“The pandemic has brought India’s science communication community much closer.”Interviewed by Sébastien Hug, CEO & Consul General, swissnex India
Experts Speak: Arnab Bhattacharya
19th Feb 2021
Prof. Arnab Bhattacharya is a scientist working in the area of semiconductor optoelectronics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai. Arnab has a B.Tech degree from IIT-Bombay, a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and worked on an Alexander-von-Humboldt fellowship at the Ferdinand-Braun-Institut in Berlin, before setting up a research group in TIFR for novel semiconductor materials and devices. Arnab is also deeply passionate about science outreach, and enjoys talking about science and demonstrating science experiments to all audiences, particularly school/college students and teachers. He pioneered “Chai and Why?” Mumbai’s popular science café style initiative which offers informal and accessible discussions on science outside traditional academic settings since 2009. He received the 2010 Homi-Bhabha-Award in Science Education, and the 2012 Chevening Rolls-Royce Fellowship for Science and Innovation Leadership and is presently the chair of Science Popularization and Public Outreach at TIFR.
Republished from nextrends Asia
To start with, can you briefly explain to our audience what Chai and Why is all about, how it started and what you are trying to achieve.
Chai and Why is an informal platform to take science and scientists out of their labs and into public spaces where they can engage in a dialogue with the public at large. For a long time, scientists have been in their labs, probably writing out papers, may be putting out a press release at some point, but not really engaging in any two-way dialogue with the public. Especially in India, where it is more of an information-deficit model. There is a public relations officer who gives information but it is not a two way platform. We wanted to encourage this, and also one of the things is science, especially in a place like Mumbai is seen as this unfortunate subject that I have to deal with in school. It is not seen as something which is the exploration of the world around us, that could be a flower in the garden, a star in the sky, a cell in my body, we need to face the fact that science is everywhere around us and not just in a text book. And we thought the best way to do this was to take people, go to a public space that is not associated with science.
So we started off with Prithvi Theatre, which is known for being an art venue, and had someone from TIFR come there every month and talk about something interesting in the world of science, perform experiments and engage with the public. So it’s not two hours of conversations – its two hours of conversations of course but it is not that the scientists only speak. It is a very short talk followed by a long conversation over a cup of chai. Also, the word ‘science’ itself is scary, so we didn’t want to put science in the title, and I thought the best way to talk about it is Chai. Chai/ tea is when in India you invite someone for a cup of chai – that’s the most natural thing for a discussion. We thought this name would work and it seems to have worked very well. From 2009, we are just ending year 12. We started in a monthly format but within 6 months we went to twice a month and now we’re there on the 1st, 3rd and 5th Sundays at 3 different venues in the city. We haven’t missed a session since 2009 and we are in session 300-something right now, almost can’t keep up with it, and the public loves it! They come to it, and it has been a fantastic experience.
That’s really fantastic and very impressive! But obviously, I imagine Chai and Why was affected by the current pandemic, by the lockdown, like many other physical events as well. Can you share with us something about your digital journey? What has been your experience with fully viral science communication? How did you create engagement with the audience in this strange digital world, and what were your learnings in adapting Chai and Why to this digital world?
That has been a huge learning for us and it’s been an eye opener, honestly. In the last couple of years, initially we felt we should not have a camera in the room, because we wanted people to be frank, ask questions, ask difficult questions – whatever they wanted to. We often dealt with topics that were on genetic engineering or on GM foods – things where people, in front of the camera, they may not want to say things. But then we realise that if we record the sessions, it could reach out to so many more people who could not make it on Sunday morning at 11 o’clock. So we have been recording it. Then, we decided as the next step we should do a live stream on YouTube as well. But suddenly when Covid came there was no choice.
Given that for almost 11 and a half years we had not missed a single session, this small virus was not going to make me stop this Chai and Why series at all. We had to go ahead, the show must go on – so that was the attitude. And luckily around April and May when we had transitioned, those months are the summer vacations in Mumbai where we do what we call ‘Hands-on sessions’ where we try and do experiments especially for kids of all ages – because what we find is in school, in the typical science curriculum, it is very very bookish. Kids don’t get a chance to do experiments with their hands, and that we really give them a chance to do simple things with stuff at home. That has been the tradition, but now we had to suddenly do this without an audience in front of us, and that was a challenge.
