From Aristotle’s wandering lectures on the entire world of living things to Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s remarkable illustrations of bacteria under a microscope, science communication and cross-talk in the scientific community has undergone dramatic changes in scale and scope.
Over the years, treatises have given way to journal publications, discourses have been replaced by interactive webinars, and scientific letters have been superseded by almost instantaneous emails. One of the more recent changes is the use of social media platforms to reach the masses at large.
Social media, in general, has enabled a faster and larger reach of news, information, and opinions – whether it is through the sharing of articles on Facebook and Twitter, or via images on Instagram. In fact, the growth, speed and accessibility of these platforms have given each individual a voice, that can be heard louder and faster by people across the globe. Social media has, as clichéd as it sounds, brought the world closer. Tweets have become our new press releases, and everyone is trying to capture that perfect ‘Instagrammable’ moment.
The scientific community is not far behind when it comes to using social media for science communication, networking, and influencing policy and public opinion. In fact, scientists are increasingly embracing social media in their professional lives. So much so, that several popular science publications are helping scientists navigate social media, use social media effectively, and even survive this new-age platform.
There is a range of different social media platforms available for researchers, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram to connect, share and promote their work, ResearchGate and Academia.edu to discuss practical science issues and find collaborators, and professional platforms such as LinkedIn to build and leverage networks. In addition, popular science blogs/vlogs have made use of the reach and accessibility of social media to communicate scientific information in ways that are easily understandable to the student and citizen science community.
Popular YouTube channels like AsapSCIENCE, which makes videos using attractive drawings explaining the basics of different scientific topics, and Khan Academy, which designs online lectures on various topics, have millions of subscribers. And while text-based blogs provide a lot of in-depth information, in an age of Snapchat and Instagram, pictures have become a powerful tool in attracting and connecting with a larger audience.
Numerous schools and institutes like Harvard Medical School or the Wyss Institute, as well as individual scientists, run their own Instagram pages, sharing colourful microscopy images, complex robots, beautiful bacterial biofilms and highlights from the everyday life of a researcher. This is very valuable, as an attractive image is more likely to strike curiosity in the minds of viewers, who can then turn to various blogs/articles to learn more.
Social media and Indian science
In recent years, the scientific community in India has been seen to have a recognisable presence and engagement with social media platforms. From the scientists’ point of view, benefits range from tangible ones such as finding collaborators and publishing opportunities, to the simple feel-good factor of belonging to a larger community.
We posted the question ‘Has social media impacted or assisted your scientific career or opportunities in any way?’ and received these responses.
“Not any…but many. Not always tangible gains. Could be a simple feel-good factor. Knowing that struggles & bad days are part of science and (being a) scientist & you aren’t alone. Inspirational stories about how others cope with them and do great. Latest sci papers & opportunities as well”.
From @anups_11 (Anup Padmanabhan, Ashoka University, New Delhi, India)
“It’s a great way to keep up with science and stories behind it throughout the world. I got an opportunity to contribute an article and a collaboration request through Twitter. So it has worked great for me.
From @poonam_thakur6 (Poonam Thakur, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Germany)
However, beyond this, as both interactors and observers will find, social media discussions and opinions are playing a key role in Indian science. This is evident on multiple fronts, from increasing accessibility to administrators and enforcing policy changes to determining the way the Indian science community wants to be represented and viewed, and even breaking down silos between scientists and citizens.
Here are a few thoughts we put together on how social media platforms are shaping and transforming science in India.
The Twitter ‘morcha’ — Shaping policy through social media
A highly powerful tool, social media allows a single hashtag to become trending overnight, reaching the twitter feed of thousands in a day. Given this immense reach, it can act as a platform for many individuals to come together, allowing users to stage ‘virtual’ protests, that would be difficult to achieve physically.
The 2018-2019 protest for a hike in the research fellowship in India is one such example. A similar protest had occurred in 2014 as well, but this time, social media allowed a larger number of people to participate and show their support. The easy access of Twitter and the ability to tweet directly to the concerned authorities allowed researchers to voice their opinions on the need for a stipend increase. As the #hikeresearchfellowship movement gained traction on Twitter and Facebook, researchers submitted a petition to concerned authorities, to revise the fellowship amount.
