[CAPE TOWN] Students on southern Africa's first academic course in science communication will play a dual role, evaluating its quality and relevance while learning new skills.
Announced last month, the pilot course is being run by the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), an offshoot of the country's National Research Foundation. Its aim is to teach researchers and policy specialists working in science how to communicate about their work to non-scientists.
Marina Joubert, SAASTA's science communication manager, says the agency wants the course, which starts in August, to be up to international standards but locally relevant.
"Over the years, whenever we had international visitors, we became aware of demand from local students for a proper grounding [in science communication] balanced with practical training," she says. "The first students will assist us in evaluating what is being taught so that we can get the best of both worlds."
The English-language course is being run in conjunction with US-based Cornell University, which will be organising 12 interactive video-conferenced sessions at the US Embassy in Pretoria. Local lecturers will, however, teach much of the course.
The pilot project is free, but the 20 participants will have to find the time (and if necessary, the price of airfare and accommodation) to spend three full days each month in the capital, Pretoria, from August to November this year.
Nonetheless, the course is in high demand: within one week of its announcement, 30 people had applied. Applications are being accepted until 24 June.
Among the applicants is Sarah Mathou, who works in the research translation office of the Medical Research Council of South Africa (MRC) in Cape Town.
Mathou says South Africa needs such a course to bridge the divide between ordinary people and the scientific community. "The MRC does research for the people and it is important to feed back information to them in a language that they understand," she says.
Science communicators face special challenges in South Africa, as it is a multilingual, poverty-stricken country where few people have the opportunity to study science at any level.
Mathou is currently editing and translating a technical document — on nutrition in a Cape Town squatter camp of 40,000 people — into a brochure and posters that can be used at workshops and clinics.
Bavesh Kana, a research scientist with the Johannesburg-based Centre of Excellence for Biomedical Tuberculosis Research, is another applicant. Kana's interest in science communication was sparked when he took a one-day SAASTA workshop on writing for the public earlier this year.
Kana's piece for the workshop was criticised for trying to educate instead of inform. "My interest was tweaked when they hacked my article to pieces — it was a real eye-opener," he says.
"The problem is that, as scientists, we are trained to write in long sentences, using scary words and jargon, so that journals accept our work ."
Kana is currently researching the ways in which dormant tuberculosis bacteria can reactivate, but says he will find the time to commute to Pretoria if he is accepted onto the SAASTA course.
"If you have committed to staying in South Africa and if you are committed to science, you have to recognise what the needs are," he said. "We cannot divorce the public from what we are doing."
To apply online for the SAASTA course, please visit: www.saasta.ac.za/apsc