Research and Media Network

Bringing people together to improve communication of research findings

I would like to invite every member of the network to list the three greatest obstacles, in their view, to effective communication of science and sharing of knowledge, internationally and within countries.

I would encourage the network to debate the issues thus raised, to prioritise the most important and to develop a plan of action for addressing them.

Julian Cribb

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Nameste!
Julian Cribb,

We have been facing various difficulties regarding science communication in Nepal. In Nepal, with my point of view the major three obstacles are:
a) Less Priority-The Media and Publications have been giving priority to the policital news and also there is lack of Government attantion for Science Communication.
b) Lack of Training and Educational Facility.
c) Gaping between Scientific Experts and The Journalists.
I believe three main problem in having Science as communicated as other things are

a) Lack of scientific background of Journalists.
b) Lack of glorification of Science
c) Lack of communication from Science community.
1:science communicators by and large are not effective as they are not well versed in the art of sci communication.
2:Cultural and religious beliefs often resist scietific awakening
3:Lack of polatical will to propogate sci communication programmes
thanks and regards
arvind
Adding my two bob's worth to what is becoming a very interesting discussion, I'd put:
1. Lack of recognition by both governments and scientists of the importance of sharing knowledge more widely, leading to a lack of resources for science communication (In Australia we invest roughly $1 in communication for every $100 in science - little wonder we do great science but nobody ever gets to hear about it!)
2. Lack of awareness by scientists of their 'duty to communicate' beyond the peer group, ie a science education failure. Also lack of reward to scientists who do communicate.
3. Need for better training of science communicators, especially in mass media techniques.
Those are very valid points, but I was wondering what your view was on the role of the scientist in policy and the media. As you say, scientists have a duty to communicate their findings but to what extent have scientists become advocates for opinions they (or their benefactos) hold, feeding what some call "normative science" to policy makers and the media instead of objective scientific findings?

To illustrate my point: Is it the role of the scientist to use opinion-laden words such as 'degraded', 'weakened', 'flourishing' when describing ecosystem conditions? Wouldn't the correct stance be the impartial one, 'changed', 'increased', 'decreased'?

Just throwing the question out there.
Hi Julian

Good questions, though it will be hard to choose just three obstacles!

I think that language is one of the biggest barriers to science communication both internationally and within countries. Most scientific research is published and talked about in conferences in English. Yet, according to the World Almanac (2005), only 514 million of the world's 6,000 million people have English as their first language. I wonder how much science gets translated in local languages in Africa and Asia. Very little, I suspect. Added to this is the problem of illiteracy, which suggests that community radio stations that broadcast in vernacular languages are a key part of the puzzle.

Another problem is a general lack of scientific literacy among the public AND policymakers in most countries. Without public and political understanding of science, there is little demand for scientific information. This is of course a chicken-and-egg situation. If science communication were better, then scientific literacy would improve and more people would demand evidence to base their decisions on. A number of factors are at work - e.g. scientists' inability or lack of desire to communicate, the general 'image problem' facing scientists (they are seen still as dull, eccentric, stuffy, out-of-touch with the real world). We need some scientific champions with a flair for communication, or better still more political leaders who have an understanding of science. The recent Reith Lectures by Jeffrey Sachs spring immediately to mind - whether or not you agree with him, here is someone who can argue passionately for evidence-based policy without ever sounding like a bore. For podcasts and transcripts, see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2007/

A third problem is, I think, is how science stories are framed. This is revealed when journalists pitch to editors and when published stories fail to touch their audiences. Many editors seem unable to realise that science stories are not just science stories, and this may well be down to how reporters pitch them. So often science stories are really economics stories, or political stories, but if they are pitched as 'research findings' or 'scientists have warned that...', the editor will be put off. Most editors are humanities graduates and see science as being something 'other' that belongs in its own section rather than having a right to the front page. Likewise, many journalists need to do more to connect their stories to their readers. There is some interesting work on 'Framing Science' being done by Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet. See their recent article in the Washington Post.
Scientists, especially in Africa, have an unexpalained fear of journalists blowing their research findings out of proportion, with the possibility of creating perceptions of false security in the form of a cure. The scientists also dread the creation of alarm, sensionalism and other 'unpalatable' reports through media reporting of their works/findings.

In states such as Kenya, beuracratic red tape, treatment of scientific data as if they are top secrets also impedes science communication.

Finally, a third factor is fear of punishment of scientists by their superiors. This bit ensures that strict protocol is followed and that only certain top officers within research or hospital set-ups are the only ones to divulge information to the media, public and other interested partoes.
These are very important points. Scientists everywhere fear distortion of their results. I spend a lot of my time teaching them ways to minimise the possibility of this occurring. Scientists often do not understand the media, therefore they fear it. Those who come to understand it, quickly learn to make use of it and to minimise the scope for error. It is pleasing to see a young scientists grow and develop confidence in their ability to transmit their knowledge in this fashion. We should always remember that 80% of society (those not in school) gets nearly 100% of their knowledge about new science from the media. We should also remember the media is not all of one sort - industry media for example provide very faithful and accurate reports of science, so does farming media, IT media etc. I recommend starting scientists in communication with media who will treat their work respectfully and fairly, not the rather wilder arena of daily media. This builds their confidence. I will address Daniel's other points later.
Dear Cribb,
Though we don't have the shortage of problems regarding science journalism and the public communication of science, top three among them are as per the following. I rather call them the "paralyzing myths."

