A well-known, young, anonymous Indian scientist-blogger has just dropped her anonymity. Which set me thinking.
Most Indian science bloggers whom I know/follow blog under their real names, and are not shy of addressing controversial or provocative issues relating to science administration and society. Examples are T A Abinandanan, Sunil Mukhi, Arunn Narasimhan, Dheeraj Sanghi, Giridhar Madras, the late Rahul Basu (whose blog is being continued by Neelima Gupte, his wife, and Sumathi Rao, both of whom are well-known physicists), and many, many others. In fact, now that Kaneenika has “come out”, I can’t really think of an anonymous Indian scientist blogger.
In contrast, science bloggers in the west (and particularly the US) fall into two categories. The non-anonymous ones, like John Baez (one of the oldest bloggers, who I think has been doing this since before the word “blog” was invented), Sean Carroll, Timothy Gowers, Jonathan Eisen, and — again — many, many others, tend to focus on scientific research, at most digressing to topics like open access. They rarely take on more controversial topics like gender inequality, workplace harassment, and so on, let alone larger societal or political issues. (Baez, and Jacques Distler, even deleted critical but surely uncontroversial posts that they wrote on the infamous Mohamed El Naschie, the Egyptian scientist who edited an Elsevier journal where he published dozens of his own papers, each with copious citations to himself!) And then there are science bloggers like Female Science Professor and GMP who write provocative stuff about how science is actually run at their workplace, but zealously maintain their anonymity.
While there’s nothing wrong with anonymity in general, I definitely take Kaneenika’s decision to use her real name as a vote of confidence in her new workplace (IISER Pune) — a confidence that, from what I know of the place, is entirely justified.
All this reminds me of another discussion on Abi’s blog some time ago, on the question of what young scientists seeking jobs in India should reveal of their “two-body problem” — should they say that their spouse is also seeking a job in the same city, or not? Several well-known Indian scientists responded, and nearly all advised openness and suggested that Indian institutions will be accommodating to such concerns. Later, Abi pointed out that a discussion on the same topic, in the US context, led to exactly the opposite advice dominating (typical: “Bring up the second body the minute you have an offer, and not a second sooner.” And again, it’s worth noting that nearly all commenters here were anonymous, while most commenters on Abi’s blog used their real names (or easily-identifiable ones).
Finally, I quote from a mail I received from a foreign participant at a workshop we recently organised: he enjoyed interacting with us because, with American scientists in particular, “a lot of effort is invested in how one is projecting one’s image”; but “you [Indian participants] didn’t seem worried about what kind of image you’re projecting, rather just went about being yourselves and you seemed to have taken delight in social interactions.” I found that comment interesting and perhaps true.
There are negatives about doing science in India, and there is no doubt that the US is far ahead of the rest of the world in scientific achievement. But let us keep the positives about Indian science in mind, and try to build on them. If scientists — and young scientists, in particular — feel freer in India to “be themselves”, I see that as a very positive thing indeed.