The first thing was we had to decide ‘Do we want to do a science show?’, and we figured there are many of them. I was stuck in TIFR, I was in my lab and my lab has a lot of cool stuff. I can always show cool experiments in TIFR. But you could watch cool experiments on any YouTube channel. There are several of them who could do a better job than me, especially since we didn’t have any fancy audio visual support over here. And our main thing is about getting people to get their hands dirty and do experiments. So, the idea was how do we make people do experiments with us, even though they are not with us.
So we thought we would do very simple experiments, and we came up with a series of 6 sessions, which were called ‘Just a sheet of paper’, ‘Just a glass of water’, ‘Just a box of matches’ – things which people would have at home. And we thought what is the best way to do experiments with just one sheet of paper. Of course, when we publicised and announced the event that we are going to have this online, a Youtube and Zoom kind of a format. ‘This is what you need to keep with you. You need to bring a sheet of paper, a pencil, or a box of matches, these are the things. If you don’t, it’s fine. You can watch and follow along. But if you want to have fun, this is what you need to bring with you.’ And we said’ OK, this is what you need to do – you may need to fold the paper this way. If there’s any problem, or if we want you to observe something, let us know what you’re observing on the chat, on Facebook live, on the comments or on the YouTube chat, or the Zoom chat.’ This way, although we didn’t see the audience, we could have some feedback about what they were doing.
Obviously, we didn’t have very much of technical support. All I had was a webcam, and we made a pile of books as we had no tripod. So we made a pile of books and kept the webcam on it somehow. And we even allowed the public to see all this. They could see that this is the way we are doing it. I think they also realised that we were trying our best to do our job under some constraints and we made mistakes. Experiments often don’t work the first time you do it, even the second time sometimes, and they were OK. They forgave us. In some cases, they couldn’t do it at home. We didn’t want to make a completely professional video show where it’s about ‘Oh these are experiments, this is how you do it’. We just let them in, and allowed them to ask questions. It took the public also some time to learn how to interact over chat. It took us also some time to figure out that we need to give people more time. Or in some cases, people are just not going to respond to questions like this. Otherwise, in a physical setting, I can look at people, look at their eyes and figure out ‘Yes, this is the guy who has a question’. That you can’t, and you had to provoke them to say -‘Now please put this in the chat’. So there was a little bit of learning. Eventually, we got more and more smooth with time.
So when we go back to normalcy in a year’s time or so, will you keep the Zoom interactions or do you think you’ll go back to the physical format?
Actually it’s been YouTube and Facebook Live. We tried Zoom only once, but Zoom has a problem if you put out a link publicly. At least in April, we were getting Zoom-bombed with lots of people trying to get on the call and put in messages and things like this. We decided that we would use Zoom only as a platform to export to Youtube, we do not allow the public on the Zoom channel anymore. But you know what we learnt? Earlier, we had people in Mumbai city who used to come to the program. Suddenly, we found that the audience is no longer limited to Mumbai. We had people in Delhi, we had people in Vishakapatnam, we had people in Kolkatta. Not only that, we had people in Australia, Germany who were watching this. The news had spread, and we were reaching out to an audience who had never been to Chai & Why before.
This is fantastic, we never expected this and of course, we would like to keep it going. So what we decided is that even when we get back to the physical shows – And by the way it isn’t going to be a year down the line! January 3rd, 2021, we will be back at Prithvi theatre! Maybe 10 people will show up, people might still be scared to show up, but the government is OK with opening it. There’s a limit of 100 people in the room, we don’t think we’ll get there. But even if 10 people come, we will do the show over there and of course have the same format and do it online live as well. The other thing is, often many people cannot watch it at the time that you are doing it. But if you’re on YouTube, they can go back to it in the evening or whenever they have some time and watch the show. So we actually get a lot more hits in the week following the event than during the event, which is also a great thing.
So I’m very much looking forward to see how it will evolve in the next couple of months. In a way science communication, in the recent history at least, has never been as important or has been recognised as being that important besides maybe explaining climate change. If you look at it, some immunologists or some other scientists have really almost become superstars by explaining how the virus works, what it does, and how we can fight it. In your view, what is the role of scientists in those outreach efforts during the pandemic? What should be the objective, and what I find more interesting maybe is where are the limits? What should a science communicator not do?
