International networking for public communication of science
The author is a Nepali science and environmental journalist and former editor of RONAST Science Features as well as General Secretary of Science Writers Association of Nepal.
We are surrounded by dilemmas. We continue to treat science with fear, without even realising the true reason for it. For many, science is equated with disaster. No one needs to tell us how important the public understanding of science is for us. Yet we don’t do anything to improve it.
Science communication in Nepal
We have been discussing this issue for over a decade and half in Nepal, a tiny Himalayan Kingdom hidden in the lap of mighty Himalayas. In 1985, I was part of a team to establish the first ever Science Popularization Project (SPP), which hoped to make ordinary people, whom we often call the ‘public’, scientifically literate. It also aimed to establish the foundation of science communication in the existing channels of mass media such as newspapers, radio and television.
After publishing and editing a science features fortnightly service for over five years, and after organising two workshops in 1986 and field reporting trips to train science journalists and science broadcasters, not much has changed. There are still no full-time public science communicators or science journalists employed in a country where 2700 newspapers are registered. With over 11 FM radio stations and three or four television channels, this country has revolutionised community broadcasting in the whole of Asia. But not a single full time science producer or a science writer has been appointed. Can the situation be any more depressing than this?
Our editors and publishers simply do not realise the importance of science communication, even today. Science scares ordinary people as well as journalists, either because it is seen as a very difficult and complicated subject, or one that is very dry. This is why editors who are normally keen to ‘make a political mountain out of an ordinary molehill’ avoid tackling science. It is a complicated barrier that remains in the way of establishing science as a subject that must be tackled in the daily press and other forms of mass media.
Our frustration has been further aggravated by scientists who are keen to explore new frontiers of science and technology, but make it increasingly complicated to understand except for those within their specialisation. The general public — the ultimate users of the products of science — remain in the dark. In no other discipline have consumers have been so neglected.
Science communication and science journalism is a passion for those who practice it but for the editors and publishers what matters is sensationalism because that is what sells. People waste time reading about murder, sex and personal gossips but are unaware of how they could protect themselves from the scourge of deadly diseases because no one has dared to write about it in an understandable way. Science news is important because, while there are hundreds of documents filled with technical details, hardly anything is written in an ordinary or ‘street’ language that everyone can understand. That is the challenge for us. There is a need to use plain language to communicate science and scientific discoveries and technologies but all we do is complicate and ‘geekify’ it.
Problems with the public communication of science
1. Evolutionary stage in many countries
Public communication of science is a discipline which is still in the process of evolving. We have been discussing the problem of science communication for a long time, and continue to talk about tackling the complications associated with it. But much remains to be done to lift the stature of science communication in many of the countries which stand to benefit tremendously from its application.
2. Lack of training
Science communication or science journalism is perhaps a well-established vocation in many developed countries, but in developing countries it is still unheard of. There are frequent meetings about the importance of science communication but there are hardly any training institutions outside the United States or United Kingdom. Although India has around 7000 universities, many of which offer majors in journalism, almost none have a degree course in science journalism or science communication.
In Nepal I have made several attempts to establish a fully-fledged science journalism course with no success as yet. My own experience shows how difficult it is for someone from a developing country to train abroad — I had no success in getting a scholarship for formal training in science journalism in the United States. We need to create such opportunities for young journalists in developing countries who would then remain committed to this profession.
3. Need for a science communication manual
Manuals are very important sources of training. People and institutions dealing with environment related topics have created several manuals to promote environmental coverage in the mass media. I propose that a simple manual for the public communication of science and technology, which could be translated into several languages, would serve to promote science communication and science journalism in countries where it doesn't exist. Not only science journalists and science communicators, but also scientists could benefit from such a manual.
4. Lack of trained science communicators
It is not surprising that we lack science communicators and science journalists when there are no training institutions to train them. Instead, what tends to happen is that a scientist may decide to leave their laboratory and picks up a pen rather than a pipette. Many have become very popular science writers or journalists. But relying on scientists, engineers, doctors and other specialists to turn to science journalism and broadcasting is not enough. There has to be a concerted effort to attract and train young people in this specialist area of journalism.
5. Science is complicated
There is no doubt that science is a demanding and complicated subject. But science can also be fun, and not just for scientists. Obviously some innovations need to be made in its teaching approach so that people enjoy learning about science. Science talks about discoveries, about plants and animal behaviour, about planets and galaxies, and about the earth and environment can take things far beyond our imagination. How can the study of such things be scary and boring?
6. Peer pressure
Scientists may face peer group pressure not to communicate their findings, but science becomes more complicated when its practitioners refuse to cooperate. It may be that they lack confidence in the ability of a journalist to understand the science, or that they suspect the reporter will oversimplify the details of their research. They may also be nervous that working with the media will be seen as an effort to gain personal popularity.
Apart from all this, the new trend of reduced public funding for scientific research means that rich private pharmaceutical companies have hired many of the most renowned scientists. The foremost casualty of this marketing process is their freedom of expression. When a public figure becomes private property the first thing they are taught is to keep away from the media.
Strategies to promote science communication in developing countries
A number of strategies could be employed:
a. Acknowledge that public communication of science and technology is very important.
b. More windows of opportunities need to be opened to encourage more people to take up the challenging responsibility of science communication.
c. Governments should be pursued to establish or support institutions to train science communicators and science writers/journalists.
d. Existing journalism schools and universities with a journalism faculty should be provided with resources and encouragement to establish training facilities for science communication and science journalism.
e. A core group of science communication and science journalism professionals could be trained at foreign universities and subsequently set up similar training in their own countries.
f. Newspapers, television, radio and other forms of media should be encouraged to provide more coverage of science-related news and features.
g. Innovation needs to be introduced into the teaching of science so that people will lose their fear of science and will enjoy learning about scientific discoveries from their childhood onwards.
h. We should aim to create an international discussion list through which we can exchange information; this could develop into a more permanent facility to promote public understanding of science across the world.
Can we achieve all this? I believe we can. We have to go beyond our nations and workplaces if we really want to commit ourselves to expanding the public communication of science and technology. Our commitment to this goal should become a unifying source for all of us and there are many ways in which we can participate.
One suggestion I have is the establishment of an International Centre for Science Communication. I firmly believe that there is not only need for such an institution on an international level but there is great scope for it. The centre would not simply be another association of science communicators, science journalists or public relation professionals. I envisage an institution which will not only facilitate the progress of public communication of science and technology but will also supplement the activities of all the other organisations who are engaged in the dissemination of science information. It would involve professionals who want to dedicate their talent and expertise for something which they believe is important for the benefit of mankind as a whole.
The time has come for us to make use of our specialist skills and contacts for the collective benefit. We have been discussing these issues for many years. But merely discussing the trends and issues among ourselves hardly serves any purpose. We must now convert our words into action. I am confident if we are united and act together we will succeed.
This article is an edited version of a presentation given by Prakash Khanal at the 6th International Conference on Public Communication of Science and Technology in February 2001.