Why Independent Media is Essential to Good Science Journalism

The ideal of ‘speaking truth to power’ that sections of the media cherish is preceded for science journalism in India by the ideals of ‘speaking’ first and then ‘speaking truth’ second.

Eggheads, assemble! Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgharia (science)

Eggheads, assemble! Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgharia

What was 2016 like in science? Furious googling will give you the details you need to come to the clinical conclusion that it wasn’t so bad. After all, LIGO found gravitational waves; an Ebola vaccine was readied; ISRO began tests of its reusable launch vehicle; the LHC amassed particle collisions data; the Philae comet-hopping mission ended; New Horizons zipped past Pluto; Juno is zipping around Jupiter; scientists did amazing (but sometimes ethically questionable) things with CRISPR; etc. But if you’ve been reading science articles throughout the year, then please take a step back from everything and think about what your overall mood is like.

Because, just as easily as 2016 was about mega-science projects doing amazing things, it was also about climate-change action taking a step forward but not enough; about scientific communities becoming fragmented; about mainstream scientific wisdom becoming entirely sidelined in some parts of the world; about crucial environmental protections being eroded; about – undeniably – questionable practices receiving protection under the emotional cover of nationalism. As a result, and as always, it is difficult to capture what this year was to science in a single mood, unless that mood in turn captures anger, dismay, elation and bewilderment at various times.

So, to simplify our exercise, let’s do that furious googling – and then perform a meta-analysis to reflect on where each of us sees fit to stand with respect to what the Indian scientific enterprise has been up to this year. (Note: I’m hoping this exercise can also be a referendum on the type of science news The Wire chose to cover this year, and how that can be improved in 2017.) The three broad categories (and sub-categories) of stories that The Wire covered this year are:

I leave it to you to weigh each of these types of stories as you see fit. For me – as a journalist – science in the year 2016 was defined by two parallel narratives: first, science coverage in the mainstream media did not improve; second, the mainstream media in many instances remained obediently uncritical of the government’s many dubious claims. As a result, it was heartening on the first count to see ‘alternative’ publications like The Life of Science and The Intersection being set up or sustained (as the case may be).

On the latter count: the media’s submission paralleled, rather directly followed, its capitulation to pro-government interests (although some publications still held out). This is problematic for various reasons, but one that is often overlooked is that the “counterproductive continuity” that right-wing groups stress upon – between traditional wisdom and knowledge derived through modern modes of investigation – receives nothing short of a passive endorsement by uncritical media broadcasts.

the-wire-new-logo-2016From within The Wire, doing a good job of covering science has become a battle for relevance as a result. And this is a many-faceted problem: it’s as big a deal for a science journalist to come upon and then report a significant story as finding the story itself in the first place – and it’s as difficult to get every scientist you meet to trust you as it is to convince every reader who visits The Wire to read an article or two in the science section per visit. Fortunately (though let it not be said that this is simply a case of material fortunes), the ‘Science’ section on The Wire has enjoyed both emotional and financial support. To show for it, we have had the privilege of overseeing the publication of 830 articles, and counting, in 2016 (across science, health, environment, energy, space and tech). And I hope those who have written for this section will continue to write for it, even as those who have been reading this section will continue to read it.

Because it is a battle for relevance – a fight to be noticed and to be read, even when stories have nothing to do with national interests or immediate economic gains – the ideal of ‘speaking truth to power’ that other like-minded sections of the media cherish is preceded for science journalism in India by the ideals of ‘speaking’ first and then ‘speaking truth’ second. This is why an empowered media is as essential to the revival of that constitutionally enshrined scientific temperament as are productive scientists and scientific institutions.

The Wire‘s journalists have spent thousands of hours this year striving to be factually correct. The science writers and editors have also been especially conscientious of receiving feedback at all stages, engaging in conversations with our readers and taking prompt corrective action when necessary – even if that means a retraction. This will continue to be the case in 2017 as well in recognition of the fact that the elevation of Indian science on the global stage, long hailed to be overdue, will directly follow from empowering our readers to ask the right questions and be reasonably critical of all claims at all times, no matter who the maker.

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  • Prashanth

    Nicely written article, very bold and quite smart way of looking at science in India. Additionally, I take this opportunity to congratulate the wire for bringing in the science section and I personally have enjoyed reading a lot of the articles. May I take this opportunity to highlight some key points of Indian science and what the wire can do better in 2017.

    1. The wire lays a lot of emphasis on Indian science and science performed by Indians. It is understandable because the majority of the readers of the wire are Indians and lack of a proper science magazine in India necessitates the need for this emphasis. However, science is science no matter where it is done and who does it. Let us see this way. The wire is an online magazine, which brings out the best in science and not just in Indian science. My only complain is that the emphasis on India can be toned down a bit. I may be hopelessly wrong in this. Forgive me.

    2. The wire has managed to get articles from Indian scientists. This is good. When it comes to being critical of Indian science, very few scientists highlight what is ailing science in India. This is simply because of the lack of independence of these institutes. The institutes are subservient to the government. An honest criticism is often not done. It can lead to real troubles for the scientists. Can the wire bring more articles from people like P M Bhargava (scientists who are retired, bold and have nothing to lose). For instance, it can make a huge difference if big names in science like CNR Rao, K Vijayraghavan, P Balaram, Prof. Lakhotia, MRS Rao, Satyajit Mayor and so on and so forth criticise the anti diabetic drug BGR-34.

    3. Funding for science is a real problem in India. After May 2014, this has become more acute and is killing science in India. Cutting down CSIR funding by 50% and stopping of schemes like the Faculty Recharge Programme are quite serious. The repercussions will be serious and irreversible. I know it is difficult for scientists to speak up on this issue but I hope more and more scientists speak openly and hopefully they choose wire for this.

    4. The research in universities is ailing and this is where research needs to be improved. In universities, teaching and research should go hand in hand. We have a situation where good research is done in isolated institutes and good science teaching is done in universities. Very few people highlight this. More articles on this issue would be good.

    5. Does wire have any plans to publish these articles in vernacular languages? This can be a real big step towards exposing a large number of Indians to good science articles.