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1
July
2017

Communicating Science and Technology

Learnings from ScienceComm'17 India

Communicating Science and Technology

Yesterday I attended a conference organized by Swissnex India that was hosted at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) at IISc campus in Bangalore. Although the event was focused on science, the theme applies just as well to technology. Being an engineer, I write more about technology than science per se. Nowadays, the boundary between science and technology is fuzzy and the lag between research and commercial application is also shrinking.

The premise is that science is not just for scientists. Everything that's discovered and later applied comes back to affect society and the common man. Genetically modified foods, cancer research, climate change, species extinction and artificial intelligence are just some areas of science that people need to know about, discuss and debate. But science and technology is not written in simple language. Use of technical jargon and dense writing are common traits of scientific writing. It may be understood by the scientific fraternity but not the common man. Worse still, if written by journalists who don't understand science very well, facts can be misrepresented, misquoted and misunderstood. How then can we simplify science for all?

Three things stood out for me and scientists will do well to adopt them when communicating their work to the public:

  1. Tell a Story
    Don't just share the results
  2. Inspire Curiosity & Wonder
    Make people want to know more
  3. Encourage Active Participation
    Involve citizens in scientific research

Tell a Story

Scientists are typically looking for results. When they communicate to the public, they focus on presenting results. If they try to explain the process by which they arrived at these results, this generally takes the form of equations, charts and analysis of preceding literature. They should instead adopt a storytelling approach.

A lay person can get interested only when he/she can relate to it. Stories have this power of transforming hard facts into emotions. A story is also easily remembered. This is why we remember Newton along with the apple; Archimedes along with his naked "Eureka" moment; and Kekule for his vision of a snake devouring its own tail. If scientists have trouble creating a story, they could collaborate with professional writers and journalists. This is exactly what V. S. Ramachandran did when he wrote the book Phantoms in the Brain. He was a neuroscientist but the book was co-authored with Sandra Blakeslee, a science writer with the New York Times.

From the perspective of a story, actors and scenes become easier to understand. Subhra Priyadarshini of Nature India gave a nice formula of three words for science writers: Accuracy, Brevity and Clarity.

Inspire Curiosity & Wonder

Even if stories fail to improve understanding of science, it at least inspires people. Writing about science is not about giving readers all the answers. It's about giving people a wonder of nature and inspiring them to explore it on their own. The very word "science" is "to know." There's no better way than to explore and discover from personal experiences.

It's in this context that Anil Annaiah of Brand Radianz explained the word "Reimagine." Take for example photography. With the prevalence of smartphones, everyone today is an image maker. We have so much technology and tools at our fingertips that creativity and imagination are becoming hard to come by. We therefore have to reimagine everyday objects in new ways for new experiences. Photographs, videos, art installations and music can be effective in showing new perspectives. The idea is not to explain what something is but to get people to ask, "What's that?" or "I wonder what that could be?" When people get curious and start asking questions, we've got a new scientist in the making. V. V. Binoy of IISc put it differently, "When you look at something long enough and it starts to appear strange, you start asking questions."

We were then encouraged to walk around NIAS grounds and look for new perspectives through our smartphones; or make a sketch with crayons and paper.

Encourage Active Participation

V. V. Binoy then led some of us through the process of problem identification and launching a Citizen Science project. I confess this was a new term to me. The intent is to involve citizens to participate in the scientific process. It might be to collect data from the field or to create scientific awareness about a particular topic. This is not as easy as it sounds because the perception of a scientist in rural India is quite distorted. Indian villagers appear to think that a scientist is "someone with a long beard and boiling something." Indian scientists therefore have to do lot more to explain their work to the public before they can even get them to participate.

Yet, there are some success stories. When some villagers in Kerala approached local authorities to release water to their panchayats, their request was rejected. The next time they did this, they went to them with data about water levels in their fields and wells. Farmers had collected this data on a regular basis. Data gave them power to negotiate. In another study, school students are documenting mosquito population in their neighbourhoods and reporting them to researchers. Sometimes when women draw water from deep wells, they encounter a fish species that looks like a snake. They now understand that these are not snakes and quite harmless. They release them back to the wells. This is the kind of transformation that happens at grassroots when people actively participate in the scientific process.

In a different context, S. Anand of Gramener commented how many data analysis tools today are no more than black box models. Clients may find the predictive models useful but because they don't understand them, they don't embrace them wholeheartedly. What we therefore need to provide are two things: visual summaries and interactive controls. Interaction enables clients to explore the output with dials and sliders. They can see first hand what affects what and how. This could also be considered as getting your audience to participate in the scientific process rather than just accept the results.

In fact, science communication has come a long way from the deficit model of the 1980s as explained by Philipp Burkard of Science et Cite. In this model, the experts explained science to lay folks. In the 1990s, the dialogue model was current whereby common folks could give feedback, discuss and debate with the experts. Today's model is called PEST, Public Engagement with Science and Technology. The idea is to get non-experts to engage in the process and share the joy of discovery. As part of this engagement, Philipp added, scientists must listen to feedback, not be arrogant and acknowledge what they don't know.

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About the Author

Arvind Padmanabhan

Arvind Padmanabhan

Arvind Padmanabhan graduated from the National University of Singapore with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. With fifteen years of experience, he has worked extensively on various wireless technologies including DECT, WCDMA, HSPA, WiMAX and LTE. He is passionate about training and is keen to build an R&D ecosystem and culture in India. He recently published a book on the history of digital technology: http://theinfinitebit.wordpress.com.

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