Indian initiatives aim to break science’s language barrier
Drive for accessibility sees research relayed in regional tongues instead of English
Scientists and policymakers across India are aiming to bring science to the nation’s citizens and residents whose main language is not English. They’re producing content such as articles and podcasts, and giving talks about discoveries and studies in health science, biology, biotechnology and astronomy in some of the nation’s 22 official languages, including Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and Tamil.
As one of the languages used officially by the Indian government, English is largely considered to be the country’s language for science — but just 12% of the nation’s 1.3 billion citizens can speak and write it. Those who are trying to broaden the mix note that many more people will be able to access scientific content if it is available in other languages. “Speaking and writing in regional languages makes science more inclusive,” says Maggie Inbamuthiah, founder of Mandram (which means ‘platform’ in Tamil), an organization based in Chennai that seeks to create a platform on which ideas in science and technology are communicated in regional languages, including Tamil and Kannada.
Initiatives to write about science and produce science-related content in languages other than English have been under way for several decades, as many urban schools and most higher-education institutions moved to an English-based curriculum. Those multi-language efforts started to expand with the advent of the Internet, which has provided easy access to content, new media, platforms for distribution, and the ability to find collaborators and new audiences. Digital spaces and media have brought new players to the undertaking, and have re-energized those who have been involved in these efforts for years.
Although digital platforms and social media help researchers and others to communicate scientific findings and discoveries to the public, any such endeavour is pointless if readers, viewers or listeners cannot speak or read that language. Few of India’s languages have an up-to-date lexicon of scientific terms, and many researchers in the country have long become accustomed to thinking and writing about science in English, says Inbamuthiah. Still, she notes, language is fluid and adaptable. “We enrich a language by adding new words,” she says. “With time, we become more comfortable using them.”
Today, the effort to communicate science in multiple languages has a number of participants. Kollegala Sharma, a zoologist and senior principal scientist at the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CSIR) in Mysuru, India, has been producing Janasuddi (jana means both smart and knowledge and suddi means news in Kannada), a weekly science podcast, since September 2017. The 20-minute episodes, which comprise science research, news and interactive sessions that might include audience questions or comments, is in Kannada and is circulated through the WhatsApp platform. Listeners mainly include public high-school teachers — about 1,000, up from the 20 or so when Sharma first launched the programme. It’s also available on public radio.
The Indian government is supporting the endeavour. K. VijayRaghavan, a molecular biologist and principal scientific adviser for the government, is a vocal proponent of making science accessible to people in their first language. He is working to provide increased funding and support for such efforts, and engages with many science communicators on social media, including Twitter.
Other initiatives are emerging. Research Matters, a website that curates science news and articles in multiple languages and has more than 700,000 visitors, launched in November 2016. TED Talks India was launched in December 2017, and features prominent scientists who discuss topics such as neuroscience and astronomy in Hindi, the most widely spoken language in India. In January, the Indian Department of Science and Technology teamed with Doordarshan, a public service broadcaster, to launch two science-communication initiatives, DD Science, shown on Doordarshan, and Internet-based India Science. Both feature science-based programming in Hindi and English.
Others are also exploring the podcast realm. Last July, IndSciComm, an online science-communication collective, started Sea of Science, a podcast series in Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Assamese and Tamil that talks about model organisms used in biological research. The series producers say that it is challenging to translate scientific terms and concepts into regional languages. “But working on them is just as much about love of language and wanting to reach out to people as it is an exercise of scientific understanding and language experience,” says Shruti Muralidhar, a neuroscience postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and one of the producers. She says that they had to turn to online dictionaries, scientific lexicons and Google for support.
