Why boring scientists & conferences are killing Indian science. And how to solve the problem!

For over 10 years I have also led a science company – Atharva Lifesciences – and have been invited to – well – some of the most boring of conferences and speakers. And, I believe, being boring and uncommunicative is probably killing the science industry more than any financial policy.

Most science conferences in India follow a typical pathway. An inauguration – by someone on whom your funding depends on. A Chief Guest – who has passed his prime – but is invited because it gives the conference validity, influences the conference funding or is a valid name for the media reports.

Atharva Lifesciences at various conferences!

And once on the dais or the microphone, each regals in this moment of time when they have a captive audience. And the speeches go on.

Unsubstantiated statistics, unnecessary rhetoric or ungrateful thank yous! Often the audience is kept there by the cakes, pastries, and tea that would be their award for listening patiently, albeit while being on WhatsApp to sustain themselves through those agonizing moments of moments, which would be forgotten sooner rather than later!

Science is probably the most interesting areas of study. But boring scientists often destroy it. Not to deride the scientists or the efforts it takes, but unless the science is effectively communicated to the audience – it may almost not have been done.

Effective communication is an essential part of science for at least two reasons. First, if nobody hears about your work, you might as well have never done it. And second, especially in today’s world, if you dont communicate your research effectively, there are many who would communicate it for you, and when they do, it will be skewed to support whatever agenda they have.

Speaking at various science conferences!

There are countless examples of poor communication.

For starters, there’s Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics. He is the true icon of poor communication. In fact, someone should create a Gregor Mendel Award for the scientist doing the best research yet failing to communicate it effectively!

Mendel was a humble Austrian monk of the mid-to late nineteenth century. While Charles Darwin was basking in the glow of the celebrity he had gained by communicating directly to the public with his best-selling Origin of Species, Mendel was toiling away in the Austrian Alps discovering the very genetics that would have given Darwin the mechanism of inheritance he needed to make his theory of evolution complete. But Mendel lacked the sort of self-promotional streak that is essential for scientific success in the United States today. He was a shrinking violet when it came to presenting his foundational work and instead published it in obscure journals before leaving this earth with little fanfare. His most important paper was cited only a handful of times over the next thirty-five years.

It wasn’t until several decades later that a number of major evolutionists rediscovered Mendel’s experiments and said to themselves, “Holy smokes, this guy worked it all out long ago.” The rediscovery of Mendel led to what is known as the “modern synthesis,” in which Darwin’s ideas on evolution were brought together with Mendel’s knowledge of genetics to create a robust theory of how evolution works. Had Mendel been a bit more of a communicator, the modern synthesis might have happened a few decades earlier and science would have advanced more rapidly.

A similar thing happened with Alexander Fleming, who in 1929 discovered penicillin but published his findings in a paper that drew little attention. Instead of going out on the road and communicating his discovery effectively, he left it alone and nothing happened for more than a decade. When Ernst Chain finally discovered his work in 1940 and heard that Fleming was coming to visit, he commented, “Good God, I thought he was dead.” Had Fleming’s work been widely disseminated in 1929, it could have led to the development and application of penicillin a decade earlier, saving countless lives.

Such are the costs of failed communication.

The costs of failed communication!

But if science communication is so important, why are scientists not doing it. The same reason that people flirt more on social media – but have weak knees in telling a girl that they find her attractive. Test tubes dont talk back. Don’t argue. And definitely dont prove you wrong!

Check most science organisations, labs and scientists. Poor to pathetic communication. The CSIR labs in India for instance: Having a pan-India presence, CSIR has a dynamic network of 38 national laboratories, 39 outreach centres, 3 Innovation Complexes and 5 units. CSIR’s R&D expertise and experience is embodied in about 4600 active scientists supported by about 8000 scientific and technical personnel.

But ask a common man, or even an uncommon man – about the role that CSIR plays in his life – and he would know more about the features of the latest iPhone!

10 Facts about CSIR every Indian should know!

And what scientists do not realise – not being communicative actually destroys them. Here’s a few ways how:

1. If you dont make it exciting – youre not going to get the smartest. With attention spans reducing – the smartest of minds are no longer automatically moving to the sciences and the maths. Start Ups in non core science areas offer a much quicker, exciting and rewarding way to a better life. So essentially without good communication, you are not going to get good exployees or partners.

A person rather up his social status by working for a Nike, or an Amazon – rather than for Hari Om Agri Seed Pvt. Ltd. Unless Of course Hari Om communicates the exciting work they are doing in science and genetics to the world.

2. If you dont communicate – you will have the government make wrong policies – which dont work for you. 10 years ago we had about 300 clinical trial companies working in India – it touched a low of about 10. Primarily because the government and the decision makers cannot understand most new technologies and the conditions necessary for it to prosper.

3. If you need funding you have to communicate. Studies show that organisations with mention in the media are over 300 % more likely to get funding than those who dont have any media presence. So if you want venture capital, make your story worth listening!

The challenges in science communication!

Every good science communication must answer the following questions:

  • 1. What did you (and your coauthors) do?
  • 2. Why did you do it?
  • 3. How did you do it?
  • 4. What did you find?
  • 5. What does it mean?

But scientists love complexity in communication. Unless the research is NOT UNDERSTOOD by at least 50% of the listeners – it is not deemed to be intense enough. Yet “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Communication does not occur when you tell somebody something. It happens when they can follow you and your idea.

Because of our inability to write and speak science well, we find science often misrepresented and arguments presented as they are legitimate scientific disputes.

Each time you speak, make sure you answer the “So What” question. Most listeners want to know why you are telling them, what you are  – and the impact it will make on their lives. When it comes to mass communication, remember to arouse and fulfil. You need to first arouse your audience and then get them interested in what you have to say; then you fulfil their expectations.

Science communication can be fun and effective!

Being on innumerable committees and discussion groups, Atharva Marcom was a off shoot of Atharva Lifesciences, when I felt that science in India was in the ICU for bad communication. But even today – science communication serves a myopic need of micro audience, little impact and poor delivery.

Take science communication with as much seriousness as the science itself, and watch that passion return to one the world’s most exciting academic pursuits!

Atharva Marcom is India’s best public relations firm, and the only PR firm with a history of understanding science. Get in touch with Atharva Marcom, to get your science ideas, research and communication to the world! Write to atharvamarcom@gmail.com.

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