How would a day as a scientist go? Just peering into a microscope or writing equations on a blackboard? Well, not quite! Here is a glimpse of what scientific research actually demands:
Manage research teams and projects. Plan experiments, analyse data. Guide post-graduate students. Design and teach graduate courses. Prepare competitive grant proposals. Stay updated on latest research in the field. Network with academic and industry peers. Participate in institute administration and duties.
And of course, maintain a personal life. Phew!
Scientists already juggle all the above (and more) every single day. Is it fair to demand that they take on science outreach too?
It is a common complaint – too few scientists step out of their ivory towers of academia to interact with others. Consequently, the public often perceives an intimidating (sometimes, even mistrustful) mystery around the life and work of scientists. Unfortunately, in this exploding information age, this is a disconnect our society cannot afford to have.
Today, people have more access to information than ever before in the history of mankind. Big data and collective participation on social media are being used to chart future growth directions of industry, transport, healthcare and even research funding itself. Never has it been more imperative for scientists and institutions to help improve scientific literacy.
The good news is that never has it been easier for science to engage with society too.
Aficionados of science fiction say this is the golden age of geeks! There has been a phenomenal rise in television shows, movies and online content in fantasies replete with scientific terminology. Some are inspiring, others have cringe-worthy inaccuracies. There is a generation of children and youth across the globe avidly consuming this form of infotainment.
Many mainstream media outlets often carry sensational headlines on “scientific studies”. These spread rapidly on social media and could also have dangerous consequences for those who accept it blindly. Dr. Ben Goldacre, an academic and a columnist with the Guardian, exposed the distortion of medical science and statistics by media and quacks in his book Bad Science. These scenarios are even more relevant for India due to its ever-expanding internet user base, touching around 460 million. Thanks to the rapid uptake of smartphones and improved data connectivity across the country, more people are getting on the internet to access information.
Clearly there is a crying need for more scientists to participate in public discussions around science-related issues; as also for scientific institutions to encourage responsible science dissemination. Many in the media have begun to recognize this as well.
Media discussions about science outreach have grown louder in past 5 years, with even the elite research publishing houses like Nature putting a spotlight on the issue. One can try searching Twitter with hashtags #reachingoutsci or #scicomm. On these social platforms, researchers from across the globe discuss diverse outreach efforts and ponder upon various related issues. Online debates rage from squarely putting outreach responsibility on scientists’ shoulders to having dedicated science outreach cells set up at institutional level.
There are no easy solutions to the problem. Perhaps no universal ones as well. But that is exactly where our hope and efforts should focus.
Outreach by scientists: Play to strengths
Scientists are often stereotyped in popular culture as aloof, reclusive, closed individuals. That is seldom the truth; they are just professionals who work in a scientific setting. And like most of us, their passion and hobbies often extend beyond their work.
For a scientist, using hobbies for science outreach can be an excellent outlet, and a wonderful way to communicate to the lay audience. One can paint a theory. Or photograph an observation. Maybe write a thrilling blog about lab experiments. One of the leading global research magazines – Science, even hosts a “Dance your PhD” contest! The idea is to encourage intertwining of personal passions with outreach and to use the internet to showcase them far and wide.
Twitter, with its 140-character limit, is one of the most popular social media outlets used by youth and media. It provides a great platform to concisely share research news, tweet in public discussions, network with media and even seek out professional collaborations. For scientists, building anef effective network may seem daunting. But it only needs regular activity and patience to tap into its multitudinous possibilities. An increasing number of Indian researchers (especially from the biological sciences) have begun to explore Twitter in recent times. Even cross-continental collaborlations have taken shape over Twitter!
But what about scientists who prefer to face their audience? Well, giving talks never goes out of style! Due to the high cache of science jargon in media these days, many organizations are often eager to hear from scientists. Public lectures at local schools/colleges/museums can be easily organized. In 1998, the Cafe Scientifique movement began in Leeds (UK), where scientists gave informal, timely talks on science topics and personally interacted with the public in a cafe. Today, the science cafe’s have spread across the globe – from US to Thailand, each customized to its local audience and their preferences. India has its own unique version as well – Chai and Why?
Chai and Why?: A tea-time success story
Almost a decade ago, British Council Library organized the first Indian Science Cafe at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai. Prof. Arnab Bhattacharya, a scientist at TIFR and an ardent outreach enthusiast, was excited with the concept. But he felt that a science cafe inside a scientific institute would have a rather limited public appeal. His subsequent visit to the Edinburgh Science Festival confirmed his hunch that people are more relaxed and open to attending such events at ‘neutral’ or public locations.
Soon after his visit, fate presented a serendipitous meeting with eminent Indian theatre personalities Sanjana Kapoor and Sameera Iyengar. They offered the famed Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai as a venue for Bhattacharya’s first science cafe experiment. However, with an intimidating public perception of the word ‘science’ and a rather youth-only reach of ‘cafes’ in urban India, he needed to come up with a more all-inclusive name. After much brainstorming, Bhattacharya named it ‘Chai and Why?’, and conducted his first session on 4th January 2009. Its ensuing success offers many lessons.
