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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1. A great part of the problem is the social behaviour of scientists themselves. Unfortunately, there is a culture of 'celebrity' scientists, where people who are doing cutting edge research are revered by their contemporaries. This is all well and predictable in any subject area, provided there is a level where it is acceptable to discuss science and participate in science, without your ultimate goal being a Nature or Science paper, or be scorned by your contemporaries. In the Arts, there are a number of commentators that sit in their ivory towers and comment on architecture or surreal art, but there is a layer below that where younger people and people not acedemically inclined are actively encouraged to participate. i.e. they all have their ecological niche and are not made to feel inferior by those in such academic institutes. Unfortunately in science there is a lack of diversity within the community. Both the younger generation and those that may not be so good at bench science (but may be good at communication) feel inferior to the great scientists in the field they admire. But those that the scientific community deem good enough to communicate with the media are not always the best communicators.
2.Lack of interactive participation. I don't know if anyone has being following the story of the Walrus migration on the BBC website. I think this is the best bit of interactive particpation in science I have seen. It captures the public imagination and enables them to follow the progress of animal migration i.e. they are investigating the unknown and in doing so viewing the story from the persepective of a scientist, rather than the perspective of a reporter. This is how science communication should be done.
3. Lack of big ideas from governments. What do they want the major advances to be? What are the big aims? Governments should define a goal and then it would be of great public interest if the media followed the progression to attain that goal. I can only imagine what excitement the public felt in the race to space.
My first greatest obstacle in a country i operate in i.e Uganda, is the lack of training for science reporters.
Number two is poor relationship between scientists and researchers. And the third one is the hidden research. I mean there are many research findings out there, hidden on laptops,while the public and governments need them.
Dear Julian and all,

I am only new to this conversation but I have tried to read through the contributions so far.
I haven't worked directly in science for some time. For the last decade I have done a lot more networking of professionals in development. We have seen a rapid evolution in the variety of communications methods, including this very cool eForum.

Based on what I have seen, perhaps I can contribute some new challenges from the point of view of a networker:

1. Continued reliance on traditional journalism from science communications paradigms. Scientists do papers, journalists write stories about them.

2. Network! We need to use better ways to, to communicate, and give far more attention to using networks in which people talk with one another about issues. It is easy to set up a network in what has been called a 'community of practice'. There is now a network for scientists to express their research notions and ask others to comment even early in their research.

Organisations like Health and Development Networks, are working with models with local facilitators to present issues, involve key stake holders and generate a more useful real time discussion -- this is potential a lot more interesting than filing a news story. And it makes everyone a contributor.

Or, more simply, we have a network on Agent Orange / Dioxin in Viet Nam. The list contains some of the top researchers in the field. And a fair proportion of the subscribers (and attendees at meetings) are journalists. Public fora like this are a great way to keep everyone in the picture.

If you want to have a meeting, put it on the Internet. What is the use of a workshop with only a few score people, photocopied notes, speeches that people soon forget and an afternoon session in which most of the seats are empty because nobody wants to stay and get bored.

Then there is sharing of materials. We have been trying for years to collect HIV harm reduction information from Viet Nam and just put it in one place. They you can make materials produced by one organisation available to others. How simple, but seemingly so hard to do.

3. Science, the press and development. A number of people on this forum have expressed themselves in terms of development issues and solutions. In fact there are many different ways to communicate 'scientific' or socially appropriate information. Health promotion is a specialised field and often highly dependent on local conditions. In HIV and disabilities, we are constantly concerned about the correct words to use in order to counteract stigma and discrimination, hence there are glossaries of correct terms in foreign and local languages. Cheap popular science may be more as effective in a poor country than expensive high-tech science yet neither the scientist nor the journalist may catch on. And so on.

Inclusive networks can transcend differences in the ways people approach issues.

I must admit that I have been fairly limited in what I could do in my various roles, though I have had some great help along the way. It would be so nice if development leaders see how many new and important networking mechanisms are emerging. Leadership is indeed, one of the problems.

