Dr. Killugudi S Jayaraman (born 1936) is a familiar name for several generations of scientists, policymakers and journalists in India. He is credited with founding the tradition of independent science reporting in Indian media. A qualified nuclear scientist as well as a trained journalist, Dr. Jayaraman first worked in the US but chose to return to India and worked in DRDO before joining premier news agency, the Press Trust of India (PTI) in 1973. He founded PTI Science Service, which became a trailblazer in science journalism and training ground for future budding science journalists. Dr. Jayaraman focused on investigative science reporting and got many scoops – unauthorized project on the genetic control of mosquitoes, racket in cornea transplants, illegal import of hop plants for beer making, Himalayan fossil fraud by Viswajit Gupta and so on.
As a long-time correspondent of Nature, Dr. Jayaraman played a critical role in placing Indian science on a global platform. In this interview with Dinesh C Sharma (Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow and founding Managing Editor, India Science Wire) who was trained under Dr. Jayaraman in PTI (1984-1990), Dr. Jayaraman recalls his early life and the journey in science journalism. Here are excerpts from the interview:
How did you shift from scientific research to science journalism?
I had an interest in writing from school days. While studying in the US, I had been occasionally writing science articles for The Hindu. The interest continued even after becoming a post-doc in Canada. I remember having a long phone conversation with Professor Joseph Weber – who had developed the first gravitational wave detectors at the University of Maryland where I did my Ph.D. – for a story on gravitational waves that got published in The Hindu.
While working as a post-doc in the University of Manitoba, I was sent to Chicago to present a paper at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society in 1970. There, in the Press Room, I chanced meeting the science reporter of wire service, the Associated Press, who had come to cover the meeting. His name was Charles Gene McDaniels. I found him banging his typewriter in the Press Room. I told him that I also wanted to become a science reporter like him and asked for his advice. “You are in the right place,” he told me. “About 10 miles from here is the Medill School of Journalism on the Evanston campus of Northwestern University. You can join that school, which is No.2 journalism school in the US.” I took his word seriously and took a train to Evanston the same day and met the dean of the Medill School and asked him if he would take me as his student for the one-year post-graduate (M.S.) course in journalism. “Not many have come to us after a Ph.D. in physics. Why you want to study journalism when you can report science without doing an MS,” he said. It took some effort to convince him that I wanted to learn all the tricks of the trade and fundamentals of reporting.
As part of practical training, I was also attached to a reporter of Chicago Tribune who used to take me in his car wherever he went. This gave me a chance to see how reporters work in the field. On one such round, he noticed that fire engines were missing from their usual depot. That raised a red flag: had they been called for duty? He guessed it right. There was a huge fire in the neighborhood and he was the first to report from the site. This was a great lesson in reporting: always be alert and inquisitive.
You joined the Press Trust of India (PTI) in 1973. How was it to work in a news agency as a science reporter?
Scientists and science administrators are much more open today than the days when I started reporting science in PTI. This was a big downside. For example, though G.P. Talwar at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) had in 1972 successfully experimented with his novel birth control method on rats, he would not give more details for a story without the permission of the institute director. Eventually, permission was granted and the PTI story on a potential birth vaccine for women made global news. In the presence of an invisible wall between scientists and reporters, science conferences and journals were the main source for stories. Sometimes, there was a problem here too. I remember AIIMS scientist (Dr. O.P.Ghai) who had published the harmful effects of the colors used during the Holi festival, strongly objected to PTI coverage of his published findings on the ground it scared people. The Tight-mouthed science community, coupled with the absence of official news outlets and press officers in scientific institutions, proved to be a major handicap to reporters covering science.
What were the top science stories you broke in the early days?
Some stories that come to my mind include the one on biological warfare implications of US-funded project on the genetic control of mosquitoes. Following the story, the matter was raised in the parliament and Public Accounts Committee (PAC) investigated the matter in 1975. It resulted in the closure of the project and the government’s decision to set up a task force to scrutinize proposals for all projects involving foreign collaboration. Then there was one that exposed a racket in cornea transplants in which some eye surgeons in India were making money by misusing corneas donated by the international eye bank of Sri Lanka.
I also wrote on illegal import of “hop” plants (used for beer making) infected with dangerous pests by Mallya’s brewery in Bangalore. This also led to a parliamentary inquiry and resulted in changes in the Plant Quarantine Act. Another expose related to in-patients and outpatients at AIIMS being used as guinea pigs for research. The AIIMS director Lalit Agarwal threatened to sue PTI but changed his mind when shown a photocopy of the medical record of one patient. After my reports exposing the Himalayan fossil fraud by Dr. Viswajit Gupta of Punjab University, he was dismissed. I also wrote on how a blind school in Delhi, in order to keep getting government grants, was preventing its students from getting free eye operation that would have restored their vision. Another expose that led to a parliamentary investigation by PAC was about genetically engineered mosquitoes for malaria control.
Science reporting has changed at the turn of the century with the internet, embargoed stories from scientific journals, etc. Any thoughts on this?
This has made the job of science reporters a lot easier as one can write stories from home unlike in the 1970s and the 1980s when reporters were mostly on the road or near telephones. Internet journalism, however, limits one to follow-up work done by others. It robs one the thrill of spotting a potential story and turning out an article after a lot of running around. Many story ideas come when you least expect them. Once I sighted two dead experimental rats, used syringes and cotton rolls in a dustbin outside a hospital during a walk. It forced me and a photographer friend to visit and take photos of trash sites outside many other hospitals in Delhi. We found rag pickers rummaging these places to recover reusable articles. The resulting story, headlined “How hospitals spread diseases”, highlighted the pitiable state of waste disposal and prompted authorities to set up incinerators in hospital premises.
You have also been instrumental in presenting Indian science to international audiences through your reportage for the Nature group of journals. When did this association begin?
It started in 1981 when Nature editor Sir John Maddox asked me if I could write about science and technology developments in India and subsequently I became its contributing correspondent. In 1998, Nature desired to bring out an India supplement. This resulted in “News India”, a quarterly publication, with myself as its editor. This publication was stopped in 2008 when Nature launched the online version. My long association during which Nature and its sister journals covered important S&T developments in India, now continues on-and-off.
How would you describe the present state of science journalism in India?
Thanks to the new generation of over-active science reporters, the coverage of Indian science by the media today has grown leaps and bounds. It is also a pleasure to note that many of those responsible for this growth had earlier been associated with PTI science service. Future is extremely bright for four reasons: (1) Increasing number of talented graduates and post-graduates in science and engineering are embracing this profession — a trend that will improve the quality and domain of reporting; (2) government science agencies, in their own ways, are promoting science communication; (3) major newspapers are giving more space to science-related stories; and (4) thanks to the digital age, scientists who used to be reticent in the past, are racing to become vocal and visible like never before.
[Excerpted from the book “Raising Hackles: Celebrating the life of science journalist Dr. K S Jayaraman,” edited by Dinesh C Sharma, with permission. The Kindle edition of the book is available on Amazon.]