1- Science is only about pedagogy:
That is, science can only be taught - and learned - through the classrooms. Thanks to this mindset, public communication of science - including science journalism - is considered as the waste of "precious national resources." In fact, the very idea of science journalism and public communication of science simply remains alien for the 'science elites' and policymakers of Pakistan. As a result of this mindset, public understanding of science remains absent from government's agenda for the national development.

2- Scientific knowledge is only for scientists/ researchers:
Scientists/ researchers - with a waste majority working in public sector R&D organizations - are the people who are paid to undertake scientific research. These people have spent lots of their time mastering certain disciplines of S&T and acheiving certain level of expertise. It is therefore the scientists/ researchers aren't encouraged to use jargon-free language - either talking with media or delivering so-called 'public lectures' on science.

3- English is the ONLY language of science:
Already, since 1994, Urdu translation of the latest scientific/ technological/ technical terms, their standardiztion and adoption at governmental level was almost stand-still. Ironically, instead of rectifying this problem, our foreign-returned educationists, prominent scientists and even the educational policymakers got convinced with a strange logic: Because English is dominantly used for the scientific/ technological communication worldwide and a researcher has to write his/ her research paper in English - for the international community of scientists/ researchers - therefore, Urdu translations of the latest sceintific and technical terms have no significance. During the last seven years or so, this mindset has become more pronounced and mature - especially in a post-9/11 scenario of Pakistan. Despite all these arguments, prescribed textbooks of Pakistan - written by the 'panels of experts' - can only be memorized, rather than understood. It holds true irrespective of the language in which these books are written. (In my humble opinion, science is the language of nature by itself - through which we understand how the nature expresses itself. On the other hand, human language is a career through which the rational understanding of nature spreads within a culture and across different cultures. To remain effective, this career needs perpetual care, continuous evolution and periodic overhaul. Without sustained attention, a language starts weakening very soon. So it the case of Urdu and other local languages of Pakistan.) Such mindsed makes it very difficult for the local-language science journalists to have feedback from the policymakers, researchers and scientists alike.
Excellent points all, Aleem.
To the first I say the only way to overcome this is with a certain aggression and determination on the part of the science communicator, to insert themselves into the process of knowledge sharing and prove they can add value. As a long-time agricultural journalist, I know how much farmers value news about new technology, crop types etc. There is pent-up demand everywhere - provided we communicate science in terms useful to the audience, not as science per se.
2. Scientists are encouraged to communicate more freely if:
- their efforts are recognised and approved by their managers
- it leads to their science being adopted
- it brings them funding or partners
- it recruits young scientists
What they need is evidence that these happen. At CSIRO I used scientists who had gained funding or fruitful partnerships as examples to encourage others. It worked. I also made sure the managers, from the CEO down, encouraged them.
3. You have a really valid point about language, though I suspect Chinese will be the main language of science by 2050, English second and Hindi third. Another member of this network was complaining about the problem faced by French-speaking African countries of being excluded from mainstream science. Let us hope that, with the advent of major advances such as quantum computing, the power comes to translate science freely into all the main tongues. Computer translation is here now, but it is generally poor and ungrammatical. Hopefully this will improve rapidly over the next decade.
Sorry to butt in, since I have already had my say.

But translating scientific terms into regional languages can create more problems than they solve. For instance, in India, translating of scientific terms was done some time ago into Hindi and Bengali. The result was: it shut off employment avenues for many students who were unfamiliar with English. In my opinion, one can successfully communicate in any regional language about scientific research if everything is explained clearly to the reader, notwithstanding the scientific terminology used.

Unlike the developed world, scientific research in India, and perhaps many other developing countries, is truly an uphill task. Most research institutes are run by the government, and are bogged by red tape. In such a scenario, it is natural for scientists to fear getting misrepresented or misquoted, since a single mistake by a journalist can create a myriad problems for the scientist. But the journalist can always reassure the scientist concerned, and double-check the facts. Once a scientist is won over and finds the communicator good enough, it is not so difficult for the journalist to deal with the scientist concerned.

A point about pitching one's stories, Mike. One can pitch one's stories to an editor only if he/she is knowledgeable enough about the subject. An ignorant editor will just dismiss any story outright. I have dealt with all kinds of editors in my career. And I must say, an editor who is knowledgeable is open-minded enough to let you take the initiative. In fact, you just have to mention that you are planning to work on the subject, and the story is demanded right away.Pitching your ideas is not required at all.Such editors are so delightful to work with: you end up giving every story your best.
Translation of scientific/ technical terms in local language need a threshold of intellectual as well as political will. If we only translate scientific/ technical terms in our local languages - without explaining what they are meant for, the whole exercise will be lost. Thanks to our forefathers in pre-partitioned India, around 200,000 scientific and technical terms were not only translated in Urdu, but also we had reached the well-defined rules for these terms in Urdu language. Unfortunately, after the independence, we gradually lost interest in it, and you can see what has happened with the public communication of science - plus science education - in Pakistan.

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