Informal Science Communication: A Call for Scientists to Step Up

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By Michelle Mukonyora

When I embarked on my journey in science communication through Nyenyedzi Bio, my initial plan was to have a news site that primarily featured life sciences research by African scientists. Life sciences is a collective term for various fields in the study of living organisms. My hope was to demystify the life sciences for the general African public, as well as shine a spotlight on the advances we are continuously making as a continent. To the general public, the life sciences, especially in the form of biotechnology, have a sense of otherness. They are largely inaccessible, yet they undoubtedly affect everyone: From the vaccines and drugs we use, to the food products we consume.

Scientific misinformation, which is not unique to Africa, leads to harmful practices such as people not vaccinating their babies, or not completing their antibiotic courses. It is therefore important for scientists to share their work with the public in manners that are easily understandable. This of course isn’t always possible when it comes to personal research projects, as some of us work in research spaces where our work is proprietary. But I believe that we are in a unique position as scientists to make science in a broader context, easier to understand, and more accessible.

A lot, if not most of the life sciences research that is carried out on the African continent is funded by taxpayer’s money, which in a way makes scientists accountable to the public. Billions of dollars per year go into research, yet most citizens do not know what research is being carried out. As a matter of principle, it is important that people know what their money is being spent on.

 
Scientists have critical role to play in informal science communication
A UNESCO survey was carried out in 2012 to determine whether a science-specific African news service was required as a source for journalists on the continent. The survey revealed that journalists have trouble accessing African science news due to poor communication from press offices at research institutes and universities. They also cited local scientists as generally being inaccessible and distrusting of journalists. As a result, journalists source African news from international science news services such as EurekaAlert and SciDev.Net. The scant African news, which is reported on these sites, is primarily funded by and driven by international research agencies. This gives the unfortunate impression that African science is not working to solve local problems.

In the absence of a dedicated African science news service, local scientists have a critical role in informally bridging the knowledge gap. Part of what makes a successful scientist is being an effective communicator. However, this should not be limited to peer-to-peer communication, but it should extend to translating what we do, to society at large. Currently, most people obtain their science news from traditional media such as television and newspapers. However, the Internet has the potential to be an influential medium in informal science communication. We need to formulate ways in which we are engaging but simultaneously driving home important messages. The Internet has the advantage of providing a two-way means of communication. When concepts are lost in translation it is easier to catch on, and correct misunderstandings. It is also a way for scientists to be challenged in how well they understand their fields of expertise. Like Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.
 “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” 

Online science communication can be fun, and there are various options based on one’s personal preferences and outreach goals: YouTube, podcasts, blogs, Periscope, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. These mediums are complementary to each other and content is easily shared between them. They also have the added advantage of not being limited by geography. Credibility is key when engaging on social media, especially with pseudo-scientists invested in spreading misinformation. A link to one’s affiliated academic institution helps, as does the connections one has. Networking with other scientists on social media can help in building one’s reputation as a credible source. Following curated science accounts such as @realscientists on Twitter, where each week a different scientist takes over the account, is a good place to start. One can meet other scientists, and also engage with a general audience that has an interest in science.

In conclusion, it is my hope that African scientists increasingly engage with the public so as to foster a culture of robust science engagement. Futhermore, that science loses its sense of otherness, and that our scientific successes as a continent become better known.