Chesmal Siriwardhana on science communication

Chesmal Siriwardhana As this blog is built around my personal experiences during the past few months, I would first of all like to introduce myself. I am medical graduate and a medical researcher from Sri Lanka, and I love writing in all its forms: creative writing, journalism, professional writing, etc.

I have embarked on a journalistic career path parallel to my medical career; and an opportunity arose for me to get trained as a science journalist. I was awarded the South Asia science journalism internship, an initiative by Science Development Network to train science communicators from the developing world, which was funded by the International Development Research Council (IDRC).

The programme had two components: training in science journalism and editorial processes in the SciDev.Net office in London.  This included visits to other media organizations and courses in journalism and editing with professional media training schools. The second part consisted of regional training in Sri Lanka and at the SciDev.Net South Asia regional office in New Delhi and in other parts of India.

In London, I visited the BMJ and the Lancet as part of the training. In India, I visited various governmental and non-governmental organizations involved in science communication, as well as newspapers and journals, to get a feel of how things are done.

Science communication is a complex issue; its varied players have varied interests and agendas. In the developing world, science journalism and science communication are still in their infancy, without a clear prediction of how they may develop. I was therefore totally unprepared for what I saw happening in science communication in the developing and developed countries. Here are some examples.

In the UK, science journalism is a profession where people with higher education in science and a training in science communication engage in. Whereas in Sri Lanka, science journalism is an unheard thing, where most of the journalists who write on science and related fields to newspapers and other publications do not have any science background, let alone any training on science communication, most of them doing it just because they were assigned to do that by their editors.

According to my experience, India is somewhere in the middle of this situation. New generation science journalists are emerging more and more and the country’s science journalism is advancing in leaps and bounds. The old style science journalists are by necessity disappearing slowly over time.
I am not trying to point out the obvious, that science communication has reached different levels of maturity in different settings. As I am a Sri Lankan, I have observed how science communication fares in my country, and during my visits to UK and India, I saw how it was faring in those countries.
The point I am trying to make is that the whole thing is tackled in three different settings in terms of professionalism, attitude, understanding, dedication.

I will go again into few examples here to defend my observation. During my internship with Science Development Network, I had the chance to attend a programme called ‘International workshop on science journalism’, organized by the National Science Foundation (NSF) of Sri Lanka.

Although it was called a workshop on science journalism, very few such people participated, in fact, the organizers did not have a clue about what science journalism really is about. They had invited researchers from various government organizations who had not even written a single article on science for mainstream media in their entire life. Professional journalists who were present at the event were people, who cover science for few local state media organizations of the type I earlier mentioned, were science journalists by necessity. Resource persons at the event were from several countries in the region and were true professional in the field, but the whole exercise was a waste as the participants could not utilise the true potential knowledge base offered by the resource persons present.

During my visit to India, I visited the Indian Department of Science and Technology (DST). This organization is the leading player in science communication in India. In contrast to NSF in Sri Lanka, DST seems to know what they are doing, at least to me. They have competent people at the helm, who seems to be well versed in the nuances of science communication and they have a clear vision of developing science communication including science journalism, in India. And from what I saw, they are dedicated professionals.

In the UK, I spoke to many science communicators, majority of them former science professionals who had changed their career paths. Almost all of them were science journalists and science communicators by choice, not by necessity like in Sri Lanka. This fact had enhanced their capabilities in doing an effective job in science communication.

I think the main obstacles to effective science communication in the developing world are lack of professionalism, attitude, and understanding. People should have commitment, dedication, and tolerance which goes hand in hand with any success story and can be readily applied in passing the obstacles that I mentioned above.

To round this blog up, on a personal note, I received a tremendous amount of experience during the internship, which enhanced my knowledge hundred fold. The whole experience changed my understanding about science communication forever, opening my eyes to the wider world, a more professional, dedicated and committed world than I previously thought existed.

It is my expectation that I would be able to use this experience and knowledge to make a profound change in the way that science is communicated in my country. It may it sound a bit too much of a wish to some of you, but I believe that even to achieve success in small scale, you need to aim big.

Chesmal Siriwardhana is a science communicator and research fellow at the Institute for Research & Development in Colombo.