In the second of our five features celebrating Ada Lovelace Day and prominent women in science and technology across the world, we speak to science journalist and Nature India Editor, Subhra Priyadarshini about the new resurgence of Indian science and the role science journalists play in narrating the country’s success stories.
Ada Lovelace Day, marked today across the world, is an annual celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
Subhra Priyadarshini is an award winning science journalist and currently Editor of Nature India, the Nature Publishing Group’s (NPG) India portal. She was a deadline-chasing journalist covering politics and sports, fashion and films, crime and natural disasters in mainstream Indian media for over a dozen years. She finally chose to come back to her first love – science – in 2007 launching Nature India. Subhra has been a correspondent with major Indian dailies The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Asian Age, The Telegraph, news agency Press Trust of India (PTI) and environment fortnightly Down To Earth. She worked briefly for the Observer, London. Priyadarshini received the BBC World Service Trust award for her coverage of the ‘Vanishing islands of Sunderbans’ in the Bay of Bengal in 2006. She received letters of commendation from the PTI for her coverage of the Orissa super cyclone in 1999 and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio’s Hindi science programme ‘Vigyan aur Vikas’ (Science and Development) and taught science communication at University of Calcutta.
The scientific landscape of India is a constantly fascinating and fluctuating one. In a country poised to be a global super power, yet fighting issues of poverty, healthcare and education, Indian science has seen something of a new resurgence over the last decade. Research output and publications have increased significantly and an evolving technology industry has been reaping just rewards. And yet for all these exciting developments, in a country where more than 1.2 billion people live, there has until recent years been one fairly absent protagonist: the media.
When Subhra Priyadarshini, who started Nature India in 2006, first specialised in science journalism after nearly 10 years covering everything from economics to sport, she found there were certain challenges to getting science on the news agenda. “In the early 2000s you would be lucky to find a science journalist working on a newspaper or magazine in India. You had to be a generalist and would find yourself one day covering Bollywood and the next looking at financial markets,” says Priyadarshini, who has worked at the Times of India, The Asian Age and the Press Trust of India, among others. “Science was always my first love and I used to get the kind of fulfilment from a science story that I would not get from say a political reportage.”
Priyadarshini is still today only one of a small handful of science journalists in India who are helping to narrate the ever evolving stories of Indian science. She believes many more science stories are now starting to be reported in the mainstream media, a distant reality when she first started specialising in 2000. “Scientific stories that were not popular interest ten years ago are now starting to creep into mainstream media and basic science research is getting more in-depth coverage,” Priyadarshini says. She cites new genomes being mapped or a new nanomaterial with applications in a variety of themes as the types of stories that are now starting to garner media coverage.
“Despite the phenomenal growth of science and technology in India, science journalism remains fairly scarce by proportion. This is represented in the number of science journalists in India – which you could count on your fingertips,” observes Priyadarshini. Blessed with an editor who had a scientific temperament and could see the merit of scientific storytelling, she would, like any other journalist, pitch the importance of new scientific findings and the associated socio-economic implications and challenges.
“One thing worked in my favour and that was to write in a manner where the story would not just involve the science, but also the wider aspects of social, economic and political issues. Weaving as many aspects as possible into the coverage often gave me a channel to get my stories across, particularly at the Press Trust of India.”
A factor Priyadarshini believes has to some extent thwarted journalistic efforts to report research in the past lies in the traditional bureaucratic set up of Indian science. She recalls many tales of scientists who were reluctant to speak in the open, in many cases requiring prior approval from the donor agency before talking to the media.
However attitudes are changing across the country as an increasing number of authors from India are getting recognised in major science journals. Priyadarshini attributes this to a “realisation and a willingness to open up as a country” in what she calls “boom time” for Indian science.
“India is now transitioning from a developing country into an emerging economic superpower and as a result many areas of development, including science, are catching up quickly,” she asserts. As the editor of Nature India, the first ever media platform in the country to cover science from the scientists’ perspective, as well as the more mainstream science writing perspective, she considers it to be one of the most exciting times in the history of Indian science. “There is a new resurgence and even though funding for science and technology has stagnated around 1% of GDP, many of the administrators managing key science funds in India have left and scientists taken over their roles. This has been a major benefit to fund allocation.”
Since starting Nature India in 2007, Priyadarshini has reported on many different trends in Indian science. She states that statistics for women in science in India are fairly in line with global figures. “In India 44% of Bachelor students are female, while 41% get to the Doctoral level. What happens beyond that has not yet been chronicled in India,” says Priyadarshini. “Women researchers in the country tend to work in academic and government sectors while men dominate private sectors, where there are often better salaries and opportunities for advancement. It is very much aligned with global trends.”
However one trend that has become most noticeable in recent years is the number of foreign scientists trickling in to work in Indian laboratories. The Indian government has made great efforts to encourage the induction of scientists from abroad in elite institutions, in a move expected to improve not just the quality of science in India, but make Indian science internationally visible. Fellowships, short-term assignments and bilateral programmes have all come into fruition at institutions, but numbers suggesting a trend are hard to come by.
“Many researchers are enticed by the unique and rich culture and landscape of India. I’ve seen a definite increase in foreign scientists present in Indian laboratories and it is true that many come for research in specific fields that are big here, such as the study of forest fires,” notes Priyadarshini.
World news agenda
As the sole editor and reporter at Nature India, Priyadarshini’s days can be very varied whether she is commissioning articles, editing pieces, looking for Indian research highlights or covering conferences. Last month, she was one of only five journalists from across the world hand-picked to attend the Kavli Prize in Norway, as well as winning the South Asia Climate change Media Excellence Award earlier this year for Nature India’s in-depth coverage of climate change issues.
In recent weeks Indian science has been put firmly at the centre of the world news agenda becoming the first nation to successfully enter Mars’s orbit on its first attempt. The scenes of jubilation as scientists and engineers at the Indian Space Research Organisation cheered and embraced each other touched the hearts of millions across the world. Priyadarshini concludes: “We are witnessing unprecedented levels of growth that are exciting for anyone involved in India science.” Here’s hoping the media is there to cover the success stories every little bit of the way.