Accessing scientific research and persuading editors to publish stories are some of the issues facing Indian science journalists, says Pallava Bagla.
India's science journalists should feel lucky. Science has long been a political priority in modern India: according to some estimates, the country now possesses perhaps the third largest pool of research and development personnel in the world. Furthermore, in recent years, government spending on R&D has been increasing steadily. Not bad for a country teeming with so much poverty and unemployment.
And these increases are set to continue. Today, India's spending on R&D is just under one per cent of the gross national product. But the government wants to raise it to about two per cent over the next three years, which would mean a huge inflow of funds for the sector.
All this should be music to the ears of science communicators. But the tune is not, perhaps, what they expected to hear. For a large proportion of India's investment in research is spent on ‘secret' science — for example, that carried out for military purposes — that is not usually laid bare to the prying eyes of a news correspondent.
In India, most investment in R&D goes into three strategic government departments: the Defense Research and Development Organization, the Department of Atomic Energy and the Department of Space. Access to science for journalists in each of these areas is closely guarded, and often difficult to obtain. Civilian science, in contrast, lingers in the background: for example, defense research was allocated about US$400 million in the budget for 2001, in contrast to the relatively fashionable area of biotechnology, which only received about US$25 million.
This imbalance does not mean that politicians are deaf to civilian scientists. Rather, it indicates that the security requirements of the region tend to favour scientists engaged in secret research aimed at establishing military superiority.
Given that, however, Indian scientists today have little to complain about. Their voice can be heard at the highest levels of policymaking, not least because physicist Murli Manohar Joshi, the current science minister, is a member of the cabinet. Furthermore, although the US$2.8 billion India spends on R&D every year may look small compared to the research budgets of many developed countries, the Indian rupee can take you a long way, as the cost of living is so much lower than in the United States and Europe. So on balance, these really are promising times for Indian science – and, potentially, for Indian science journalism.
Newsprint galore – but where's the science?
In assessing future prospects for our profession, it is also important to look at the other side — the media industry, as this is where our work has to appear. The first thing to recognise is that India has a vibrant and fully independent system of private newspapers and television networks.
According to one authoritative guide, the Manorama Yearbook, at the end of 1997 the country had 4719 daily newspapers, 14,743 weekly news magazines, and 11,505 monthly periodicals. There are more than ten national English language dailies — and about a dozen national 24-hour news channels. Apart from those appearing in English and 18 principal official languages listed in the Indian Constitution, newspapers are published in 81 other languages, including both dialects and foreign languages.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the actual coverage of science and technology stories in the national and local media is tiny compared to that given to, say, political stories. According to one recent study, only about one per cent of the news space in India's newspapers is devoted to science-related topics. Furthermore, although most newspapers used to have science supplements — or at least weekly pages devoted to science topics — almost all have now closed, and most newspaper organisations have dropped their specialist science reporters. Similarly, no news channel has specialist reporters in this field.
The enthusiasm for political stories in the Indian media appears to reflect the fact that, being the inhabitants of the world's largest democracy, Indians are happy to express the freedom of speech enshrined in their constitution. But how is one to read the absence of science news? It would be naïve to argue that people don't read or watch stories about science and technology because they are not interested. They are; but there are many other barriers to providing high-quality science coverage in the mainstream Indian media.
Hurdles in the laboratories
Some of these hurdles are generated by the scientific community itself. While India has made huge investments in science and technology, 'newsworthy' science events remain few and far between. Even when researchers produce exciting results, most of their work is published in Western journals, and for most science reporters these are out of reach. Conversely, research results published in Indian journals are seldom considered sufficiently significant to be reported, even by Indian editors.
Few scientists make much of an effort to change this situation. Most treat the media as a necessary evil that occasionally creeps into their workspace, intruding into their great work (a reaction which I have often felt is used to mask their inability to communicate the content and importance of their work to a popular audience).
Admittedly, most laboratories publish newsletters about their activities. In principle, these could be tremendously effective — if effective communication to the outside world was a principal goal. But in practice, these newsletters are seldom of much value to journalists, focusing on transfers, retirements and promotions, with little coverage of the science actually carried out within the institution.
Public affairs officers are frequently helpful. Most have to spend much of their time clipping large numbers of daily newspapers and trying to give a positive spin to what most journalists and editors would consider non-events. And — perhaps surprisingly — the use of email and the Internet to communicate information to journalists remains minimal in India. Printed press releases and faxes remain most public relations officers' preferred mode of communication.
An even greater challenge to science journalists is reporting on the research carried out in private laboratories and the corporate sector. Over many years of science writing, I have found cutting through the corporate veil to be the most difficult challenge I have had to face. The private sector always wants coverage — but only on their own terms. Thankfully, this doesn't take up a large amount of a science journalist's time in India, as most companies only invest relatively small sums in research. But this is likely to change in the years ahead, building on the large-scale privatisation that India has gone through over the past decade.
Reporting on publicly funded science is a different issue. The government is often as keen as the private sector to hide much of its research results. But the bureaucracy leaks so much that getting access to good information is relatively easy — at least, compared to attempting to scale the protective barriers put up by the corporate sector.
Sharing out the blame
It would, of course, be wrong to suggest that all the blame lies on the other side of the table. If you were to ask why science coverage is so poor in the Indian media, the answer may not lie with the powers that be in science and technology, but with the media itself.
Most editors are not bold enough to put science and technology stories on the front pages of newspapers or news magazines. Science is considered a 'soft' topic that does not boost sales. I have been fortunate in that my editor at The Indian Express is an engineer by training, and thus is very receptive to good science and technology stories.
So personally, I have little to complain about. But it remains true that, in many Indian newspapers and magazines, the experience of reporters is that science is never deemed 'hot' by the top editors, and science stories — however good — often get killed as a result.
Sometimes the reporters themselves must share some of the blame. Many reporters on national newspapers are unable to write about science in a language that can be understood by all, while also being sufficiently readable to compete with political, business and cinema stories.
The problem is a deep-rooted one. Most reporters in this field have never received any formal training in science writing. They usually have to cover unrelated beats as well, leaving them little time to follow up good science stories that may be waiting to be broken. Furthermore, almost every competent journalist wants to 'graduate' to political reporting, as that is where most high-profile, and often financially rewarding, opportunities lie. This usually leaves science reporting in the hands of young and relatively inexperienced reporters.
Making science both comprehensible and readable is not the only challenge faced by a science journalist competing for newspaper exposure. There is always the problem of illustrations. A first-class story can easily end up buried on page five if the right illustration — which usually means an attractive colour photograph — is not available in time. Taking good photos of scientific subjects is not difficult. But most newspapers are reluctant to allow staff photographers to accompany reporters covering a science story. Other priorities always seem to come first.
Is there hope?
There is hope — and plenty of it. As an increasing number of media outlets compete with each other to carve out a niche for themselves, many are coming to realise that viewers and readers have a great appetite for well-written science news stories and features. In addition, the Internet has opened up a new way of exchanging and storing information that is only just beginning to be tapped by reporters covering scientific developments in remote parts of the world. So the opportunities and resources are there. It is up to India's journalists to rise to the challenge — and the scientific community to realise that it's in its interests to help them do so.
Pallava Bagla is the India Correspondent for Science, and S&T Consultant for the Indian Express
This article is an edited version of a paper presented at the Conference on Science and the News Media, Tobago, 25–28 February 2002, which was co-organised by SciDev.Net, the InterAcademy Panel, and the Caribbean Academy of Sciences.
It was previously part of SciDev.Net's e-guide to science communication and has been reformatted to become this opinion.