“We have not missed a single session in the last 8 years”, points out Bhattacharya, proof of regular commitment not just from his team but also from their growing, loyal audience. Conducted on alternate Sundays at 3 venues across Mumbai, Chai and Why? has now done over 190 sessions and become a regular feature of the Mumbai weekend calendar. Its uniqueness lies in its informal way of covering diverse science topics, often connecting them to the Indian context. For example, when the 2G spectrum scam hit India in 2011, Bhattacharya saw the opportunity to explain the basics of wireless telecommunications to public. The talk was titled, “2G, 3G, 4G – yeh kya hai ji?”!
“A catchy title always helps! After all, you need to first get people to come in and listen to you”, valuable advice from Bhattacharya who has witnessed the popularity of such sessions. Apart from fun titles, he also looks for ways to connect science to our daily lives. Indian festivals offer many possibilities. For example, this Diwali, Chai and Why? explained the science behind fireworks. Not just through words, but through on-stage experiments and matchstick rockets! Live demonstrations, whenever possible, have become an important feature of Chai and Why? – a feature that distinguishes it from other science cafes around the world.
“We regularly get a lot of school children in our audience”, explains Bhattacharya, “and nothing connects with them better than what I call ‘wow experiments’! Especially when talking about concepts related to chemistry, a simple demonstration makes a huge impact.”
The impact is such that Chai and Why? also gets invited to schools in and around Mumbai. Hence, Bhattacharya and his team developed a science demonstration kit using everyday items – A Wonderful Lab called Home. This kit consists of simple hands-on experiments that demonstrate scientific concepts to school children, often the most curious and hungry consumers of knowledge. “The fact is that most of our school kids do not have the luxury of performing experiments,” rues Bhattacharya, “they are so eager to try and learn on their own.”
Over the last three years, this kit has travelled to many cities and towns in India, and often adapted to locally available materials. Enthusiastic volunteers have also helped to develop a Marathi-version of this kit for rural science camps, reaching out to 7000 – 10,000 children across Maharashtra. Meanwhile, Bhattacharya also started a facebook page of his science cafe and is the online face of the program, providing latest event updates and connecting almost 7000 people per week.
Through various outreach programs – in and outside Mumbai, Bhattacharya and his team convey science to over 18,000 people every year. If the enthusiasm of one scientist can extend to so many, imagine the possibilities if science outreach were an integral part of all research institutions.
Outreach by scientific institutions: Vast untapped potential
In 2008, a dedicated group of scientists from the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), Pune, and Indian Institute of Science Education and Research – Pune (IISER-P), came together as the Exciting Science Group (ESG). They have organized many outreach activities with local schools and for the general audience. Such as popular science talks, hands-on workshops, science clubs, competitions, and even summer internships for selected high school students from public schools. In the last financial year alone, the group managed to clock over 10,000 hours of intense student-scientist interactions.
But such hours are not accounted for in the academic careers of scientists. Even today, Indian scientists can carry out outreach only in their spare time, outside their academic boundaries. They often deal with more pressure than usual to fulfil their academic and research commitments on time.
Scientific institutions hold immense power to ease this pressure, and to have a higher impact on outreach while increasing their own visibility.
Institutions should look into interesting ways to disseminate science to the public
One way forward is to set up outreach cells that help scientists within the institute to connect with society at large. These cells could ideate, organize and fund various outreach activities, and perhaps track their impact too. Rajni Kumar from Michigan State University talks about one such cell, “We have the BEACON center dedicated for science outreach. They provide grants and we postdocs are taking the initiative to apply for one and arrange an event in Summer 2017.” BEACON, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is a collaborative centre shared by 5 universities across USA to fund interdisciplinary research as well as outreach on evolution studies.
Institutes could also participate in global campaigns initiated or supported by professional science societies. For example, the Society for Neuroscience supports the global Brain Awareness Campaign, funding a wide range of outreach activities to bring together experts and local communities on concepts and research pertaining to the human brain. Neha Budha is a postdoctoral researcher at Universite de Montreal, Canada – an active participating institution of this campaign. “Many PhD and postdoc students go to schools to give demos/lectures to students at primary and secondary level. There are also student mentor programs where interested researchers can mentor one school student each in their labs, ” she says, highlighting how such outreach events become a part of the researchers’ professional records itself.
Such ideas can be implemented if there are sufficient funds allocated for science outreach. For example, TIFR covers basic travel and logistics expenses for their Chai and Why? series and school outreach events, but has only one full-time support staff dedicated for outreach. The ESG group, incubated as a joint NCL-IISER venture, is also supported by private donors to cover all their non-profit outreach activities. More funds need to be allocated or generated for outreach at the institutional level.
With more dedicated funds, universities can design unique ways to encourage science communication – host science competitions, combine art and science, and even conduct courses in science communication.
Some of the best science journalism courses offered in USA are by institutions very active in scientific research – such as MIT, University of Southern California, Northwestern University and others. Scientific institutions have the advantage of designing courses that offer real time access to state-of-the-art laboratories and cutting edge research. Training responsible science communicators would fill a huge gap in the Indian journalistic landscape.
