Science Communication Comes Under the Spotlight

Science Communication Comes Under the Spotlight

Science communication, a field all about informing and educating the public as well raising awareness about scientific work, came under the spotlight at the 2022 Nobel Inspired Lecture.

Speaking to the theme “Science Communication & Media as a Catalyst for Activism and Social Justice”, four esteemed academics offered their insight into the topic. The well-attended lecture was held at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) on 27 October 2022, hosted by the National Research Foundation (NRF) in partnership with the Swedish Embassy in Pretoria and the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

The overriding view was that science communication needed to improve vastly. The COVID-19 pandemic left with scientists a perfect lesson about the importance of enhanced science communication.

The academic speakers were Professor Mehita Iqani, the South African Research Chair in Science Communication at Stellenbosch University; Dr Candice Bailey, the Strategic Initiatives Editor at The Conversation Africa; Professor Ylva Rodny-Gumede is the Head of the Division for Internationalisation and a Professor in the School of Communication at the University of Johannesburg; and Sara Arvidson, the Head of the Communications at Mälardalen University, Sweden.

Arvidson, a former journalist, opened her address by highlighting a case study about an epidemiologist who became a well-known science communicator in Sweden before and during the Coronavirus pandemic. The story was about Emma Frans, a postdoctoral researcher in medical epidemiology at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. Her inroads in science communication have lessons for scientists, said Arvidson. “She succeeded in getting through to the public and even to the people in this social media bubble. Long before the pandemic, she started a blog and she teamed up with the media and spoke the language of ordinary people.”

“When the pandemic struck, she was invited to every TV show. She could comment on ongoing developments because she had built credibility and she had learned to speak the language that ordinary people outside the science community can understand,” said Arvidson.

Frans is an example of what science can achieve if researchers reach out to the public, added Arvidson. “How can we make the whole science community better at this?”

Arvidson maintained that there is another challenge facing scientists. They can become victims of threats and vitriol after putting out their findings. One Swedish scientist faced a tsunami of hatred and threats after his findings around COVID-19 were published in a journal. “We have to be better at equipping and teaching researchers to reach out, speaking the language that we can all understand and then we have to be better at protecting the researchers against threats and hatred.”

Rodny-Gumede said the global Coronavirus crisis amplified the need for improved science communication. “The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, showed us how important it is for researchers to share research; and if they can’t do that it comes to the detriment of public policy formation. But it is so that if we don’t get this right, it’s to the detriment of the people that we are trying to serve.”

She observed that the science community communicated better during the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to what it did during disease outbreaks in the early 2000s. Said Rodny-Gumede, “The fact that science didn’t communicate then actually cost a lot of lives.”

Dr Candice Bailey revealed that The Conversation, an online platform that publishes news stories, research reports, and expert opinion and analysis written by academics and researchers, recorded staggering readership figures at the height of the pandemic. This indicated the public’s hunger for research-based news and analysis.

A whopping 14.9 million viewers read The Conversation’s articles at the height of the pandemic, and it published a record 659 articles about the Coronavirus. “We saw a massive spike in readership and academic contributions during the two-year pandemic,” said Bailey. “That speaks to how much people wanted evidence-based information that was rooted in science.”

Scientific communication provided a platform for scientists to engage society on their research, Iqani asserted. It should therefore not be a linear exercise, but dialogic, she stressed.

Professor Mehita Iqani said, “It’s more urgent than ever that we try to give an account of how our research and work contributes in some way to improving the lives of everyone. So, the argument I’m making is that communication research should be aimed at producing both theoretical and empirical knowledge that can help to connect science and society in dialogic ways. This must take an issues-driven approach.”

She added, “The linear way of communication has been long abandoned by critical media and communications researchers. Scientists should not be seen as prophets who merely, as John Durham Peters put, speak into the air with the help of interlocutors and technology and thereby inform the masses about their work.”

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