The need to boost science reporting
A four-day workshop in Uganda next week will explore how the essential role of science and technology communication in achieving sustainable development can best be promoted.
Imagine this. You are a reporter on a small African newspaper, and receive a press release from a foreign pharmaceutical company accusing the government of dragging its feet (for reasons that are not stated) over giving permission for the distribution of a new drug which, the company claims, will halve the incidence of a local disease, say river blindness.
Or you receive a visit from a militant non-governmental organisation (NGO), claiming that plans by a local seed company to begin trials of a genetically modified crop of maize threaten to cause irreversible damage to a local species of rare butterfly that has become a major tourist attraction.
What do you do to check out such stories? In the West, there would be several avenues open. You might choose to spend an hour surfing the Internet for background information. Or ring up a scientist in a local university for comment or background information. Or even speak with the public affairs officer of a large medical or public health organisation.
But the only computer with an Internet link is locked up in the editor's office. No one in the university is prepared to take a telephone call from a journalist (if they are not out working to supplement their meagre researchers salary). And none of the professional organisations that you contact employs a public affairs officer.
This is the daily reality for newspaper, radio and television reporters across the developing world. The issues they cover frequently involve decisions facing local politicians or leaders that will have a significant impact on their communities. Indeed in many circumstances, those taking such decisions are likely to glean much of their information relating to such decisions from what is reported in the media.
But responsible science or technology reporting in such circumstances requires the skills, knowledge and resources (electronic and otherwise) to check the claims made by 'media-savvy' organisations and place them in a proper perspective. In the West, we take these for granted; in developing countries they can be scarce on the ground.
Making informed decisions is vital in any strategy intended to achieve a sustainable form of development. Such strategies require awareness of the future consequences of present decisions; the so-called Brundtland Report, Our Common Future¸ for example, defines sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
Building a basic capacity in science and technology communication is the best way of ensuring that decisions are adequately 'informed', and this must therefore be a central component in any local or national strategy to promote sustainable development. This conviction lies behind a four-day workshop organised by SciDev.Net that opens in Entebbe, Uganda next Monday, bringing together a range of professional engaged in the process of science communication from more than 10 African countries.
The stronger such a communication capacity, the better placed a local community — or a national ministry or parliament, for that matter — will be to guide itself into the future. Issues affecting this future may range from the need for expensive steps to mitigate the impacts of climate change (the urgency of which will depend on robustness of scientists' warnings about the speed and regional impacts of global warming), to challenges to a local chemical company over the safety of its waste.
In the absence of access to reliable, non-partisan information, any reporter covering such a topic frequently has little more to go on than a company or NGO press release. It is little surprise, therefore, that the resulting stories usually reflect uncritically the perspective of the organisation behind the press release.
Building a strong science and technology communication capacity means being able to go beyond this by providing reliable background information, a range of opinions and authoritative insights — all essential components of both good journalism and sound decision making.
Achieving this is a long-term process. But there are some practical, relatively short-term steps that point in this direction, some of which will be discussed at next week's workshop in Entebbe. For example, those engaged professionally in the different stages of science and technology communication can establish national or regional networks to share experience, best practice, or just practical information about events, resources and so on (perhaps modifying the experiences of Western organisations, such as science writers associations, to suit local conditions).
The workshop will, in particular, be an opportunity to explore the role that science and technology communication can play in promoting sustainable development. The resources available to those engaged in such activities need to be enhanced. This could involve providing access to electronic sources of information, such as independent websites designed to meet the needs of professional communicators. Or it could be as basic as providing a scientific dictionary in every newsroom.
Finally, there is scope for introducing both national and regional prizes for high quality work in this area. Not only do such prizes reward individuals for their achievement, but, by providing public acknowledgement of good practice, they can help raise professional standards all round.
The importance of the issues surrounding sustainable development addressed at the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the need for informed public debate and decision-making on these issues, and the vital contribution that science and technology communicators play in making this possible, each suggest that capacity building in this area is a vital issue for anyone concerned to put our planet on the path to a sustainable future.
Hopefully next week's workshop will provide an opportunity not only to communicate this message to decision-makers and community leaders with the African region, but also to produce some concrete proposals about how such goals can, in practice, be achieved.
An earlier version of this comment appears in August 2002 issue of Science and Public Affairs, published by the British Association for the Advancement of Science
© SciDev.Net 2002