Most Indian scientists working in the anonymity of their labs or research institutes seldom make news even if they achieve a vital breakthrough or invent something new. Their discoveries and insights go unreported, while those of their counterparts in the West are regularly highlighted and showcased by our own print and electronic media.
Unwittingly, the biggest impediments to a good story or their adequate representation in our news columns are the state-run scientific institutions and bodies themselves. There may be honourable exceptions, but most of them act like administrative officers, mired in suspicion and wary of sharing details about their research, believing that it would somehow undervalue their work or help rivals outsmart them.
In this connection, this writer’s experiences as a science editor have been far from encouraging. In most cases, researchers don’t respond to phone calls or e-mails. Even if they do, their repeated acts of omission and commission and lack of transparency are enough to discourage the journalist from his pursuit of highlighting something significant or worthwhile.
Regrettably, many potentially good or relevant stories might have to be abandoned because of this unwritten code of secrecy. Practical difficulty in pursuit of such stories cannot be minimised. Placing something in the public domain through the press ensures that it stays in circulation for follow up or implementation.
This writer recalls that when he joined Indo-Asian News Service more than three years ago, he had requested the faculty and PR heads of all the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to share new researches and discoveries. They neither responded to his e-mails nor phone calls. Repeating the process at weekly intervals failed to yield results, compelling him to give up what could have been a shining example of science-media cooperation.
For instance, how the recent report ‘Increasing pollution levels choking India’s lakes’ came to be written makes for an interesting story. It first appeared as a press release in a reputed American website, a rather generalised and sketchy version, couched in jargon and attributed to a nameless Indian environmental chemist! Sensing a good story, this writer carried out a dozen searches on the net, finally tracing the report to a Mumbai college-based author.
Trying to contact the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in Kolkata for additional inputs on a proposed underground lab turned out to be a futile exercise. The dozen STD calls made to the institute went practically unanswered. At long last, someone advised him to contact the project head on his e-mail id since he happened to be out of town. No, he could not say when the faculty head would be back. The writer sent several e-mails to the person, but in vain.
Central government research establishments are a shade worse. Queried about information on the New Delhi superbug, the staff from the infectious disease institute concerned said he was not authorised to speak to the press and that the expert who could answer specific questions was busy elsewhere. Could the writer despatch the draft of the news story to them, so that they could judge its merit and then choose to answer him’ That is how the matter ended.
Even after the publication of their discovery in the print media, some scientists are reluctant to share additional information. For instance, a research institute run by a religious mission had isolated a fungus that would withstand temperatures of 100 degrees Celsius. Surprisingly, the Chennai-based researcher stonewalled queries about specific details regarding the fungus!
Some who don’t mind sharing the fruits of their research offer only a sketchy or a truncated version, compounding the task of science editors. Or plead for more time to provide additional details, which is a polite way of suggesting that enough is enough.
The base material for ‘Yoga effective in treating psychiatric disorders’, provided by a medical scientist at Nimhans, Bangalore, was good only for writing a few paragraphs, not a proper report. His clinical reports on yoga had to be dredged up from other websites in a time-consuming exercise to put together a credible story.
(29.10.2011 – Shudip Talukdar can be contacted at email@example.com. The views expressed are personal)