Best, Vern
Hi Julian, I have listed only two obstacles to effective communication between science and journalism, based on annoying experiences from my own field.

Media-people are generally looking for eye-cathcing stories, I guess particularly freelancers (correct me if I'm wrong) who have to sell every story. Sadly and simply stories about grassroot people who have done something good for environment don't sell, eg. started a village organization to clean up waters, a new cultivation practise that prevents soil erosion AND increases yields AND improves the standard of living.

Scientists on the other hand are generally too sparse with extrapolating (we're trained not to do that) there results on what could happen for different reasons. There is another interesting distinction between scientists, those who believe scientists should be activists, and those who believe science should be objective. In the case of eg. climate research, and seeking funding for this research, there is so much hidden politics scientists have to calm down the journalists' apocalypse-stories.

Secondly, both journalists and scientists lack space to write holistically about interactions between bioecosystem and human systems. It's easier for the newspaper reader to get ONE story: how many died in the floodings. Scientists can't go deep enough with this interdisciplinary approach, that means shallow results and no new funding. This means that in one news column we read about sugegstions for intercontinental holiday trips while the column next to it talks about how much transportation and consumption patterns adds to greenhouse gas emissions. Can this create anything else but confusion?

I have a good story too: a Swedish morning newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, has a standing "climate-threat" (I disagree with the name!) column. This I believe is a good way to build up knowledge and deal with more complex interactions, rather than throwing out a catchy article without contextualizing when something extraordinary has happened. Like when a new IPCC-report has been released, of course different stakeholders will have different opinions about. Or another flooding event, n number of people died but no relation with natural hazard damages as a consequence of how and where we live, related to poverty and geographical inequalities. Yeah, I could go on forever about this, so I quit here...
1. Fear of letting others see and criticise a paper before submitting it to a journal (personal rejection is more difficult to face than impersonal rejection by a journal editor).

2. Lack of early encouragement and mentoring for writing and publishing.

3a. The failure of universities to tell students (and members of the public) that they can start trying to conduct and publish research at any time, even without completing formal studies, so long as they adhere to some basic ethical principles that underlie serious research and research writing.

3b. Failure to encourage research students to be science communicators as well as researchers. In the course of a scientific training all students should be given chances to play with different styles of writing, and contribute to a range of academic to popular or general publicaitons.
Hi Julian,

Daniel's diagnosis for Kenya looks quite appealing. I feel science journalists themselves are a barrier to effective communication. India has in force The Right to Information Act (2005). The secrecy is vanishing, yet so many sources of information remain untapped. Scientists have come forward, including those who will get media mentions even with out that. However, coupled with rising grip of commerce, the media shirks form doing the spade work, initiating dialogues with scientists and the common man. The youth stands craving (S&T news & career guidance) and gets more news instead on techo-whizz, gizmos, shocking science news, and so on. We would do better to first expose the communicators to lovely, fun filled science to rid them of their aversion. Only then, when we find that the source of information is hostile we need to find faults with scientists whose primary dedication is to their own scientific challenges. If we hppen to see an educator scientist around, we should better feel blessed.

Bst wishes, Pamposh.
Hi Julian, in my view, three greatest obstacles to effective communication in science, are science literacy/illiteracy, scientists' fear of journalists sensationalising stories or misquoting them and the secrecy, purported or otherwise, with which scientific information/data are handled.

Some governments, NGOs and media organisations have been able to deal with the reluctance of researchers/scientists to release information or talk to the media by organising workshops to sensitise them. In Kenya, the government started a programme of taking its staff to seminars and training them how to deal with the media. I am yet to find out or get hold of study/survey that indicates to what extent the country has achieved improvement in relations between public servants and the media.

Indeed, alot needs to be done on this. In Kenya, there has been a movement towards enactment of a Freedom of Information Law and the repeal of The Official Secrets Act, a 1960's law that allows civil servants to deny the media vital public information.

