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Tired of fake science news? See what plans Modi govt’s top scientist has for the future

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VijayRaghavan is a man of the times, who believes social media can help make science more accessible to the layperson.  

Bengaluru: A Twitter chat this week between two women about childcare at science conferences caught the attention of the principal scientific adviser (PSA) to the government of India.

He joined in with a tweet from the official account, and promised to work for a possible policy change to accommodate childcare in the budget for science conferences.

The tweet offered a good window into the three-year tenure that awaits India’s new PSA, renowned biologist Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, who assumed office on 3 April with a promise to “connect society with science and science with society”. He succeeds nuclear physicist R. Chidambaram, who demitted office this March after a 17-year term.

It’s a question he is often asked, but there is no reason VijayRaghavan chooses to camelCase his name. Call it a quirk.

Of science and social media

VijayRaghavan, 64, is perhaps the most influential person in Indian science today. He directly speaks to the Prime Minister and government ministries, and helps implement policy changes.

His achievements and accolades precede him: He helped establish the leading research institute, National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), and has served as secretary in the department of biotechnology (DBT) with additional charge of the departments of science and technology (DST) and health research (DHR).

He has been awarded the prestigious S.S. Bhatnagar Prize (1998), given out by CSIR, the Infosys Prize (2009), and the J.C. Bose fellowship (2006). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society (2012), UK, and a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences (2014). He received the Padma Shri in 2013.

VijayRaghavan is also a man of the times, who believes social media can help make the field more accessible to the layperson. In fact, when he assumed office, his first step was to outline some of his goals on Twitter.

“There is an urgent need today for scientists to be seen as integrated in the part of society they come from,” he told ThePrint. “We need to formally invest a lot more in communication… A grassroots level change in attitude towards science communication is required.”

He speaks from experience. While in the DBT, he revamped its science outreach by starting an active social media presence and a blog.

Such outreach from pioneers of the field can prove crucial in today’s climate of politically charged scientific misinformation that is quick to go viral. Cue the unverified WhatsApp forwards and statements from ministers about historical scientific advances that weren’t.

VijayRaghavan suggests a careful approach in dealing with such misinformation, emphasising the importance of understanding why the environment is conducive to misinformation and the social issues that exist among people who create ‘fake news’.

“It’s even more worrisome than just misinformation. The kinds of complexities we deal with means that it is difficult on many issues to distill it to a one yes or no answer,” he said.

“It requires us to understand the range of nuances that are possible and what the caveats are in articulating that. So it’s not just that one needs to make sure you communicate fact, but you also need to communicate the complexity,” VijayRaghavan added.

The man and the role

That most local research is in English is considered a major impediment to encouraging the study of science in India. VijayRaghavan’s first order of action in office is to make science accessible in regional languages, a dear cause for him. This, he believes, will enable top science institutions in the country to connect with second- and third-tier ones.

“At a foundational level, a major thrust in looking at developing access to science in any language is top priority,” he said.

In his role as PSA, he also seeks to address the problems of ageism and sexism in academia by making policy changes to retain qualified female researchers. Other goals include involving the PSA’s office in government schemes like Swasth Bharat by collecting data and evaluating effectiveness, and enabling leadership roles in Indian science for global projects like LIGO; all the while communicating to us everything the office does.

“We will be letting people know what we do, regularly,” he said. “Not just through tweets but also through other forms of outreach. Feedback is important to us.”

A PSA’s powers, however, aren’t all-encompassing. Implementing policy changes requires a careful analysis of existing ones, and new recommendations should not contradict functioning policies.

“This role is a complex one,” he told The Print, “because if you look at any issue that needs to be addressed, it goes across different central ministries and state governments.”

Any advice he provides to a ministry requires interdisciplinary, inter-ministerial, or inter-agency involvement. It is in these areas that the PSA’s office functions: Bringing experts with ideas and information together on a platform and facilitate the execution of solutions.

His approach will involve dynamic teams — temporary groups of experts in different verticals who come together to address an issue, provide a solution, monitor its execution, and then be evaluated or followed up by another team. There will be no core team and every ministry is assured quality advice.

VijayRaghavan’s methods have worked in the past, with DBT. Under his leadership, the department created an indigenous biopharma product development programme, fortified rice with iron for malnourished children, increased research for a malaria vaccine and dengue detection, created new maternal and prenatal health technologies, and more.

A celebration all around

VijayRaghavan’s appointment has evoked positive reactions all around, with social media abuzz with glowing reactions from former students and colleagues.

“I’m very happy with this appointment,” said Ramesh Mashelkar, former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and former scientific adviser to both the PM and the Cabinet, to ThePrint. “Vijay has demonstrated great leadership in the past and suits this role perfectly.”

“I am very happy that he has been appointed to this post, and hopeful,” said Shruti Muralidhar, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked as a trainee with VijayRaghavan at his lab. “His clear vision and measured decisions will result in many positive contributions to India’s scientific landscape,” she added.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Can Indians research in science first before tweeting about it? We re still leading through Mahabharata for some inane fake discoveries. The whole world has moved beyond and is 100 years ahead. Indians are laggards in every science stream. They are also poor engineers, or restricted to coding for MNCs. Can Indians do some real science for a change? Who cares what is put out on Twitter?

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