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Issues across Science, Journalism and Media: Conduct rules, the need for institutional openness and the journalist-scientist interaction

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A scientific organization that gives its members the green light to interact with journalists and the public, without insisting that every such interaction be filtered through an administrative layer or otherwise controlled, is doing things right.

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This is the second in a series of notes in connection with the workshop on “Science, Journalism, Media: Communicating Science in a Changing India”, held at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.  The first of these is available here.

I hope that by describing some of the questions that arose, providing my own view, and illustrating where opinions might legitimately differ between scientists or between scientists and journalists, a better understanding of these will result.

 

The issue I discuss here concerns difficulties faced by journalists in getting scientists to let themselves to be quoted. Such quotes would normally be attributed to the scientist by name. However, in some cases, scientists did not want to be quoted at all, referring the journalist to an administrator or director. The journalists who highlighted this mentioned that they sometimes encountered such problems even when it was the scientist’s own work that was being written about.

A scientist could also be asked for a quote or an attributed comment on a non-scientific matter. This might be, for example, their views on a case of reported harassment at their institution, a case of scientifically unethical behaviour or a specific institutional failure. Here, issues of privacy and due process during an ongoing investigation are relevant, if they indeed exist. However, they must be balanced by public interest in a relevant and unfolding story.

I will deal with this in a later discussion of how institutions should deal with coverage of sexual harassment cases. I confine myself here to the more straightforward issue of scientists asked to comment about science.

Pallava Bagla (NDTV) and T V Venkateswaran (Vigyan Prasar), highlighted sections in the government conduct rules that limit the ability of employees to criticize current or past government policy. These rules are similar across multiple organizations supported by the government, even if they are technically autonomous.

Such conduct rules have been used in the past to constrain interactions between scientists and journalists. As a consequence, the voices of a number of scientists have simply not been heard on a number of  issues of relevance both to them as well as to the public.

Both journalists stressed that the wording of the conduct rules did not rule out comments on scientific work, being restricted to commentary criticizing government policy. This is, of course, absolutely true and deserves to be more widely understood.

At a larger level, we  must ask whether conduct rules that prohibit any sort of criticism of public policy, whether well-founded or not, should exist in the first place in a democracy. This indicates a lack of faith in the ability of our institutions to deal with criticism. Also, should nominally autonomous institutions face the same restrictions as government employees that are specifically charged with implementing government policy?

The most powerful way of dealing with this issue, in my opinion, is for scientific institutions to set an example from the top. Certainly clarity in institutional purpose and a fundamental understanding of what science communication is about are components of good scientific leadership. Junior scientists could, of course, also  choose to rebel against such rules, if they are prepared to deal with the potential consequences of doing so. However, lasting changes in scientific culture are achieved most speedily when scientific leaders make their own vision clear – and  it is a positive vision.

As long as leaders of Indian institutions do not see it as being a very large part of their responsibility to educate the public about how their tax money is being spent, and to do this in ways they (the public) can understand, we will face such problems.  A scientific organization that gives its members the green light to interact with journalists and the public, without insisting that every such interaction be filtered through an administrative layer or otherwise controlled, is doing things right.

It is our responsibility, when we spend government money on science, to explain what we do, in a way that the ordinary lay citizen can understand. And this is best done in collaboration with science journalists, for whom increasing the public understanding of science is a professional responsibility.

 

Gautam Menon is a Professor at The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. He can be reached at menon@imsc.res.in

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Gautam - you argue that: "A scientific organization that gives its members the green light to interact with journalists and the public, without insisting that every such interaction be filtered through an administrative layer or otherwise controlled, is doing things right."

Consider the case when a scientist oversells preliminary results or overstates the implications of his/her discovery/invention when talking to the press and it gets reported verbatim. What s/he says might reflect only her/his viewpoint - however, they will be reported as IMSc scientist or NCL scientists says XYZ. If the statement is irresponsible, then that brings disrepute to the organization that scientist is from (and, of course, on the scientific community at large). Do you feel that stating that this is their personal opinion and does not reflect the view of their institution, would be an adequate disclaimer that will absolve the institution? Do you feel that there is a joint responsibility, on the scientist to be more circumspect and on the journalist to cross check with other researchers? This might be a fraught area...