While a hike in the stipend was recently granted, the decision itself created quite a buzz on social media, with researchers feeling that fraction of the hike was negligible considering the rise in tuition fees over the last few years. However, the reach and feasibility of social media allowed this protest to gain attention and authorities were able to hear the voices of individuals directly.
Social media to #savescience — Breaking down pseudoscientific myths
Pseudoscience in India is no ‘new kid on the block’. Ever so often, Indian science faces the onslaught of cringeworthy claims that have no scientific evidence, from the existence of in vitro fertilisation technology in ancient Vedic times to our ancestors being the first to invent planes. When these outrageous claims of Vedic science were made at the recent Indian Science Congress, the principal scientific advisor, Government of India responded in a detailed blog, which among other things, stated that the large scientific community in India must hold the government and individual scientists responsible for untenable scientific claims made at the conference.
After a recent uproar to such claims, the hashtag #savescience, representing all critical issues facing science, health, and medicine, started trending on Twitter, this time spearheaded by the Indian scientific community. Scientists across India tweeted that such pseudoscientific claims not only propagate irrational thought, but they also bring disrepute to the high-quality, cutting-edge science being pursued in India.
Web warriors — Communicating science to citizens
We have all received WhatsApp ‘forwards’ with more than one ludicrous way of curing cancer. While the scientific community baulks at these messages that peddle supernatural cures, these very platforms can also be leveraged to breakdown implausible claims, and also communicate evidence-based scientific research being done in India and worldwide.
For example, WhatsApp lends itself well for large-scale communication of science snippets that are easy for public consumption. Recently, scientists at the Centre for Cellular& Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, discovered a new enzyme that helps regulates cell wall formation in bacteria and thereby offers a potential new drug target. While this work was very eloquently explained in newspaper articles and gained widespread attention, sharing such discoveries on web-based social media platforms would significantly enhance the dissemination and consumption of original scientific research by the public.
In this context, it would also be important to highlight the careers of accomplished Indian scientists, thereby enabling researchers to be more visible and relatable. For example, an India-focused blog, The Life of Science (TLoS), is a unique project that focuses on Indian women as role models in science and highlights the work of women scientists in India. Further, TLoS also has a strong Twitter presence, which they leverage for discussion related to gender and equality issues in Indian science. In this manner, social media can be employed as a tool to educate the community on current science developments in India and features on Indian scientists, thereby developing a rational-thinking, curiosity-driven citizen scientist community.
The Social (Media) Scientist
Another very evident trend in Indian science is the increased presence of prominent scientists and scientific institutes on social media platforms. This includes the very active Twitter handle of the principal scientific advisor, Government of India, to that of organisation heads such as the director-general, CSIR, secretary, department of biotechnology, as well as institutes such as Indian Council of Medical Research and BIRAC.
Further, an overwhelmingly large number of institutes maintain updated and interactive websites. What this means is that the scientific community has recognised and embraced the need to leverage social media as a tool. It would have been unheard of a decade ago, but for a young scientist today, ‘tagging’ or having a direct online interaction with a senior administrator in Indian science is possible at the click of a button. The next step could be to popularise these handles (and possibly websites) with the public at large, whereby they could interact with science policymakers and scientists. Given recent findings that of all social media users in India, only 20% followed a science-related account, this is a gap that needs to be filled.
Leveraging social media for Indian science
There are several opportunities to continue to leverage social media to impact, influence, and shape science in India. For starters, it would be critical that individual scientists adopt social media communication as a valuable part of their research communication and outreach process, by sharing their ongoing work, published articles, and professional developments. This survey surprisingly showed that more than 80% of scientists and researchers in India claimed to have never posted updates of their ongoing research on social networking sites; which can be easily addressed.
From the technology end, a key area would be to enable platforms in native Indian languages, which would significantly enhance the reach of Indian science. For example, certain India-centric science blogs, like Science India and Science Bloggers Association, publish content in both English and Hindi. IndiaBioscience has also been pushing the envelope on developing scientific material in regional Indian languages, through their recent science communication series in Indian languages, with features on The Language Project, which offers free videos on synthetic biology in 26 different languages, and Bigyan, a science outreach platform in Bengali.
So, tweet, post, share and like, let’s make Indian science trending.