‘Whatever makes profit is a beat, what doesn’t, isn’t a beat in our newsrooms’– Subhra
By Gobinda Parasad Pokharel
Subhra Priyadarshini, Mentor, Himalayan Climate Boot camp 2022.
Subhra Priyadarshini is a science journalist of over 25 years and the Chief Editor of Nature India. She has worked as a journalist with major Indian dailies, India’s leading news agency Press Trust of India and Down To Earth magazine.
Subhra is inaugural President of Science Journalists Association of India (SJAI), a member association of World Federation of Science Journalists(WFSJ), which aims to widen the impact of science journalism in India. As one of the mentors, she recently participated in the Himalayan Climate Boot Camp 2022 (HCBC2022), funded by the Spark Grant Initiative of WFSJ.
She shares her thoughts on the trends of science journalism in Nepal and South Asia with Nepalese Science Journalist Gobinda Prasad Pokharel.
Gobinda: What kind of stories did you cover in the beginning of your science journalism career?
Subhra: My boss Dr K. S. Jayaraman always advised me to follow basic research. He said science does not always have a breakthrough or an immediate application for society, things do not happen like that. Science is very incremental in nature and proceeds on low pace. So we must, as journalists, record that slow process of science and chronicle its evolution alongside other journalistic scrutiny.
Jayaraman, a nuclear physicist himself, insisted on giving due importance to basic research, whether it was in physics, chemistry or biology. Whenever there is a breakthrough, there is of course a big story. But even the small stories in science, if told well, can be great. And, people must be told those stories. That is how you build an audience which primes up to small increments in science. Otherwise everybody will expect big bang science stories in the papers everyday but that does not happen.
Gobinda: How do you see the transformation of science journalism in the last two decades?
Subhra: The early days of science journalism were all about curiosity, about the excitement of science, about small and big discoveries and the wonder of science. Slowly, it got a place where we utilized science as a tool to tell investigative journalistic science pieces, using science to scrutinize issues and unravelling truths.
And now science journalists and scientists use journalism to question authorities, or to tell truth to the power. So, there’s a range of stories you can tell with science journalism. Meanwhile, the form and content of storytelling has also changed drastically. Whereas I think that the old-style, long form journalism still has its charm, the new and emerging techniques of storytelling are immersive and take the audience on a journey – that is great too.
Gobinda: Is it necessary to be a student of science to become a science journalist?
Subhra: That’s a great a question. Though it helps to have some idea of how science is done, I do not think that it is mandatory to have a science degree. Some of the best science journalists have come from non-science backgrounds. What is necessary is to have some basic idea of science concepts, a flair for sifting through technical language and be able to explain it to your audiences, and most importantly, knowing where to get what. You may not be an expert in every discipline you cover but you must know who to contact to understand the subject, or who can explain it best to you.
Gobinda: Let’s talk of South Asian newsrooms. Why is science journalism still not considered mainstream?
Subhra: You are right, though it is not just a phenomenon in South Asia, I would say. Globally, very few organizations or media houses give importance to the need for covering science. As you would know, the media landscape is a very fragile and fragmented one the world over. Whatever makes profit is a beat and what does not is not a beat in our newsrooms – this applies to beats like environment and science. It is not a revenue drawer for media houses.
So, whatever little has been done over the years, with people like us pushing for it, is visible in a handful of media houses employing full time science journalists. First generation environment and science journalists have been trying to push for change and trying to create these beats in newsrooms for a long time.
In South Asia the problem is particularly acute because of lack of investments in or allocations to science per se. When there is not much investment in science and technology by the government or private bodies, it reflects in the advertising capacity. And that reflects in the investments in science journalism as well.
If you do not have any funding in these areas, you are not able to support either independent science journalism or make an editorial case in the newsroom. If there were funders who would say “I am willing to invest in science journalism in South Asia”, I don’t see why there would be lack of avenues for this important beat of journalism.
Just like we saw the example of the recent Everest Boot Camp, where the World Federation of Science Journalists provided funding, and we were able to bring in 8 science journalists from across South Asia to the Everest region, from where reporting is scant. These kinds of small pockets of brilliance, small projects exist, but overall efforts to boost science journalism are still lacking.
Gobinda: You just mentioned funding in science. South Asia has done a lot in space exploration, touching Mars and Moon. The region seems to have invested more in space science than, say, European nations. Isn’t this contradictory?
Subhra: There is a small difference here, we are talking about technology. Space programmes are primarily in the domain of technology. You’ll see that there hasn’t been an astronomical change in space technology in the past decades. While that is all well placed and fine, science is different. Funding for basic research and research with industrial or societal applications is still very low in South Asian countries.
Research in the global south also needs to support the immediate grand challenges that the people in this region face. For instance, agricultural research, water and energy, climate change adaptation research – these might be critical for us. So this debate has always been there about how much investment we should make in astronomy and astrophysics and big bang science.
I have always maintained that these two strands are separate and governments and policy makers must look at it like that. They should not confuse technology with science.
Gobinda: Why do you think political parties and leaders in the global south never give priority to Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in their manifestos?
Subhra: In the countries of the global south, it is always a difficult proposition. Almost like a chicken and egg situation. To prioritize science and technology over gripping and urgent issues such as health, education, development etc. So, it really needs visionaries to understand that science and technology can actually be the driver for meeting these ends. And therefore, to invest in socially beneficial science and technology is what governments and policy makers in South Asian countries should focus on – for them it kills two birds with the same stone.
