A Critical Look at Inventa

– Anashku

This article is a compilation of my thoughts, mostly disagreement and criticism (or rather a myriad of questions I have) of Inventa – the endeavor started by a group of students from various elite science institutes (IISERs, NISER, CEBS & IISc) to communicate science.

On their website, they say, “As students of science, we believe it to be of utmost importance to be able to communicate the fruit of our [scientific] work, to the masses” (emphasis mine). As agreed by many fellow researchers, it is our responsibility to communicate our science to a broader audience. But, my question is, who are the masses?

I ask this because we can’t communicate to an audience we don’t understand.​​​​ Let me elaborate a bit. These institutions are based in different states of this country. For example, IISER Pune is in Maharashtra. Now, if you truly want to communicate your science to the masses, as claimed, whom would you collaborate with? IISER Kolkata, which is in West Bengal, or IISc, in Karnataka or Savitribai Phule Pune University, which is your neighbor? And, which language would you choose? Marathi, which is spoken and understood by the majority, in the state or English, in which even most English-medium school students are not fluent? So, why not include vernacular languages along with English?

Often the reason given is “we don’t get submissions in vernacular languages”.Shouldn’t we ask why is this the case when the majority on campus are comfortable in a language other than English? Probably it might reflect how the masses within our own campuses are kept away from such endeavours at most times.

One might say, “At least they’re doing something, and not everything can be perfect; after all, they are a bunch of undergrads and postgrads. Also, these are central institutes, and English is the commonly spoken language. So, it’s easy.” I agree, but I am trying to understand if this helps in communicating science to the masses. What do you think? If yes, there’s no point in reading this article further. However, if not, shouldn’t we ask, is there a better way rather than patting our backs because we believe that we are talking to the masses?

Working with state universities and writing in vernacular languages help us connect directly with the students from small private and government schools. The resources available at the elite institutes can be used aptly. Not just that, this method naturally helps students from subaltern places to participate and write actively, which is not guaranteed now. Isn’t this a good way to start addressing gatekeeping in science?

While these are my disagreements with the science communication part, I also disagree with the group’s politics. There is no mention of what non-science issues will be talked about by the group on the website. However, they organized an excellent talk titled ‘Education in exceptional times’, which is outside the realm of science communication. I understand we need to talk about how pandemic affected the education of children from underprivileged backgrounds. After this, isn’t it obligatory for the group to discuss what’s happening within our campuses because they say they’re concerned? Did the pandemic not affect our friends and families? Weren’t emails exchanged between the students and the administration regarding poor connectivity, lack of infrastructure at homes, etc.? Was it all handled well? Why were students of IISER Bhopal tweeting #shameoniiserbadmin? Didn’t the workers within the campus suffer? Wasn’t there a worker’s protest in IISER Mohali? Do their kids go to school? How many students committed suicide in IISc during the pandemic? Or, is it all ‘ghar ki baat’?

Honestly, very few people read Inventa. In fact, many within these institutes are unaware of its existence. To pass courses, to get decent grades is already a struggle; where is the time for all this? Then why do I care? The problem is not how many read or follow them. While running something like Inventa, there is communication between the students and the administration, and they act as opinion-makers. These opinions can help the administration devise rules and regulations to better run the institutes (assuming the administration wants to!). It is a good chance to inform the administration of the demands of the masses on campus. And, if not acknowledged, the same platform can be used to raise concern over the administration publicly.  However, this is never the case, else why would one show concern over the societal issues outside, which the administration is happy with discussing publicly, while blissfully ignoring or strategically belittling the mess within – where there arises a conflict with the administration. Not just that, they end up projecting these places as free of all structural barriers.

Recently the magazine also called for articles on inclusivity for their next edition. Great initiative! But, in their previous edition, the magazine published an interview with the alumni of IISERs. Whenever a couple of students are selected out of thousands, one always asks how and why were they chosen? Was it random? Or are they somehow special than the rest? I didn’t find any answers to these questions, but one thing was clear: none of them had any critical views on the places they studied at. It looked like a perfect place to do science or pursue your interest. Perhaps, that’s why we speak of problems elsewhere, like how pandemic affected students’ lives elsewhere, not within. Where is the inclusion when all views were almost the same? Or does that mean thousands who studied there share the same view as those few interviewed?

Am I thinking too much? Is it just whataboutery? Maybe! But aren’t these questions reasonable?

Before I finish, I should mention that they do some good work, organise workshops, and write some amazing pieces. But, when certain students are running it in the name of places they study and are getting noticed and reaping benefits for the same, I believe the rest of us have the right to question too!

So, lastly, let’s return to our questions, why such a grand project? Why not collaborate with neighboring state universities? Why not also in a vernacular language? Why ignore internal matters? There is a sophisticated way of answering it, as summarised in their interview with the alumni, “One of the most exciting prospects of top institutes is the opportunity to witness some of the best minds in action. Constructing a good peer group and managing a network of connections is beyond essential. For a close-knit world like academia, having good social skills is a crucial asset, and many individuals describe getting doctoral positions at prestigious universities because of the networks they built” (emphasis mine). Likewise, these projects are nothing but extending the networks concentrated within their colleges with others far away from them but them. Let me end this with a final open-ended question. Projects like this have many contributors in a variety of different roles. So, does everyone who labor for these grand projects benefit the same? 

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