NRF's iThemba LABS and SAAO Participate in Science Communication Panel Discussion at Science Forum 2023

NRF’s iThemba LABS and SAAO Participate in Science Communication Panel Discussion at Science Forum 2023

Societal challenges, such as public health and climate change, highlight the pivotal need for continued investment in science research. However, science does not speak for itself, science communication plays a key role in engaging the general public about science and the solutions that come through it.

Science Forum South Africa (SFSA) 2023 put a spotlight on science communication by adding a track to its programme that was dedicated solely to science communication. This track included five sessions on science communication.

Mr Ntsikelelo Ngaleka, the presenter of the Science Wise Show at Vow FM, hosted a session entitled The Lack of Science Coverage in the Media and its Implications for the Future of Science, Technology, and Innovation. The panel included were Dr Daniel Cunnama from NRF-SAAO; Dr Gillian Arendse from NRF-iThemba LABS; and Ms Princess Mahogo, the news anchor at Jacaranda FM.

The discussion looked at the reasons behind the lack of science coverage in the general media and considered a range of contributing factors. It also interrogated the role of citizens in helping to change this narrative.

Dr Cunnama, a Science Engagement Astronomer, discussed the strategic use of several media platforms to provide a better understanding of, ignite interest in, and encourage conversations about astronomy.

He said, “There is no one silver bullet for enhancing the media coverage of science. We have to exhaust all options, social media, tv and other media platforms. One of the ways in which we can do this is by having a good relationship with journalists.”

Practising what he preaches, Dr Cunnama is the creator and host of The Cosmic Savannah Podcast, which showcases world-class astronomy and astrophysics from the African continent. He also often appears on the television programme, Expresso, as an expert on all things astronomy. This morning show is broadcast to a large audience on SABC 3.

Driven by the need to make a profit, most media outlets prioritise their content in accordance with popularity. Ms Mahogo reminded the audience of their own power to control the narrative.  By reading more science news, we encourage media outlets to prioritise it more. She also pointed to the power of community radio stations and media outlets, who are often also in need of content.

The conversation also touched on the need for more science journalists to ensure that science is communicated accurately to the public. The speakers pointed to the COVID-19 cases that saw the spread of anti-vaccine sentiments and a trend of doubting scientists.

The rise of fake news has seen several cases where science has been communicated incorrectly, often resulting in negative perceptions of the scientists behind the science. “Ideally, you want to have a critical public that is informed and able to ask the right questions before coming to a conclusion rather than a society that is led by blind faith”, says Dr Cunnama.

In furthering the discussion, Dr Arendse expressed the need for society to not just speak about science but also the people behind science. “Scientists need to claim the science communication space and the responsibility of impacting society with science. We hardly speak about the people who do science and the purpose behind the science”, said Dr Arendse.

Dr Arendse himself is largely involved in science engagement and known for his strategic use of humour to lighten seemingly complex science subjects. From appearing in children’s shows such as HIP2B2 when he was younger to presenting at several educational events, he has been doing his bit to change the perception of science that is often labelled as difficult, particularly in schools.

The discussion sparked an exciting debate that instilled great interest from the audience, a collective of students, journalists, academics and more who had much to say on the topic. Students, in particular, asked for more relevant science content, which they can easily understand and relate to.

The audience and panel collectively agreed that there was more to be done to ensure that science communication could reach a greater mass of people. The key takeaway message was that we can all play a part in enhancing the coverage of science in society.

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