Bodystorming: When thought and movement combine
Art-science collaborations are steadily becoming popular in the West. Scientists actively work with artists/art studios to discuss the big questions under investigation, while artists probe them with fundamental questions to understand and create new ways to depict scientific ideas. The result is often an astounding piece of interdisciplinary art for the lay audience. For the participating scientists, it often gives them a refreshing perspective on their own work. In the summer of 2015, National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, boldly hosted one such collaboration with the Black Label Movement (BLM) dance company.
Through this collaboration, NCBS hosted a 10-day intensive workshop for selected Indian dancers and scientists, to understand and depict biological processes through movements. Known as the Bodystorming Workshop, it essentially got artists and scientists interacting with each other to define simple movement rules that can simulate cellular science. Darius Koester, a post-doctoral researcher at NCBS and a contemporary dancer, recalls, “The first barrier was in explaining the research. We had to break down complex ideas to simple truths. The second barrier was to understand what kind of movements are possible.”
But once these barriers were broken, the collective process enriched all the participants. Dancers developed new choreography based on scientific prototype movements that evolved through bodystorming. The movements also opened scientists’ minds as they physically played out scientific concepts. Koester gives an example of one participating scientist who was investigating protein disentanglement within a confined (cellular) space, “He got a new perspective through the workshop and added a new movement in his simulation studies.”
This collaborative exercise culminated on 2nd May 2015 at National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bangalore. Participating dancers from the workshop and BLM publicly performed their lessons from Bodystorming. It was a unique piece of performing art that grew from science – an inspiration to universities which house both science and art departments. Clearly, such joint activities can generate public awareness about both art and science, as well as increase the visibility of university research.
The Bodystorming model can be adapted to science collaborations with other art forms as well. Around the world, there are many inspiring examples – biologists, computer scientists and designers working together to visualise complex biological data; and bioinformatics experts drawing ideas from civil engineering charts to understand cell biology. A recent article in the esteemed research journal Nature, highlighted various art-science collaborations and listed ways in which scientists could attempt them.
Include outreach within academic culture: Towards a knowledge society
If we had to identify three key steps to achieve this goal, what would they be? Prof. Arnab Bhattacharya, scientist and chair of Science Popularization and Public Outreach programme at TIFR, suggests changes along the entire academic path, starting from the source, “Outreach needs to be a part of review criteria for research grants.”
This suggestion springs from the United Kingdom (UK) success story. In 2006, the Warry Report re-defined research ‘impact’, including outreach and public engagement as part of its metrics. Building on its recommendations, UK higher education and research funding councils came together to start a 4-year pilot project to include public engagement within academia. They identified 6 universities as collaborative centres, branded as Beacons for Public Engagement (BPE), and established a nodal co-ordinating agency – the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). Through these centres, they defined and demonstrated public engagement in various research projects.
Ten years later, public engagement as ‘pathway to impact’ is an essential component of research grants in UK today. Many universities are also investing in their own outreach ideas and programs. These changes were motivated by the impact of BPE pilot project, which enriched research as well as local communities – from increased involvement in policy-making to higher education access. Indian research funding agencies have a long way to go, to recognize and implement these changes. As conscientious members of society, it is our duty to ask for these measures.
“Demanding this be done is important, it cannot be optional,” stresses Bhattacharya, “initially, there might be some resistance to this additional requirement in research proposals, but slowly change will happen.”
The second key step suggested is at the institutional level – to set a reward system for scientists engaged in public outreach. Defining academic incentives for scientists who spend their valuable time on outreach would be the first step towards recognizing and encouraging their efforts. To start with, research institutes could include these factors as a part of their hiring and promotion norms. This is a simple step that can be implemented without an increase in logistics or funding. It would boost scientists towards carving out time for public engagement and encouraging their students to participate in the efforts.
Finally, the third key suggestion is directed to all practising scientists and researchers – to open their lab to the public at least once a year, if not more often. Effective outreach or public engagement is a two-way communication between scientists and the public, which cannot be done merely through university press releases or laboratory websites. “We need to increase avenues for interaction,” he says, “it can be done through so many ways – lab tours and demos to school children, bring your kid to work day, go to schools for talks and demos, have interactions with artists & other creative people, etc.”
Ultimately, change in academia begins with every academic. Scientists can slowly ramp up their interaction with public – first through social media & online discussions, and then eventually interacting with them live through public lectures, demos, events and science cafes. They can also encourage young students from their lab to participate in outreach events and competitions, share their work on social media, and engage with public to clarify scientific concepts. Institutions can pitch in by supporting proactive scientists academically and logistically. Policy makers can seek joint participation of scientists and the public on various issues, as well as introduce systemic changes that enable interaction between them.
What can the public do? We can demand these changes. We can volunteer to host or assist science cafes in our local neighbourhood. We can attend talks by scientific experts and ask questions. We can demand that media provide proof and references from experts on all their science news. We can open our eyes to scientists as who they truly are, and understand their challenges, instead of perceiving them as their stereotypical caricatures in fiction.
Science and society can no longer remain strangers. It is time to reach out to one another and forge a powerful knowledge society.