Another issue is of prioritizing where to use the funds. For example, if Nepal allocates 11 to 12% of its total annual budget to STI, where exactly is it spending that money? Is it actually being spent in strengthening basic and translatable research or is it being used for building infrastructure or recruiting faculty? This is a very, very important question to ask the policy makers. I know that in Nepal, for instance, much of the recent S&T budget is going into infrastructure.
Billions are going into constructing buildings, museums, science parks. While these are all excellent intentions, this comes in the second phase of any country’s progress in S & T. You should have beautiful museums and infrastructure, but what will you showcase in them if your basic research is not that strong?
So to my mind, for countries in South Asia – so rich in natural resources and housing global biodiversity hotspots – it would be worth creating strong frameworks to support basic research that spans the broad areas of environment, climate resilience, health and agriculture.
We have massive problems in health infrastructure and delivery. Our countries have brilliant brains but not enough of an ecosystem to harness our scientific acumen. Less than 1% of GDP allocated to S&T will not be able to unlock that potential. That also needs very, very serious thought and visionaries to change the status quo.
So we need scientists in policy making bodies, in politics, in our political parties to come forward and say these things. Otherwise change will be difficult. Nepal is flanked by India and China, which gives the country the opportunity of collaborative scientific research, especially in the common interest areas like climate change. It would be worth turning that opportunity into an advantage.
Whatever makes profit is a beat and what does not is not a beat in our newsrooms – this applies to beats like environment and science. It is not a revenue drawer for media houses. ~ Subhra
Gobinda: Is there a gap in our politicians’ understanding of science?
Subhra: As I said, unless you have more scientists in political ranks, it will be difficult to sensitize political leaders and parties. The grammar of science is very different from the grammar of politics. Political parties may just be using S&T to glamourize their manifestos without much understanding of the subject. More scientists in the policy making bodies could help them understand how science is done, how much time science takes to materialize and what the role of science could be in changing societies.
At the risk of generalizing, let’s just say for a politician with little understanding of the science ecosystem, STI could mean an aeroplane or a rocket, switching on a light bulb or having hot water flow out of the taps. But the rigours of science lie in the lab. If we can take our politicians into the labs and make them see how science is done, what the process of science is, why scientists work on a small thing for years and write manuscripts, what goes into defining a basic science question, we would sensitise them better.
Unless we convey the grammar of science to politicians, this situation won’t change. Better manifestos will be written if scientists are consulted over the gripping issues that science can provide solutions to, the areas of science that are important to Nepal and which research should get what kind of funding.
Gobinda: You closely watch the global science and science journalism scenario. How do you see its development in Nepal?
Subhra: I should not claim to be an expert either in Nepal’s science or its science journalism. I just look at it from a distance and obviously, you will have more insight than me. From a distance what I see is Nepal has an immense opportunity to create a centre of excellence around Mount Everest. When you say Nepal to a global audience, everybody says, “Wow, Nepal, the land of Everest, the land of beautiful people, the land of spirituality.”
Nepal has a brilliant mountain topography, some of the world’s highest peaks, and some excellent scientists working on various aspects of this unique landscape. So how about making use of these scientists to create a global centre of excellence focused on the roof of the world? Just like the Pyramid lab– a global go-to centre of Everest and high mountain research so that scientists anywhere in the world can refer to work done here. There could be similar centres in the other biodiversity hotspots of Nepal.
Gobinda: What is the role of science journalists in exploring these issues?
The hard work of scientists would remain confined to manuscripts in science journals if not for science journalists. Nepali science journalism is yet to create that space, that buzz about science in its mainstream media. Science journalists in Nepal not only need to spread the word about Nepal’s science to the Nepali people and beyond its borders, but also raise critical questions about the state of science and research in the country. Collaborative projects with journalists in other South Asian countries would also bring the issues of Nepal to a global audience.
Gobinda: Brain drain is a grim reality in South Asia. What do you think?
Subhra: It is a huge issue for India too. The reason that some brilliant scientists still work in the country despite better offers from the US, UK or Europe is because of family reasons, because they do not want to leave their families and go to a foreign land. Apart from that, the pay or the culture of doing science is not comparable. For research scholars, the funding, scholarships and grants do not come in time. Getting basic infrastructure and equipment in the labs is a challenge. There are issues of poor academic culture and mentorship. In the absence of these things, brain drain is inevitable.
In recent times, the Indian government is trying a lot through various lucrative offers to get its good scientists back though.
Gobinda: What are the challenges and opportunities for science journalists in South Asia?
Subhra: We live in countries where the lion’s share of science is done by the government. There is very less private funding in science. For the same reason, independent science journalism is difficult to fund and sustain.
Governments are also not forthcoming with data as that might show them in bad light sometimes. So finding data is a challenge many times and, in turn, making governments accountable too. Reaching scientists in some government organisations is difficult since they need permissions to talk to the media, which could take days to come, making it difficult for science journalists on deadlines.
The other big challenge for science journalists is that there is no culture of science journalism in our newsrooms. It is many times tough to convince editors that science is an important beat, only a fewer editors give priority to science.
The opportunities, therefore, are immense. Science journalists from Asia are writing for global media houses and bringing many burning issues to global attention. Right now, the global south has the most important stories of sciences to tell – be it in climate change or health.
Linking science and society and telling human stories through the lens of science presents a global opportunity. In the past, many science stories from the global south have been told with a foreign eye by visiting journalists who may not have the same perspective as local journalists. It is also time for science journalists in these parts to own the narrative and present first-hand accounts of stories from South Asia.