The producers also worked out a system of ‘romanization’ that helped them to keep some terms intact while maintaining the cadences and sentence structure specific to the language. While writing the script for the Tamil podcast, producer Abhishek Chari, a freelance science communicator in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had to translate the English word ‘metabolism’ into Tamil. Etymologically, it comes from the Greek word metabolē (from metaballein, ‘to change’) plus the suffix ‘-ism’. But trying to directly translate this word into Tamil (possibly with the term maatram, meaning ‘change’) won’t capture the biological meaning that the word ‘metabolism’ is used to convey, says Muralidhar. “Looking it up on Google Translate, valarchithai came up as a Tamil equivalent of metabolism. This worked perfectly because valarchithai is a compound word consisting of ‘grow’ (valar) and ‘disperse or shatter into pieces’ (chithai), so the term would mean ‘grow plus disperse’,” she says. “The agglutinative (putting multiple words together) nature of the Tamil language came to our rescue.”
Last June, Inbamuthiah partnered with the Bangalore Life Science Cluster (BLiSC) to organize The Jigyasa Project, a one-night presentation in Bengaluru of science talks and audience-interactive sessions in Kannada, Hindi and Tamil. A second presentation was held in December 2018. Each event included six scientist-presenters, had 100–150 attendees, and covered topics from genetics to intellectual property. The organization plans to continue to hold events every June and December.
The 12 scientists who took part agreed that their presentations were challenging because they required them not just to translate talks into another language, but also to translate the underlying scientific concepts. “I was quite nervous giving a talk in Hindi, and it was a big challenge for me,” says Uma Ramakrishnan, a molecular ecologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. “I thought about what I was going to say, and rehearsed it with some of my Hindi-speaking students, just to make sure I was communicating my thoughts correctly.
Ramakrishnan thinks that the effort to communicate science in languages other than English is very important, especially for field researchers like herself, whose work is local and regional, such as investigating tigers in Rajasthan or biodiversity in the Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot along India’s west coast. “Doing fieldwork across India, my team and I have often informally communicated our research in Hindi or Malayalam to local people,” she says. “For the people who live in these places, this is one way in which science can feel tangible and local. Platforms like Jigyasa provide an opportunity to make this more accessible to a larger audience.”
Mahinn Ali Khan, spokesperson for BLiSC, says that she observed a real sense of camaraderie between the audience and the scientists at Jigyasa. “Speaking in your own language helps you immediately drop the formality and reserve,” she says. Khan thinks that, although researchers are eager to engage with non-scientists, the shift to accepting science as a subject that can be discussed in a language other than English still faces some resistance from the public. “At this point, these are passion-driven projects for most of us,” agrees Inbamuthiah.
The lives of female scientists in India are being chronicled online
More than 100 researchers describe their work and the struggles they face, including gender bias and achieving a positive work–life balance. Two science journalists in India continue to build on The Life of Science, a multimedia website that they designed and launched in 2016 to highlight the research and lives of more than 100 women in the country. The site, founded and run by Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Dogra, aims to chronicle the scientists’ experiences in the lab and field. Jayaraj and Dogra, who work full-time on the site, compile feature stories, blogposts, podcasts, video and picture features about the women, whose work spans the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The journalists met in 2014 in Bangalore, while working on a now-defunct children’s science magazine. When this shut down in 2015, they decided to explore their mutual interest in science communication. Dogra had already planned to travel the country on a brief busman’s holiday, and visited the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Kalimpong to talk to women who worked there. Meanwhile, Jayaraj was interviewing geophysicist Kusala Rajendran at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and biophysicist Aruna Dhathathreyan at the Central Leather Research Institute in Chennai. When the two journalists conferred about the information they had gathered, they decided to create a website to publicize the stories. “We were curious about the science under way in laboratories in our back yard,” says Jayaraj about the site’s early days. “We also wanted to break the stereotype of the scientist as an old male person.” As the two began writing full-time, they crowdfunded for their work on the Indian platform BitGiving. Jayaraj and Dogra have since launched a second campaign to fund their work on the site, which includes compiling some of the content into two books. Each scientist’s story offers a glimpse into her world — from the physical environment in which she lives and works, to the nature of her research and how she reached her present position. “I particularly like how the narratives let us see the woman behind the science and scientific journey,” says Vidita Vaidya, a neuroscientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, who is featured on the site. The site showcases India’s diverse research landscape. Some of the scientists work with state-of-the-art equipment such as dilution refrigerators, confocal microscopes and high-performance computing clusters; others make the most of sparse funds and scant supplies. Yet the stories’ common threads resonate with many others who aspire to, or are navigating, a scientific career: the struggles to balance family life and career, and to counter bias