Ankur Paliwal

Why Inclusivity is Better in Science and Journalism

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Science journalist Ankur Paliwal has gained acclaim during his self-described zigzagging career for tenaciously campaigning for broader diversity in science — especially in academic settings in his native India.

“There’s already enough data coming out that when there’s diverse themes, the nature of inquiry changes, the questions expand,” Paliwal said, “you get perspectives that you didn’t have, you will look into areas you are not looking into, and the products will just benefit a more diverse society.”

Paliwal joined a few dozen UCSF student during Synapse’s the fifth annual science speaker series on April 13. He’s an independent journalist who writes about science, inequity and LGBTQIA+ persons, and has reported from India, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Germany and the United States for various international media outlets such as Nature, Scientific American, Undark and the Guardian. He is also the senior editor with the Asian Scientist Magazine which focuses on science and scientists in Asia.

Paliwal explained to the students that there’s no such thing as apolitical journalism.

“As a journalist, you are always trying to bring in two voices. And you’re also trying to help build a public narrative, which would then help people have more conversations about inequity, oppression, fairness, and inclusivity in society.”

Paliwal’s reporting exposed the way India’s caste system limits diversity in science by creating barriers for individuals wanting to enter science academia.

“The data I collected was pretty shocking. What I found is that less than one percent of professors work from these underprivileged communities,” he said. “And that really matters because that's about having role models in your field.”

Despite clear evidence of bias, Paliwal still gets significant pushback for his reporting.

“It’s really bizarre,” he said. “Even in this day and age where there’s a lot of conversation about caste, people still comment on the story saying that they don’t deserve to be here.

“Sometimes when I give talks in scientific institutes in India, the campuses are still very contested. The students who are from privileged communities still ask me that, why do we need affirmative action policies? It’s taking away seats. We are working harder. But just because of limited affirmative of action, somebody who is less deserving, is coming into our campuses. So it’s still a very contested space. Yeah, that’s unfortunate.”

Paliwal described the way hiding his own identity hampered his education, and how that led to a self-described zigzagging path into journalism. And he talked about his acclaimed coverage of a neglected tropical disease that was spreading through poor, rural parts of Ethiopia.

Hear Paliwal’s entire chat on the Synapse podcast and YouTube channel.