From Daniel Akoko
In Indonesia, major obstacles for science communications (especially on children media) are :
1. Lack of scientific background for journalist. If journalists find hard way to understand science matter, they erase the subject.
2. Lack of creativity skill of journalist to present their view about science. For children, we have to communicate in interesting way withput losing the scientific matter.
3. Children has their own world. Journalist for children need to know how to communicate to children.
4. We need scientist to spend more time with journalist to explain their complicated science. There is only a few scientist like to do that. Fortunately, I have a good one. So, I can make simple words for children. Every simple words always come from comprehensive knowledge that is often so complicated.
5. It takes time to prove that children understand and are interested in science, too. Especially for bussiness division. But, science topic get top notch in children magazine market. Children take what we give if we give it in a special way.
Dear Ernawati

I couldn't agree more with your diagnosis and prescription for science communication between scientists and journalists. Locally, I have been appalled to read in a respected national daily the line "Malaria virus" when in fact it's the 'malaria parasite. The same has been uttered by a TV journalist who was reporting on this deadly tropical disease and its' causative agent. Some journalists need to go for the real stuff- update their science and medical/entomology terminologies. We could team up and help equip our colleagues if they so admit that shortcoming. Sadly, some are not aware that they don't quite get the stuff right and that they must strive to be grounded in science to perform better.

Regards

Daniel Akoko
In my opinion the three greatest obstacles for this are:

1. Limitation(s) of the researcher and of the journalist: The inability in expression (due to technical nature of info), lack of will ('what will I gain?') on the part of researcher. The latter is also related to employer's indifference to such efforts if not dislike. Besides, a scientist finds matter to put in perspective quite a textbook stuff and repetitive. The increasingly specialised nature of research also makes it extremely difficult for the writer to comprehend and reword so as to be comprehensible to a layman.

2. The increasingly commercial/ secretive nature of research: The commerce makes it fierecely competitive. Even in the govt. (even if you exclude defence etc., there are restrictions. This restricts the researcher from communicating. I doubt if an official will be willing to be quoted in print even on '2 and 2 add to four' unless (s)he has permission to talk to the press! May be UNESCO etc. can intervene.

3. The commercial interest of the media: You can see the best of science story shortened, if not deleted, to make room for an ad! Here public pressure can matter. If there is readership, sooner or later media will realise this and come around. But true science stories may go against the commercial interests too! What if a research proves that cream can't lead to fair skin or damages skin, or criticism of the God-men etc.?

CM Nautiyal
HOW COMMERCIAL INTERESTS' TENTACLES KILL SCIENCE COMMUNICATION

I absolutely agreed with you. You hit the nail squarely on the head. The worst is tentacles of specific vested commercial engulfing the media. There are firms which, by servant or agent, snoop for whatever and whoever threaten their future! I have come across journalist who discreetly got messages of coercion and, upon persisting on writing articles unpalatable to the purveyors of certain biotechnology issues, finally got stopped on his tracks, through intentional killing of the 'offending articles'.

Indeed, the journalist seemed to have crossed swords with researchers and administrators of a firm that was well-connected with a genetically modified organisms (GMOs) multinational. His arguments for or against the introduction of GM foods in Kenya at the time spelt doom for the writer as he was deemed to be a threat to the interests of certain parties, not science. How can such journalists, media outlets (and their rabid editors) and researchers/science news sources co-exist. I would like to hear your opinions.

Many thanks for keeping this debate alive

Regards

Daniel Akoko

Obstacles:

1) Transfer of information from scientists to science communicators - This is a common problem. Scientist or scholars have less time to interact with communicators, inspite of taking time out, they are unable to address the communicators of their scientific work, hence, a gap is formed.

2) Communicators are able to derive little knowledge from science experts

3) Lack of interest on the part of both the experts and communicators

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