and stereotypes. The interviewees offer ideas for ameliorating some of the struggles, such as establishing campus child-care facilities and promoting female scientists into leadership positions. “Nothing on this scale has ever been done before,” says Vaidya. She hopes that the site can help bring together those who are profiled, as well as other women who work in STEM in India. Jayaraj and Dogra continue to find more women to profile. Viewer numbers and other metrics are not available, but the developers intend to continue the site in perpetuity. Indian online news sites including The Wire and Firstpost have syndicated some of the articles. Those profiled are delighted at the chance to connect with readers. Number theorist Kaneenika Sinha at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune has received e-mails from parents seeking suggestions for training their mathematically talented child, junior scientists who plan to repatriate and want ‘insider’ information, and students with questions about her work. Jayaraj and Dogra are experimenting with different formats, including photo stories, cartoons and podcasts. “We see The Life of Science not really as an entity or ‘our’ project,” the two say, “but what it stands for — and that is the voices of women in science.”
Q&A: Living and working in India
In this article, Puthusserickal A. Hassan discusses balancing research and home life in India. What do you do? I am a full-time research scientist working in the field of self-assembled materials. Currently, our focus is to understand the role of antifreeze protein mimics in sustaining self-assembly at sub-zero temperatures. My research objective is to understand how small molecules undergo association in various solvents or experimental conditions, leading to an entire gamut of structures with nanometre-scale features. Looking at the structure-property correlations of such colloidal assemblies gives an insight into the role of intermolecular interactions in governing the microstructure. Many natural systems rely on such intermolecular associations to develop macroscopic objects to carry out specific functions or even to modulate their existence in extreme conditions. Puthusserickal A. Hassan Head, Nanotherapeutics and Biosensors Section, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre Do you enjoy it? Why? In my opinion, research is something you explore using your brain and sophisticated tools to understand how various processes happen in nature. Each experiment is a learning experience and gives new information which is hitherto unknown. By seeing new results, I feel like a child who gets to play with a new toy every day. What was your earliest career ambition? My ambition was to become a teacher with resources for research. During my graduate days, I wondered if I could see, one day, organic molecules the way that they are depicted in textbooks. Later, I realised that no one saw the molecules, but that the structures were deduced from a combination of different spectroscopic tools. What are some of the challenges in your job? The challenge today is that most of the scientific problems we try to address require interdisciplinary expertise. You need to expand your knowledge base by cutting across disciplines to understand how things work in nature. How do you deal with those challenges? Collaboration with experts is the best way to meet this challenge. It is not only the advanced instruments you use that are important, but also the proper utilisation and interpretation of data, which needs specialised learning across disciplines. Through discussions and collaborations with physicists and biologists, many challenges can be tackled. How does being based in India affect the way you work?< Research becomes successful once it is translated into products on the market. Despite having a good number of skilled workers, Indian industry lacks disruptive innovation. I feel that this is primarily because Indian industries do not invest enough in completely new products or processes, fearing commercial failure. For example, most pharma companies focus on the supply of generic drugs and very few attempts are being made at drug development. By incentivising industrial R&D in high-risk areas and supporting industry-academia joint projects, the transition from lab to land can be realised in many niche areas. What advice would you have for others trying to work in a similar sort of environment? It is a wonderful experience to explore new things in science. My advice is that one should first become a master in a specific area of interest. This mastery can be gained by nurturing a new idea that is just reported. This will provide the opportunity to gain knowledge about the tools and techniques needed for the specific problem. The next step is to think beyond what is reported. Speculate on an idea and see if you can prove that by using the tools you have acquired. When you prove an idea that was previously unknown, the excitement is unimaginable. What do you love about living and working in India? I love the culture of the place where I grew up. Living in India helps me to connect with my close relatives. Balancing my professional life with family, parents and relatives has been a top priority for me and being in India has made this possible. What's your top career tip to younger colleagues? First, assess your ability to explore new things in science. There may be several hurdles and failures along the way to cracking one problem. But the excitement you get once you resolve the issue is phenomenal. If you love exploring things that you have not come across before, go for research. What else would you say to others trying to build a scientific career in India? India is a hub of opportunity and it needs scientific solutions to help tackle many of its local problems – water purification, affordable healthcare and low carbon emission technologies, to name a few. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for young researchers. By addressing these challenges, you can help create an impact in society. If you have a career story that you'd like to share, then please complete this form, or send your outline by email.
