Since June 2020, the Indian Government has been soliciting public and expert inputs in order to formulate its latest Science Technology and Innovation Policy. This ongoing initiative is supposed to make the process of crafting policy as inclusive as possible. As part of the first round of these consultations, a panel discussion titled ‘Across The Table – Science Communication’ was held on the 8th of July. Its stated focus was the growth and challenges of science communication.
While it is heartening to see the Indian government recognise the enormous potential in science communication, no significant advances were made in this recent panel discussion. The bulk of the panelists’ conversations were limited to restating known problems and impediments. No significant amount of discussion time was used to propose specific ways and means by which this nascent field can be transformed into a professionally fruitful and inclusive enterprise.
The relative lack of discussion on actionable recommendations is disappointing, particularly in light of a landmark interaction that occurred earlier this year. On the 27th of January, the Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA) to the Govt. of India organised a day-long brainstorming session involving various government representatives and Indian science communicators. This meeting was held subsequent to an open letter petition on Change.org, which was spearheaded by IndSciComm and supported by many in the Indian scicomm community and interested members of the public.
The first such meeting to focus on science communication in India, it generated many recommendations and suggestions in line with the demands in our petition. Implementing such recommendations, and proposing more, is necessary to change the current state of Indian scicomm. Its diversity of agents and efforts need to be supported by the government. To truly move the needle forward on Indian society’s interactions with science, and vice versa, an ecosystem that nurtures Indian science communicators is desperately needed.
And there is no time quite like the present to plan for the future of science and its communication in India. Whatever their position in society, no Indian citizen remains unaware or unaffected by the global pandemic of COVID-19 or the fallout of climate change. Therefore, it is imperative that India restructures its scientific policies to effectively deal with the ominous ways in which our world is changing.
But whatever shape STIP 2020 takes, it cannot succeed if the Indian public does not trust in the national scientific enterprise. From vaccines to weather prediction, public acceptance and engagement are essential for interesting ideas to have real world benefits. So cultivating scientific literacy and understanding in every Indian citizen is the need of the hour. Effective science communication is one of the main ways in which India can achieve these goals.
Empowering science communicators will allow them to do what they do best: inform and educate the public about how science affects their lives and livelihoods, and how they can influence the national scientific enterprise. We urge government officials in charge of STIP 2020 to consider the following recommendations for improving science communication in India.
Systemic and long-lasting changes are needed to ensure that communicators can accurately and usefully convey science and scientific developments to the Indian public. These include, but are not limited to, five important action items.
- Ensure that freelance and professional science communicators have access to published institutional research output, scientists, administrators, scientific meetings and fora
Allows greater transparency and accountability in research and funding, and greater public insight and understanding of the scientific process and its outcomes
- Create an open platform to promote grants and funding sources for all science communicators, at local and national levels, which can enable them to participate in information sharing initiatives such as conferences, workshops and educational courses
Provides impetus to initiate and sustain a wide range of science communication initiatives across multiple languages, and allows professional growth/career development opportunities
- Allocate budget and guidelines for all science institutes to support communications and outreach departments, with members chosen according to defined skill rubrics and compensated as fully salaried employees
Institutional science communication works across many media formats and communication platforms, each of which requires specialised training and expertise. An ideal scicomm team should include, at least – a public engagement officer, social media manager, graphic designer, science writer and an overall programmes coordinator
- Award grants to support research into evidence-based practices that can inform and benefit science communication, public engagement, citizen science and science policy interventions – specific to the Indian context
Fundamental research is needed to understand how people engage with scientific knowledge, and respond to science communication efforts. How do they make decisions on issues that lie at the interface of science and society such as human health, economic and developmental sustainability, climate action, and innovation infrastructures? The answers are crucial for India to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030
- Increase inclusive, diverse and equitable representation in conferences, panel discussions, administrative roles and societies that pertain to science communication
Rather than being hobbled by systemic biases, science communication must be empowered to function as a progressive mirror of India’s multicultural and diverse citizenry
These changes must be introduced as soon as possible
Science communication is a scientific and developmental force-multiplier. With it, we can derive a greater return on investment from all other science policy measures and funding than without it. Science communication can help to increase scientific literacy and understanding, which are necessary for public support, utilization and confidence in scientific solutions, including participation in national policy mechanisms. In an era of economic recession and societal upheaval brought on by COVID-19 and climate change, accurate and compelling science communication can stack the odds in India’s favour, both in the immediate future and for generations to come.