Actually that’s a fantastic thing. You know, even before Chai & Why went online, the moment this Covid thing was picking up, not just TIFR Mumbai, but all the TIFR centres as well as India BioScience, IISc, a couple of institutes – we got together and we decided that we need to convey scientifically correct information to the public. There is a lot of fake news, WhatsApp forwards, etc that we need to somehow combat, and there were two initiatives. One, of course, formal, this one is called CovidGyan – which is a TIFR-IISc-IndiaBioScience etc initiative. And informally scientists had come together – the Indian Scientists Response to Covid, ISRC, and I was a part of both of them.
One of our first things was to actually to make short 2-3 minute videos, explaining why social distancing is important. Just as an example, social distancing is an extremely bad choice of a word, if you want to translate it into Indian languages. Because, what you’re actually talking about is a physical distance, what you need to maintain is a physical distance between people. But in times like this, you actually want your networks, you need them. Have societal networks together, you need to communicate with family and friends, and help them out. So whether it should be physical distancing, social distancing, what’s the right word to use? We actually had our students, who by that time had been sent home, who speak many different languages as they came from across India. We had them translate a few things which would help people understand the importance of social distancing, wearing a mask, and things like this – and translate them into many languages, put them out and push them on both formal channels as well as on WhatsApp groups, etc.
So I think it’s really important that scientists take up this role of communicating the correct information. Now here you come to the second point, what should you not talk about, and what are the limits? One of the problems today is, in this evolving situation like the Covid scenario, there is a lot of stuff coming out that is not peer-reviewed, which is coming out on – today you can publish anything on the net, either in proper scientific pre-print repositories like Archive or Meta-Archive, or it could even be a platform like Medium, where anybody is free to put information out there. Now how do you decide which of these is sort of reasonable, worth telling the people about, or whether you should just be – ‘Ok fine, its there but I’ll not talk about it’, or ‘Hey look, that is dangerous information and I should take a stand and say, look we believe that this is garbage and should not be trusted, it’s dangerous.’
So this is a very very tricky situation, and I think it has put many of us scientists and communicators in a bind, because what do you do? From a scientific point of view, of course, if somebody is doing research on the fact that masks do not work, that is probably valid to investigate. Is it ethical to do such experiments? When you know that there is overwhelming evidence that they work, is it guided by things that are not scientific? What about claims where the government, for example, is themselves pushing remedies that are absolutely not at all backed up by evidence? So it has to be backed up by evidence. And we decided that we would take a role where we would strongly say that ‘Please note that there is no evidence backing this up’, like how Twitter starts doing this with Trump’s tweets, saying that this is not supported by evidence, or whatever else. We were also doing something similar saying, Yes there is – because people are asking you, ‘Hey what about this?’ So we’d say ‘No, as far as we are to understand, there is no evidence backing this up. But then, we are not experts, we don’t know, this is it.’ On the other hand when we knew, for example, somebody was trying to release some device which would inject electrons in the air and kill the virus which felt like complete garbage. There, we went out and said no. We’re going to take a stand and say that this is complete scientific fraud in a way, and we would go out and publicly say that, ‘No, this is fraud. Please be careful about it.’ But again, it’s a very fine line you have to balance and not everybody is happy to go out and say things because they are a little worried that the press will misquote them and things like this.
I don’t know if that’s a very long answer but it’s, I don’t have a very clear one.
No no, it’s a very important answer I think, and excellent to see the thought process you go through. You mentioned it, there has been a lot of confusion with fake news, or this tsunami of news articles and tweets about Covid-19. But there has also been confusion for different reasons. At least in the beginning, it was. The scientific process is being advanced by having scientists contradicting each other. Together through a process, you will come to a conclusion and one view. But in the beginning, for the audience it might be quite confusing when you might have scientists contradicting each other.
Absolutely, I’ll give you an example. So I am a part of the N95DECON consortium. This is an international group of scientists and volunteers who are trying to figure out how can one reuse N-95 masks, decontaminate them and reuse them. And the recommendations of ‘Can you use heat? Whether 60 minutes is enough? Whether 30 degrees is enough? Whether you need to do it for 75 minutes?’ At a given point, you have access to some experiments. Based on them, scientists say ok. Looking at this, most probably obviously nobody has worked with the Sars-CoV-2 virus – they’re all done on old, not so infectious Coronavirus, or some other surrogate virus. You have to use your scientific judgement and say that based on this, we think that if you do this, it will kill Sars-CoV-2. Now, 2 months later, some other groups come up with some more information and say ‘No that’s not enough, you have to do something else’. As a scientist it is completely OK to say ‘I’m sorry, based on the new results we think the procedure should be modified’. As a scientist, I see nothing wrong with it.