India’s Commitment to Science Begins to Pay Off
Illustration by Michelle Thompson; Photos: Getty, Shutterstock A push to reverse its brain drain is providing the expertise to tackle its domestic problems. When Anil Koul told his friends that he would be moving to India to start working at a government research and development organization, most of the reactions were of disbelief, “even sympathy”, he says. “Some thought it was a crazy idea — moving from the world’s largest health-care giant to a governmental, bureaucratic set-up.” Koul took charge of the Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH), in the northern city of Chandigarh, in 2016, relocating from Johnson & Johnson in Belgium, where he was senior director and head of the respiratory diseases group. The move to IMTECH — a branch of India’s government-run Council of Scientific and Industrial Research — was atypical. Few scientists return to India after holding top positions abroad, and fewer still move into the less-lucrative public sector. The scientific landscape that Koul has returned to is vastly different from the one he left in 1998. India is now actively participating in and, in some cases, leading advances in pharmaceuticals, agriculture and energy. The country’s efforts in space exploration are a point of particular national pride. India is preparing for its second Moon mission in 2018 after a successful maiden Mars mission in 2014, and is spreading its wings in international astronomy collaborations. The country will host the third laboratory of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) project in Hingoli, while the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics in Pune is working on the design of the ‘Telescope Manager’ — the central command system of the Square Kilometer Array. These could be signs that India is enjoying ‘brain gain’ — Indian researchers are returning to their country of birth with newly minted research skills gained while abroad. This is a far cry from the state of the country’s scientific sector 40 years ago, when entire cohorts of graduates from India’s research institutes left for US institutions in search of better economic and educational opportunities. “We are now in an era of globalization and international cooperation,” says immunologist Indira Nath, a member of the Indian National Science Academy. “Scientists going abroad is no longer a big issue.” To-do list But India still faces significant challenges. It is home to one-quarter of the world’s tuberculosis (TB) cases, and continues to be ravaged by mosquito-borne infections including malaria and dengue fever. Around 700 million Indians (56% of the country’s population) have no sanitation, 240 million have no access to electricity and 97 million lack clean drinking water. Natural disasters such as droughts, floods and storms — already common across Southeast Asia — are set to increase in frequency and ferocity as the world’s climate changes. It falls on publicly funded research to take the lead in finding solutions. Since India gained independence from British rule 70 years ago, every prime minister has emphasized the role of science in the country’s development. The current incumbent, Narendra Modi, told a meeting of leading Indian science officials in July that science, technology and innovation are the keys to the progress and prosperity of India and that the government aims to apply science to solve the country’s problems. As various policy initiatives make clear, India is betting on science to address its pressing challenges in energy, environmental protection, food, water, sanitation, health care and unemployment. To achieve this, the government is hoping to find more scientists like Koul, who sees his role as an “opportunity to address bigger social as well as scientific challenges”. This is a tall order, and there’s an elephant in the room. Government funding for Indian research and development has stagnated at around 0.85% of gross domestic product for more than a decade, compared with at least 3% invested by technologically advanced nations such as Denmark, Japan and Sweden. Koul is nonetheless optimistic, and has helped to forge a collaboration between IMTECH and Johnson & Johnson, announced in August. They will work in parallel on four new molecules as potential drug targets and explore shorter, safer and more-effective oral treatment regimens for various strains of TB. Biopharma strides Koul’s collaboration is well placed to take advantage of the success of India’s pharmaceutical industry. Building on the solid foundations of the country’s expertise in academic chemistry, major pharmaceutical companies have set up factories to make affordable generic