from different communications institutes across the country as panellists. There were also three panellists from neighbouring Nepal. The audience was predominantly students of journalism with a small representation of researchers. Although, one would have expected a sizeable presence of the latter considering that science communication, as a profession, is transcending the boundaries of traditional journalism. Another section of audience that was completely missing from the discourse was the public—the very consumers of all science news. While one could say ‘we’ are the public, without a neutral face to it, opinions would remain biased. Here is a snippet of the event captured real-time on Twitter.

Pulling off an event of this scale and size is no joke, and the efforts of the organisers, primarily Mr Sourav Sen and his team, are commendable. Barring the delays at the beginning of the two days owing to various hurdles, much of the panel discussions saw active participation from the panellists and the audience alike. Although the discussions were termed ‘panel discussions’, many sessions stuck to the format of allocating each speaker about ten minutes to lay down their points or run through their presentation slides. Informal chatter hinted at the fact that adequate prior communication on the exact format could have facilitated more of a discussion and less of a monologue. However, some panels did manage to have a discussion.

A common topic that frequently surfaced in many of the discussions was about defining who is a ‘science journalist’, a ‘science writer’ and a ‘science communicator’. With all due respect, each of the participants probably had their own definitions for these terms that often overlap. But, does that matter? Apparently not, as the underlying roles of all these ‘titles’ is to take science to the public. Do we, as professionals in the field, draw a line? Perhaps not; to each, their own.

The panellists saw a good mix of experience—some were journalists for over three decades and had come from a traditional journalism background and had worked in newsrooms for years, covering science as another ‘beat’. Others had chosen to enter the field out of passion, for their academic backgrounds lie strongly in science with skills of journalism self-acquired on the job. Is one tribe better than the other? Maybe, time will tell, but there was consensus in the room about the fact that taking science to the public needed special skills.

For a first time effort to bring together people serving similar causes, under the aegis of a government-sponsored event at this scale, the conclave was successful. It provided an opportunity for many participants to meet and interact with their contemporaries at length, understand each others' work and possibly to collaborate in the future. Perhaps the stash of business cards from these meetings would be the biggest takeaway for most. A continued engagement is key to take these networks to the next level, and to deliver meaningful actions for years to come. On that note, we at Research Matters have started a mailing list, called Scicomm, to facilitate continued engagement and exchange of ideas and information. It’s free to sign-up and participate.

Most of the discussions during these two days were not entirely new to professionals in the field—many debates about the need for scicomm, the art of scicomm and how scicomm bridges science and society have taken place. Anecdotal evidence of science being successfully taken to the public and its implications exists. Other focused meetings between scientists and journalists in the past, like the one organised at IMSc Chennai in 2018, have provided a platform for a candid discussions between the two. However, reiterating these discussions and bringing them to the fore yet again, with a different audience, is still worth the effort considering scicomm in India is yet to realise its full potential.

For a country, a seemingly obvious final goal of investing in science communication is to increase the scientific temper among the masses. Science communication professionals have a big role to play in this journey as they shape the path towards this goal. While deliberations, as seen in the two days, can help chart the course, it is actions that eventually matter. A sustainable model for science dissemination in the country is the need of the hour and the sooner we crack this nut, the faster we may reach the goal post.