Climbing down from ivory tower


The opportunity to do research is arguably the most exciting, time-consuming and stressful part of a scientist’s working life. The term “Publish or Perish” is familiar, driving thousands of academics looking for employment or career advancement to produce a vast number of scholarly articles of varying quality: a staggering 150 million such articles are available on the web and in literally hundreds of journals only in the social sciences.

The journals with such published research, or the conferences and meetings where it is shared less formally, are available only to a privileged few. Access to journals is expensive and reserved for the elite few who work in institutions that can afford the subscriptions. Despite their limited reach, publication in a peer-reviewed international journal means prestige, career advancement and cash in many Indian universities. But the larger goal of the social sciences is to somehow explain the nature of the social world, or to expand our understanding of it. Therefore, the research should certainly reach a wider audience.

Some social science research reaches the general public through popular media, but outreach is limited. So how much impact can a research study have through the usual academic channels? Many research teams have recognized these concerns and started publishing more creatively, with alternative forms of results aimed at broader audiences. Usually such publicly available results are audiovisual in various formats such as exhibitions, photo essays, citizen workshops, short videos or documentaries, comics and so on. Many also include hands-on or touch-based activities.

What follows is an account of one such attempt to share academic research in an innovative way. A research team from Azim Premji University, with the support of the communications team, developed a board game based on their research, The Solega Food Game – Food in the Woods. It’s interesting for two reasons: first, it’s both new and unusual, even as an alternative piece of research; and second, it appeals to an audience far removed from the usual audience for scientific research—small children.

The Solegas are an ancient tribe living in the BR Hills. The tribe lives in Podus or hamlets of about 50-60 families each floor. In the forest they are surrounded by all kinds of animals including tigers, leopards and 200 species of birds. Solegas subsisted in three ways: they grew all kinds of millet, vegetables, and fruit on their farms; they gathered tubers, honey, wild fruits and berries from the forest; They hunted wild animals such as wild boar, deer and rabbits.

In 1974 BR Hills was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary and in 2011 it was declared a Tiger Reserve. Solegas were driven out of the forest and settled in villages on the outskirts. This completely changed her life! They could not hunt and rarely went into the forest to gather fruit and honey. Even the crops they grew changed as wild boar and elephants invaded their farms and destroyed their crops. All of this has altered the tribe’s dietary habits, prompting the research team to study changes in their food system, producer-consumer relationships, and food and nutritional security of solegas. The Solega Food Game aims to introduce children to the traditional foods of Solegas and the changing agroecology of the hills.

A research product like the board game has the potential to reach people who rarely engage in research. It could have a significant impact on the general public and affected communities, especially with its Kannada version – perhaps much more so than the academic results.

Efforts like this translate research results into formal and informal action on the ground, while most academic activities often end up as recommendations in reports and papers. Through the democratization of knowledge, the impact of research can be far-reaching and meaningful. More such outputs will not only better connect science and citizens, but also ensure inclusivity in knowledge transfer.

(Shreelata Rao Seshadri works at the Ramalingaswami Center for Equity and Social Determinants of Health, Bengaluru, and Sheetal Patil at Azim Premji University.)