World Federation of Science Journalists

Indian science website mulls magazine offshoot


January 5, 2009

There’s a new science magazine waiting in the wings of world’s largest democracy, which has become a hotbed of 21st-century science.

In the words of Subhra Priyadarshini, editor of Nature India these are “boom times” for science in her country, “perhaps one of the few positive spin-offs of its burgeoning population.” India produces more than 100,000 science post doctorates annually and is enjoying a reverse brain drain as the country’s scientific diaspora returns home to institutes and laboratories with brand new R&D facilities.

Nature India www.nature.com/nindia, is a creature of the huge Nature Publishing Group (NPG), home of the Nature periodical itself. Nature Publishing Group, India, is reviewing plans for a printed-on-paper magazine as reinforcement for over 35,000 monthly visitors to the website.

A number of senior science journalists, including Nature correspondent for India K. S. Jayaraman, feed the website. “We have stringers writing from all major science hubs of the country including Bangalore, Mumbai and Kolkata,” Priyadarshini said. Big names in Indian science such as India’s former president and ‘missile man’ A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, astrophysicist Jayant Vishnu Narlikar and father of India’s green revolution M. S. Swaminathan contribute commentary to the website. The portal mentors young scientists interested in writing non-technical conference reports and provides a platform on which they can hone their writing skills.

Nature India Homepage
www.nature.com/nindia


Nature India’s intended audience among the country’s scientific community gets the latest job opportunities, scientific events, research and news about science in India, as well as “free access to some handpicked premium content from various NPG journals,” according to Priyadarshini.
For a science editor looking for story ideas, there’s much to pick from. One December news item outlined a new, cheap way to recycle plastic bottles using energy from a simple 800 watt domestic microwave oven. The time for a number of chemical catalysts to break down those ubiquitous water bottles was drastically reduced from eight hours to 35 minutes. “The research is significant as recycling one plastic bottle saves enough energy to light a 60W light bulb for over six hours,” according to researchers N.D. Pingale of the University of Mumbai and S.R. Shukla.

On the light-hearted end of the spectrum, one of Priyadarshini’s blogs had a back-and-forth about the “celestial smiley,” the juxtaposition late last year of the new moon with Venus and Jupiter in close proximity. The event was enough to provoke photos from astronomers showing the smiling face in the sky.

Priyadarshini herself wrote recently about India’s arms-length-from-government National Science and Engineering Research Board, set to launch in April with an annual budget close to US$200 million. “Scientists are hoping it would be fast and not like all other government funding bodies that believe in loads of paperwork and [have] huge time lags between application and grant,” she wrote. But she worried that even if was efficient, the new agency “might end up feeding the fat babies and the undernourished will … remain neglected.”

A good story to combat myopia in the developed world was a piece written by Subhadra Menon for Nature asking “Why does a developing nation have such an ambitious space program?” Menon takes the story of India’s space ventures back to physicist Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai, only 28 when his country became independent in 1947. Sarabhai researched cosmic rays with Nobel laureate C. V. Raman and trained at Cambridge. Later he founded the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, for research in space and allied sciences.

Clearly there is much on Nature India – as there is on scores of other straight-science websites – for a more general readership. As always, the handling has to combine responsible reporting without dumbing down, that creative and sometimes wearing tension in all science journalism.
As to whether and when the magazine launches, a mock print issue has been created, but management is still looking at market feasibility – can it break even with advertising alone, as the website does, with ads from scientific institutions, foreign embassies and consulates in India, pharma and biotech companies.

“The print issue, if it becomes a reality, would have some hand-picked articles from the website and some exclusive ‘print only’ content,” Priyadarshini said.