For the last one and half years, I have been focusing on the capacity building of people with PhDs to report Indian Science. And I am satisfied with the results. We now have a trickle and a minor push now can convert it into a torrent. We are almost ready to break through the barriers of print media in India.
So it is time to look at TV – work on print, radio and TV have to be synergised to get optimum results since India still has too many illiterates and semi-literates, though first generation learners have burgeoned in recent decades. Thus it was that an experiment was conducted at the Amrita School of Arts and Sciences, Kochi.
Last year, I had done a one-week workshop there for M A students in Journalism and Mass Communication and the results were pleasing. So I was invited to conduct a course on Science Communication as a paper for their M A Visual Media students. The course was conducted in my typical immersive workshop format. But given the complexity of the technology and techniques used in TV, I requested for two one-week workshops separated by a month or two and the authorities were flexible enough to allow me that freedom.
The first workshop produced content scripts for news based on recent papers by scientists working at Kochi and Ernakulam. These content scripts slowly evolved into shooting scripts and the students started shooting. Fourteen students made news stories and compiled them into a news bulletin during the second workshop. The amount of learning-by-doing that happened was incredible. The students used their own DSLR cameras to shoot and recorded the interviews on their cellphones. Only two of them had any previous exposure to TV production.
The output was surprisingly good. Take a look at the news bulletin.
What difference would there have been had I trained people with PhDs instead of students who had exposure to science only up to the 10th or 12th standard?
The third workshop in Current Science will start from the 7th of August. And I realised that I had not reported the 2nd one, held in April. A very different workshop was also to be held in April, as part of a paper on Science Communication for Visual Media students. And then there was another workshop on science writing at the Venture Centre, Pune. One workshop after another and my own writing and video production under deadlines left me no time to report them.
You can see a report of the Workshop on Writing Science, held from 3rd to 8th April at Current Science, Bengaluru, here. One of the participants, Baskar, collaborated with me in writing the report.
The output from the workshop went through some more collaborative editing and was published as Science Last Fortnight in Current Science.
It is more than an year now. We started with reporting recent scientific work done within Pune every Sunday in Sakaal Times, a Pune based newspaper. After five issues of the column titled Science This Week, we increased the coverage to science done in Maharashtra.
After ten weeks we increased our coverage to Indian science. And shifted our platform to Current Science, the leading interdisciplinary journal in India. From March last year, we have been bringing out a fortnightly column in the journal. Slowly, but steadily, we are building up the capacity to report Indian science to Indian citizens. And this year, the column increased from two pages to four pages. The most recent issue of the column titled Science Last Fortnight can be found here.
It is not merely the pages that have increased. The capacity of the people have been increasing too. From 300 word reports based on single papers, some have gone on to write 1500 word reports based on a larger number of papers. They are developing the ability to extract relevant information from each paper, to synthesise the information to create coherent content that is engaging from the beginning to the end. For a recent example, see here.
The workshop in the Institute for Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding was quite focussed. A significant number of participants were from other ICFRE institutes. Some of them knew each other earlier. And given the pre-workshop online interactions, it took off faster than usual.
The participants were given a list of recent publications by Indian scientists. They could choose the entry of their choice, access the paper, read it to identify the question/problem being tackled, understand the methods that the scientists used to tackle the problem, the results that present or point at a solution and the implications of that finding.
By the third day, the participants had started writing. Converting a terminology ridden scientific paper of a few thousand words into a 300 word report which captures the essence of the whole paper and yet is comprehensible and engaging for readers from other disciplines.
The process of editing, reformulating and restructuring the piece gave the participants an insight about the processes required to make acceptable manuscripts targeted to different types of audiences and for various purposes.
For a report on the proceedings of the workshop and an evaluation of the workshop by the participants, please see here.
To see the output of the workshop, see the next issue of Current Science where it will be published in a column titled Science Last Fortnight.
I will be conducting a workshop on Scientific Writing in Venture Centre, NCL Innovation Park in Pune from 13-18 Feb 2017. The workshop will focus on building the capacities of PhDs, Post Docs and early career scientists for writing better scientific papers, project reports and grant proposals.
Having built up a reasonably good team that can now report on contemporary Indian science through a column titled Science Last Fortnight in Current Science, I am now shifting my attention to getting Indian scientists to write better papers.
Scientific papers from Japan and China are somehow more readable than the papers written by most Indian scientists. This series of workshops is an attempt to improve the quality of scientific writing published by Indian scientists.
Writing grant proposals is the other area that scientists will need to become better at, given the limitations of funding available for doing research.
After the Post Graduate Diploma course on Science Journalism in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, in the late 1980s, I was unhappy that none of the students took up science journalism as a career path.
There were quite a few courses on science and technology communication that started in the 1990’s, supported by the NCSTC. Given the number of students who came out of the courses, one should have expected a vibrant science reporting in Indian media. But that does not appear to be the case. By 2010s, such courses started closing down one by one. Something was evidently wrong.
So I was apprehensive when accepting to teach a paper on science communication for the Masters course in Mass Communication and Journalism in Amrita College of Arts and Sciences, Kochi. It was an optional paper and 8 students chose it, inspired by a workshop that I had conducted in the earlier year.
Like Jamia, Amrita too, gave me full freedom to define the syllabus and curriculum. But between the 1980s and now, I had grown up. I had studied the documents of the UNESCO concerning science journalism courses; I had helped the African University College of Communication to design their syllabus for a paper on science journalism and I had done a review of the courses on science and technology communication in India.
Moreover, I was a trainer and not a teacher anymore. So I threw out most of the theoretical stuff and focused on skill building and attitudes rather than knowledge.
Of course, I shared a large number of knowledge resources about science as well as about media and journalism. But never tried to teach the stuff.
I think it worked. Most of the students did not have a science background beyond 10 or +2 levels. Yet, there they were, reading scientific papers. The fear of scientific terminology and mathematical formalism had disappeared. And they seemed to be enjoying it. They were confident that they can report scientific advances by the end of the course.
Of course, I am concerned. Concerned that none wrote in Malayalam, their mother tongue. If budding journalists are not willing to use the language, media in Kerala will deteriorate further.
But now I have a course structure for science communication that works for Journalism students. It can be conducted as two one-week workshops, separated by two or three months.
The M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation is now nearly three decades old. A few hundred people distributed in different parts of India. When I was called to conduct a workshop for them, I felt honoured. After straddling science and media, on the one hand, and science and education, on the other, I felt I was being given a chance to work in the interface between science and development. The most satisfying lack of discipline that one can find.
14 people, mostly senior staff participated in the workshop held from 28th November to 2nd December. The participants had a wide variety of backgrounds – from Sociology to Communication and Journalism to Women studies to Economics to Statistics to Marine Biology to Agriculture to Microbiology to Geology… Such diversity amongst staff is indeed important and critical for the functioning of a foundation focused on sustainable development, biodiversity and livelihood generation in remote and tribal areas.
Some participants did not have adequate scientific training to undertake scientific writing. A few, though having a background in science, were not too comfortable with English. But the enthusiasm and energy was high. So were the individual expertise and experiences of the participants.
From writing project proposals to project reports, writing scientific papers to reporting and popularising science, from reaching across to target communities with brochures and pamphlets to advocacy communications through newsletters that target opinion leaders, the needs of individual participants varied. Yet there was one element that was common – effective communication, especially using the textual mode. So I focused on building capacity to this end, to fulfil individual needs whilst aligning with the goals and mandates of the MSSRF.
Five days. It went by too fast. One of the best workshops that I have done. Of course, it has not ended. We are just starting the work.