antibiotics, vaccines, and diabetes and HIV medicines. This strength is paying dividends. According to Hyderabad-based Sathguru Management Consultants, India’s pharmaceutical industry was worth US$18.8 billion in 2010 and $41.1 billion in 2017, and is expected to expand to an estimated $72.4 billion in 2022. One-fifth of the world’s generic drugs are made in India, and around half of this manufacturing is based in Hyderabad. The production of generics has certainly helped the sector, but many people hope to see the country grow beyond manufacturing. “We now need to be recognized for new drugs that address unmet medical needs,” says Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, managing director of biopharmaceutical company Biocon in Bangalore. The firm’s growing pipeline of biologics ranges from oral insulin for diabetes to monoclonal antibodies for use in cancer therapy. “There is incredible potential within India to become a powerhouse driving biopharma innovation in the Asian market,” says Vaz Narasimhan, himself a second-generation Indian American and chief executive of Novartis, a pharmaceutical company in Basel. The biopharma industry is increasingly looking for new types of talent, says Narasimhan. He gives the example of data analysts and mathematicians who he says are driving the next wave of medical innovation. Meenakshi Diwan works on a solar panel in India’s Odisha state in 2009 — then part of a burgeoning solar grid with a capacity of less than 10 MW. Now, India has a solar capacity of more than 6,000 MW.Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/PANOS Narasimhan’s confidence in Indian pharmaceutical development is significant. Most pharma companies have been reluctant to take on costly research and development to combat ‘poor-man’s diseases’ such as malaria and TB, says Soumya Swaminathan, one of India’s leading experts on TB. Swaminathan was appointed deputy director-general for programmes at the World Health Organization in October. She has led an effort to consolidate India’s fragmented TB research, previously supported by four separate institutions, under one umbrella organization — the IndiaTB Research Consortium. “These diseases are our problem,” she says. “And it is pointless expecting Western pharma companies to be interested in them.” When asked, Indian pharmaceutical companies say they are reluctant to take up research in these areas, citing a lack of government funding for early-stage research, and reams of red tape once a product reaches clinical trials. Pollution pains In April, a collaboration between researchers in Germany and Anil Dayakar, an environmental activist in India, reported that Hyderabad’s pharmaceutical manufacturing was polluting the region’s water system to an “unprecedented” degree, and hurrying the development of drug-resistant forms of bacteria (C. Lübbert et al. Infection 45, 479–491; 2017). The researchers suggested that more regulation was needed to prevent further pollution in the region. The pharmaceutical industry in India is not the only source of contamination — pollution is common to many of the country’s cities, and India’s capital, New Delhi, spends its winters wrapped in smog. Krishna Ganesh, director of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Tiruptai, hopes that science can help. “The focus in chemistry is now shifting into areas that involve green and sustainable chemistry,” he says. Research topics include non-toxic chemicals, environmentally benign solvents, organic production and renewable materials. “The main aim should be to get rid of toxic chemicals produced in industrial manufacturing,” and to prevent gases escaping into the atmosphere, he says. Nanotech hopes India’s strength in chemistry has aided its effort to become a leader in the interdisciplinary field of nanotechnology. It’s an especially tempting area of research because there’s a deep vein of funding to mine, says Kizhaeral Subramanian, a researcher in the department of nanoscience and technology at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore. “Global funding for nanotech had increased from $1 billion in 2000 to $2 trillion in 2016,” he explains. On top of that, Subramanian says that the country has a strong talent pool to draw from owing to the proliferation of nanotechnology degree programmes across the country. From a developmental perspective, the field is a sensible focus as well. As India’s population swells further, the demand for food and clean water is rising. “Nanomaterials can help in water cleansing from bacterial and metal contaminants,” says Ganesh, and nanomaterials may also be able to help with crop protection. For example, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University