But sometimes, to explain this to the public, they say ‘You guys are scientists. Why the hell didn’t you say things correctly the first time?’ Well unfortunately, we didn’t have enough evidence based information that we could use. So this is a problem in trying to get the public at large to realise that the method of science is not suddenly decided by somebody that – ‘Yes, this is the right thing’. Whatever is the right thing can change with time, depending on the evidence you have. This is often very different because they sometimes like to be told that things are black and white, whereas it’s not.
Absolutely and a big role in all of that is played by the media, isn’t it? You mentioned it before, scientists being afraid to be misquoted by the media. What do you think of the role that the media played in handling the reporting of this pandemic? How has the pandemic influenced reporting from the media?
I think it has been very mixed. There are some channels and newspapers who have been very balanced in their reporting. On the other hand, I would say that many people have jumped to conclusions, or jumped to to try and bring out stuff that is very very half baked. Had they contacted people and said that should we bring this out? Most people would have said, ‘Probably no, please wait for some more time till we gain enough evidence and then maybe you can do it’. Or, if somebody is telling you that, ‘I have this device which is so fantastic that it is going to kill every Coronavirus in this room’, before you just go out and publish it, why don’t you check with a scientist whether it makes sense? And unfortunately once this comes out in the newspaper, once it’s out in the newspaper or the website or something, people will be like, ‘oh yes that’s the magic bullet, that’s going to work’. So in many cases, the media should have gone a little slower and done some homework before rushing to publish things, bring out things to the public.
But in many cases, there have been media and channels who have been a lot more to circumspect and have looked at it, have called up the right people, and then said, this is how it is going – this is how it is. Look at last week, right? Last week, there were reports out of China saying that the origin of the virus is not in China. Now, if you look at the coverage of this news, in different places, they quoted a German virologist and they actually selectively took a line from one of his interviews. It’s quite terrible. The poor guy had to go on news and say,’ Hello, I did not make that statement. What is being said is completely not the way I said it’. If only the people reporting it had done a little bit more homework and checked what did this scientist, virologist in Germany actually say, before actually saying that, ‘Oh there’s this paper from China which claims its not from there, it came from Italy or India or somewhere else’. So this is an example from just a few days back. But this has been happening all through the Covid pandemic.
Very interesting. Maybe coming back to India and more generally now, in your view what is the state of science communication community here in India? Is there a strong network, an exchange between science communicators? And bringing it back to Covid-19, how has the pandemic affected that community? Do you think there’s people who will value science communication more, and have more support for science communication going forward?
Absolutely! If there is one thing Covid has done, it’s brought this community together. I’d say, let’s say a year or a year and a half ago, the science communication community in India – they were all individuals, doing their work, in their own institutes, in their own localities, whether it was formally as part of the institution, or freelancing. They were all mostly independent. Yes they knew that this person is over there, and they sort of work on this. In January before Covid, the office of the Principle Scientific Advisor to the Government, they had called a meeting of science communicators across India. A lot of science communicators who were never on Twitter, etc are now on there, and having networks where people which are very quickly connecting with each other. There are WhatsApp groups, which have both journalists and scientists – where if a journalist once wants reliable information on something, they say ‘Ok, I want some information on this particular topic. Can you tell me who in India can I contact?’ And the scientists will figure out, ‘Either I know somebody or I know who would know’. So you quickly do this connection. In a few hours, you will find who is the right person. If there’s a report saying Phosphene on Venus has happened, who is the right person to ask about this?
This networking that has happened has been fantastic and a lot of it has actually been driven because of this fake news of Covid. So that has actually got the science communication community together, and got them not just the science communication community but got scientists linked with the media, with science journalists and other people who are professionals in this as well as a lot of people doing science communication as a career or just for fun, trying to get stuff out of their lab, the whole spectrum. But people have come together. And that’s really good because that’s going to last.
Its like the ISRC, the Indian Scientists Response to Covid, this was a group that sort of got spontaneously nucleated without any hierarchy in it. People just ask their friends saying, ‘Hey listen, I need help in this particular thing, will you help? Tell me who can help’. And there were people who volunteered, thanks today to whether its shared documents that you can work on at the same time, or whatever it is, it was very easy to communicate and collaborate. And this spirit of collaboration is something that is wonderful to see right now.