Increasing public perception of science via robust science communication

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Science is essential to the economic, societal and environmental growth of a country. Science improves the quality of life by providing better medical care, healthier environments, increased efficiency in industries, secured financial trading, improved food safety, strengthened border security, stimulating environment, etc. However, a lack of understanding of the scientific advances can have dire consequences. Take for example the issue of climate change, where a number of factors including inefficient communication of fundamental climate data to the public has not only created misunderstanding of scientists and their research, but has also influenced the government decision-making with regards to environmental regulations, science policy and funding. The importance of proper science communication is not just limited to the issue of climate change. With the development of new technologies like genome sequencing and personalized medicine, general public needs to know the complex scientific intricacies so that they can make decisions that directly affect the quality of their life. Thus, it is essential for the general public to know the basics of science to make informed decisions.

Scientific advancements and breakthroughs are channeled to the public through different media platforms. It is usually believed that any information that passes through a journalist’s filter is of high quality. As such, media coverage is widely considered as an indicator of relevance and success, as in the field of policy, related to science. However, an oversimplification of scientific jargon by journalists can not only water down the nuances of real science but also distort the information. Complicated situations arise when many journalists try to polarize the audience in a way that benefits their own vested interests, hence, blurring the lines between advertisement, journalism and advocacy. Unfortunately, the problems do not really end here.

With the advent of social media (YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and others), traditional media platforms, such as television and radio, for communicating science with the public, are getting outdated. While social media has made information more easily accessible to the public, these platforms are predated with fake news, alternative facts, hoaxes, misinformation, personal beliefs and political agendas. As a result, numerous people develop bizarre and inaccurate ideas about science. To make matters worse, any endeavor at rational discussion between the public and scientific community usually gets reduced to a clash between extremists, resulting in polarized societies. This can have real, negative consequences for the public support for science and the funding that goes into the scientific research all over the world. The recently released review of the funding for fundamental science in Canada, called the Naylor report, is one such example of decreasing support for basic science. Circumstances are not great too in other parts of the world.

Because of the decreased availability of funds, many researchers are spending a major proportion of their time writing grants. Early career researchers (ECRs) and young trainees (PhDs and post-docs) are especially affected in more ominous ways to the extent that many of them quit academia and even science. This can have potential long-term consequences for the future of science and society. Only a conscious and well-informed society can assess how crucial investments in science are and how future prosperity depends on new ideas. While increased funding for basic science would be the first right step in this direction, transparent science communication and promoting a two-way discussion between the general public and the scientific community is essential to strengthen public’s trust in science and the peer-review process.

Over years, few scientists and science enthusiasts have turned to various media platforms to promote public dissemination of scientific knowledge. Carl Sagan, who created the popular TV show “Cosmos” paved the way for such communication. In recent years, the popularity of the likes of Bill Nye -the Science Guy, Chris Hadfield, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, has provided further momentum in this direction. As such, many scientific organizations and individual scientists have also turned to writing blogs, participating in social networks and uploading videos about their research. However, the same people and their efforts have also received a lot of criticism from their peers as this is not what regular scientists do. This is regrettably true because governments generally judge the merit of a scientist based on the number of the grants and publications the person has. Science communication and outreach activities are rarely counted towards promotion in the university system and are often frowned upon as a means of distraction from the research agenda. Moreover, scientists who have a lot of responsibilities of reviewing papers and grants for free, undertaking a lot of journal editorial responsibilities, etc, may find communication an extra burden. There is paramount need to provide incentives to people who are engaged in science communication and other outreach activities.

While increased efforts by the scientific society to educate the public about the scientific progress, reasoning and critical thinking is the need for the hour. In a hostile environment of alternative facts and misinformations, it is imperative to explore avenues to foster optimal communication with the public, to bolster their participation in debates pertaining to science and policy, and also discourse the ethical, legal and social implications of research.

In conversation with Joanne Thomas (JT) of UK-based Sense about ScienceNida Siddiqui (NS) uncovers steps that need to be taken to increase public trust in science.

NS: Could you please tell us about yourself and your educational background?

JT: I am a program manager at Sense about Science, where I coordinate the “Voice of Young Science”, a network of engaged early career researchers, and deliver public engagement projects in partnership with researchers. Before joining the team in 2015, I completed a Masters degree in Science Communication at the University of the West of England and previously worked at the Science Media Centre, a press office that aims to improve media coverage of science. I also have an undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Oxford.

 

NS: What motivated you to be a part of Sense about Science?

JT: During my undergraduate degree, I became really interested in the science communication movement and in how science and evidence interacts with society, particularly around issues related to GMOs (Genetically-modified organisms). I wanted to work for an organization that champions open discussions about [scientific] evidence and encourages researchers to engage with the public. Sense about Science was a great fit — it’s a dynamic organization that equips the public to make sense of science and evidence and encourages researchers to be open about their research findings and to communicate them in a clear, accessible way to public audiences.

 

NS: Tell us about the initiatives at Sense about Science.

JT: Sense about Science runs a series of programs, campaigns and projects to challenge misrepresentations of science in public life and to give people the tools they need to make sense of science and evidence.

Our biggest campaign is Ask for Evidencehttp://www.askforevidence.org. This is a wide-reaching public campaign which helps people request for themselves the evidence behind news stories, marketing claims and policies. We hear daily claims about what is good for our health, bad for the environment, how to improve education, cut crime, treat disease or improve agriculture. Some are based on reliable evidence and scientific rigor. Many are not. How can we make companies, politicians, commentators and official bodies accountable for the claims they make? If they want us to vote for them, believe them or buy their products, then we should Ask for Evidence. This campaign is about holding powerful figures to account and not having the wool pulled over our eyes on important issues. It is making sure that a discussion about the evidence is happening when it really matters. You can read some of the claims people have been asking for evidence about on the Ask for Evidence website.

