When will Indian scientists unbolt?

Are Indian scientists really too busy to answer emails and phone calls? wonders Dinsa Sachan

By Dinsa Sachan
Published: Monday 13 February 2012

At a recent gathering in Bengaluru, science journalists from around the country bemoaned that Indian scientists, professors and academicians are lousy communicators and criticised them for their general unwillingness to interact with journalists. The fact that their foreign counterparts, especially those from countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, always respond to us promptly makes this shortcoming all the more glaring.

The individual scientist is not the only defaulter. The style of functioning of the very system that breeds them engenders such behaviour. For example, a few months back I picked up a study published in Current Science on how ancient Indians inadvertently consumed a diet rich in prebiotics—non-digestible food ingredients that nurture bacteria in the human gut. I called up the National Institute of Animal Nutrition and Physiology in Bengaluru, the institute where the study was carried out, to touch base with the lead author. Several phone calls went unanswered. Then I emailed the author at the address given in the paper; I continued to write the story and interview other experts in the meantime. From the moment of sighting the paper to completing the story, I took around two and a half days—a little more than what a newspaper reporter would have taken. Replying after three days, he said he will seek his director’s permission and talk to me if it is granted. I had already completed my story without his input. In a redundant mail he shot me after a lapse of another week, he said he had the permission and was finally willing to talk. The article had gone to the press by this time. The procedure which requires a scientist to procure the director’s permission before speaking to the media makes the job very difficult for reporters, especially those working with news dailies. Yes, the scientists are busy. Yes, they’re out on field trips a number of times and don’t have access to phone and email. But this is true of their US and UK counterparts, too, yet one finds them willing to reply.

Permission curse

At the meeting in Bengaluru, science reporters from the Telegraph, which widely covers science, lamented this makes it hard for newspapers to 'break' news on important Indian studies. Get the idea where the complaint of “Indian science not being adequately covered in the media” emanates from? This system, to my knowledge, doesn’t exist in any other country. Never has a foreign scientist written back to me saying he will comment only after the top brass in his institution approve such a request.

For the cover story on antibiotic resistance, which appeared in the October 15 issue of Down To Earth, I approached the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Research in Punjab to ask if they had been working on any new kind of antibiotic. They were, but the same permission curse disallowed any discourse between the concerned scientist and I in the time I was allotted to look for the information. One can’t keep waiting for comments, can one?

This is not the only bottleneck. Even when the permission curse is not involved, Indian professors take their own sweet time to answer a reporter’s queries. If the world was not flat, most of us would not crib about it and move on thinking “Indian scientists are really busy, so I’d be lucky to hear from them”. But as a journalist who regularly communicates (over email and phone) with top researchers in elite universities like Harvard, Yale, and Oxford, I’m not buying the Indian-scientists-are-busy argument. What are they busy doing?

Numbers prove it

Recently, a team of students from Manipal University in Karnataka and Amity University in Noida decided to put a real figure to this predicament. They sent out 177 emails to researchers of 16 top scientific institutes in the country. To add some spice (and perspective) to the mix, they shot a batch of another 233 emails to the top foreign universities. In a typical email, they sought an opportunity for a research internship at the scientist’s facility. The authors wrote in Current Science’s latest issue, “The promptness and regularity of professors in responding to emails are significant factors for improved professor–student social relationship and teaching/research outcomes.”

Here’s the not-so-surprising part: only 16.38 per cent professors from Indian universities bothered to reply. Western researchers fared much better with a response rate of 36.48 per cent.

While IIT-Bombay was among the institutes that responded encouragingly, pioneer institutes like the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), IIT-Guwahati, IIT-Delhi and Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology settled at woefully low positions on the response index. In fact, some of the emails to AIIMS bounced, pointing to lethargy on the part of both the addressee and the IT department of the institute.

Even though the experiment was not conducted by media persons and the nature of emails not similar to media queries, I’m confident the data is suggestive of the great barrier between the scientist and the journalist. Here’s the rather surprising part: when the authors wrote to the same institutions with a commercial interest, they found their inboxes flooded. They write: “We sent queries (n = 28) regarding registrations and travel grants to organisers of conferences; we received prompt replies from all in the West and 66.67 per cent from India.” Maybe Indian researchers just aren’t bothered with the dissemination of science?

Now before I’m taken for a serial whiner, I’d like to add a bit of perspective.  I’ve visited research labs across Delhi, Lucknow and Bengaluru, and every scientist has had at least one horror story to recount of how she was either misquoted or facts of her research presented wrongly by a reporter. Point taken; we get it wrong sometimes, and the education (or a lack of it) of journalists covering science is another issue in itself.

But that’s no excuse for not answering emails.

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