is researching the production of non-toxic herbicides and fertilizers, as well as emulsions and films that improve the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. Energy dark holes Of India’s 1.3 billion citizens, almost 20% still lack electricity. To help combat this, the country has launched an ambitious renewable-energy plan, broadly focused on solar and wind power. Overall, the country hopes to produce 175 gigawatts from renewable energy sources by 2022 — meeting around 20% of the country’s predicted electricity demand. According to Tata Narasinga Rao, associate director of the International Advanced Research Centre for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials in Hyderabad, India enjoys between 250 and 300 clear sunny days each year — ideal for solar technologies. The energy plan is helped by cheap land, a vast pool of talent to draw from and enthusiastic government support and infrastructure, says Rao. In a review published this year, the International Renewable Energy Agency lists India among the six countries — with Brazil, China, Germany, Japan and the United States — that accounted for most of the renewable-energy jobs in 2016. One research programme, the Solar Energy Research Institute for India and the United States, brings together the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Denver, Colorado, to accelerate the development of solar electric technologies by lowering the cost of production. As part of this venture, scientists developed a new nanotechnological solar absorption system in 2015. The prototype, Rao says, costs half as much as the non-vacuum tubes currently used in solar collectors worldwide and have enormous potential for industry. There are local quirks to take into account before any company starts cashing in on a solar goldmine. Manufacturers still haven’t worked out what to do about monkeys and rats, which relentlessly and indiscriminately chew telephone, electrical and fibre-optic cables across the subcontinent. Meanwhile, Indian researchers are using crop residues, normally burnt as waste by farmers, to develop advanced biofuel systems and products such as biogas and biomaterials. “India’s strong knowledge base in biotechnology, chemistry, engineering and process engineering can be tapped to do research in the biofuel sector,” says Ahmad Kamal, a chemist at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology in Hyderabad. Calling young scientists back To achieve its grand ambitions, India needs to nurture its new-found brain gain, and is fighting to make itself as attractive as possible through the Department of Science and Technology (DST), one of India’s largest research-funding agencies. In June, for example, the DST announced endowments of $10,000 a month for researchers who choose to move to India from labs overseas. Lipi Thukral, a computational biologist at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in New Delhi, thinks that the Indian research sector has been unfairly stereotyped abroad. “It is a myth that Indian salaries for scientists are low. They are very good when one factors in the purchasing power of the rupee,” she says. “One can do great science here, too.” Thukral uses high-performance computers to study the movement of biological structures and to model protein folding. After a PhD in Germany, and a postdoc in the UK, she returned to India in 2012 under another DST scheme. Shalini Gupta, a chemical engineer at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, returned to India in 2009 after earning a PhD in chemical and biomolecular engineering from North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, and a postdoc from Imperial College London. Gupta’s team is working on cheap, portable medical tools to rapidly diagnose sepsis, a serious complication of many bacterial infections. For her, India makes the perfect laboratory. “We have the advantage of having ready access to patients, samples and field trials.” Meanwhile, the Indian government plans to develop 20 existing universities into ‘world class’ research institutions with an incentive of $1.54 billion of funding. Policymakers hope this will free the country’s best universities from reliance on the country’s grant commission and associated red tape, and encourage greater institutional autonomy. “There are always challenges in working in a third-world country, but India’s role in the development of next-generation technology cannot be ignored, especially in the fields of pharmaceuticals, agriculture, energy and environment,” says Gupta. “If you are situated close to a problem, you have a bigger advantage in terms of solving it.” Nature 552, S41-S43 (2017) doi: 10.1038/d41586-017-07771-y