Another big initiative of ours is the Voice of Young Science (VoYS) program. VoYS is a unique and dynamic network of early career researchers across Europe committed to playing an active role in public discussions about science. By responding to public misconceptions about science and evidence and engaging with the media, this active community of 2,000+ researchers, engineers, scientists and medics is changing the way the public and the media view science and scientists.

The program includes a series of free Standing up for Science media workshops each year. These full day events encourage early career researchers to get their voices heard in public discussions about science. Early career researchers have the chance to hear directly from respected science journalists, as well as from scientists with media experience. It’s an opportunity to learn how the media works, how to respond and comment, and what journalists want and expect from scientists. And at the heart of VoYS are myth-busting and evidence-hunting campaigns led by members who, inspired by the workshops, are passionate about taking on bad science, tackling misconceptions and sharing insights from their research. These campaigns have ranged from homeopathy and detox to meteorology:  http://senseaboutscience.org/activities/voys-campaigns/.

Our VoYS program is also now expanding into Europe – and we’re running our first VoYS EU workshop in Brussels in June 2017. You can read more about Ask for Evidence, VoYS, and other areas of our work on our website: www.senseaboutscience.org.

 

NS: Why is it becoming increasingly important for early career researchers (ECRs) to communicate science?

JT: The importance of ECRs communicating science has always been clear, and has increasingly become so in an environment where a huge amount of information is publicly available yet often conflicting, and where there are ever more pressures on researchers’ time. ECRs are often at the coal face of research – they are the ones in the lab carrying out the research day-to-day so are often best placed to communicate what the research is aiming to achieve, how and why. Additionally, all researchers have a responsibility to communicate their research with the public and we’ve seen the real impact that researchers, and particularly ECRs can have on public discussion. We encourage researchers not to wait until they are professors before taking on the responsibility to get involved in public debates.

 

NS: Any thoughts on how can we bridge the gap between the public (understanding) and scientists (discoveries) and improve public engagement in science?

JT: In order to close gaps between public and scientific discussion on issues and to engage more people, we must encourage and support more researchers to communicate clearly and openly with wide public audiences. Researchers must also involve many public groups early in the research process, to not only inform their research questions but also to help them to plan how they should communicate their findings. To increase public trust in science – researchers must first trust the public, by being clear about their findings and the uncertainty within them: sharing what their research can and can’t tell us. Our public guide Making Sense of Uncertainty sets out why uncertainty is central to science and to communicating research.

Increasing public trust in science can also come from talking more openly about the process of science; how it works. For example, peer review, which is an essential process to science, can also be a useful tool for the public too. If people know about the peer review process, when they come across scientific claims, they can then ask is it peer reviewed? This is a useful first question for everyone to ask in order to weigh up the quality of evidence. See our public guide to peer review I don’t know what to believe for more details: http://senseaboutscience.org/activities/i-dont-know-what-to-believe/.

 

NS: Is there a considerable impact of science communication done by ECRs (blogs and social media) on mainstream science journalism?

JT: Early career researchers certainly can and are having an impact on public and media discussions about science and evidence. Voice of Young Science members have launched a number of successful campaigns in recent years which have been covered in mainstream media: http://senseaboutscience.org/activities/voys-campaigns/.

For example, in spring 2009, VoYS sent an open letter to the World Health Organisation, calling for the body to issue a clear international communication about the inappropriate use of homeopathy for five serious diseases. VoYS had become aware of widespread promotion of homeopathic treatments for serious diseases in developing countries and saw that there were no clear guidelines available on this from the World Health Organisation (WHO). VoYS joined with other early career medics and researchers working in Africa and pressured the WHO to condemn the promotion of homeopathy for the treatment of serious diseases. On 21st August 2009, the WHO responded to the open letter stating clearly that it does not recommend the use of homeopathy for treating HIV, TB, malaria, influenza and infant diarrhoea. VoYS members then wrote to the health ministers of all countries to publicise the WHO’s position, asking them to combat the promotion of homeopathy for these dangerous diseases. This campaign was covered in the Times, the Guardian and by the BBC.

Individual VoYS members have also been standing up for science as individuals – for example last year Britt Marie Hermes wrote an extraordinary investigative piece in Forbes magazine, delving into the evidence behind health claims for a new device, UVLrx; Leah Fitzsimmons helped the BBC fact-check a segment on cold sores for Trust Me, I’m a Doctor and RPS members Hayley Gorton and Ryan Hamilton organised a We Pharmacists twitter chat about evidence-based medicine that reached over 1 million people.

So early career researchers can and do make a difference! The message of VoYS is not to wait until you’re later in your career to get involved, so stand up for science now.

 

About Joanne Thomas (JT):

Joanne is a program manager at Sense about Science. She coordinates Voice of Young Science (VoYS), a unique and growing network of over 2000 early career researchers who are committed to playing an active role in public discussions about science. Joanne is also part of Sense about Science’s public engagement team, which helps researchers to make complex scientific issues widely accessible, guided by the people who will use them. Prior to joining the team in 2015, Joanne completed a Masters degree in Science Communication at the University of the West of England and previously worked at the Science Media Centre, a press office that aims to improve media coverage of science. Joanne also has an undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Oxford.

 

Co-author: Nida Siddiqui, who is currently pursuing final year Ph.D. at the Centre for Mechanochemical Cell Biology, University of Warwick, UK. Follow her on LinkedIn and twitter as @siddnida.

Edited by: Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

Photo credit: Pixabay

 

This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Neha Bhutani is currently a post-doctoral fellow working on the neural correlates of motor skill learning at Université de Montréal. Outside lab, she is excited about science policy and is a member of Montréal based student-led NGO Science & Policy Exchange.

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