Researchers in developing nations must become 'communicating scientists', sharing their knowledge beyond academia, says Valerie Corfield.
As scientists, most of us accept that 'engagement' activities, like keeping policymakers informed of science and technology advances and stimulating science curiosity in the young, are essential for developing a technologically-literate society. We cannot afford to work in isolation from our colleagues and from public and policy arenas.
Yet, my personal experience in South Africa shows that communicating scientists are often lone voices, unable to expand, or sometimes even sustain, their efforts.
For South Africa, this is partly because our recent political history has promoted a top-down approach to science communication, with little funding for public communication activities.
This emphasis on research without dissemination to a wider audience has helped foster long-lasting inequalities in education.
Until recently, as in many developing countries, incentives for scientists to become involved in or to sustain communication initiatives have been almost totally lacking.
But gradually, following other countries' leads, and international donors' increasing requirements to translate research into results for the general public, South Africa's national funding bodies have begun to ask scientists how they will get their findings 'back to the community'.
A growing number of success stories illustrate this change in attitude. For example, a tuberculosis initiative supported by the South African National Research Foundation has run informative, interactive and fun sports days for communities in the Western Cape. The foundation now provides some funding for outreach and communication.
The annual SciFest Africa and nationwide science weeks organised by the South African Department of Science and Technology are also promoting engagement between scientists, science communicators and even some politicians. Science centres and festivals can serve as intermediaries and are excellent ways to establish sustainable opportunities for dialogue between scientists and the public.
Of course, some branches of science offer more opportunities to engage the public than others. Charismatic animals, for example, catch people's imaginations and can be used to help examine broader environmental and global issues. Successful public engagement here has included research on leopard toads, dolphins, tortoises and even sharks and vultures.
Other topics have more direct appeal to policymakers, for example research relevant to freshwater resources, food and public health. In such areas, scientists are well-placed to present the latest thinking and give informed advice. The South African Medical Research Council now recognises this and is encouraging its scientists to publish relevant evidence-based policy documents, making these a performance measure linked to bonuses and promotion.
The way forward
But how can we build on these efforts? Scientists must become proactive, and form a network of contacts beyond their own academic brotherhood. And they should recognise the value of science intermediaries, such as science centres and funding agencies' research translation offices.
They must establish a lobby group to make institutions and government recognise the value of sharing research in accessible language.
They must also raise awareness of the need for grants and awards to fund engagement activities.
Equally importantly, to become communicating scientists, researchers must help others to spread the word. This means training 'home-language facilitators' — for example, staff at science centres who are fluent in a local language like Zulu. It also means attending science communication conferences to present research to science communicators — those who study the science of communicating science but who may not practice the methods.
They should also tell their more traditional audiences, at research-based science conferences, about their successful engagement activities.
Above all, being a communicating scientist means being cooperative — for example, by exploring new, sustainable 'share-ware' resources that can be borrowed or stored electronically for duplication. Successful communicating scientists do not selfishly guard their own successes — for example, when invited to speak to politicians, they use the opportunity to provide a list of other communicating scientist speakers on a range of relevant topics.
Communicating scientists in the developing world: it's time to wake up, find each other and get involved!
Valerie Corfield is an associate professor at the US/MRC Centre for Molecular and Cellular Biology in the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.