Small but perfectly formed: Colombia's science communication dynamo
Lisbeth Fog gives an insight into the trials and tribulations of setting up a network of science journalists in Colombia.
If proof were needed of the influence a few good people can wield, the Colombian Association of Science Journalism would be it. Our group of Colombian scientists and journalists, based in different regions of the country as well as the United States and Canada, number not more than 25.
But we manage to get our message across to most of Latin America, and we contribute substantially to the development of science journalism in Colombia. Our freelance members in North America are in permanent contact, and hold conferences for the rest of us when they come home for visits. So we don't only inform — we also stay informed.
It was back in 1976 that a Spanish science journalist working on El Mundo, Manuel Calvo-Hernando, inspired a group of 20 leading scientists and science journalists to set up the ACPC. Calvo-Hernando remains very active with the Spanish Association of Science Journalism.
Initially, the ACPC's involvement in science communication was modest. It did succeed in organising a few international meetings on science journalism in Bogotá, Medellín and Bucaramanga, involving leading personalities of the political and scientific world.
Even before this time, science sections had begun to appear in national and local newspapers in Colombia and Brazil; some scientists even had their own television programmes. A public institution designed to support national scientific and technology activities and PhD programmes, Colciencias, was set up in 1968. Colciencias (the Colombian Institute for the Development of Science and Technology) heralded a new era in Colombian history: the country was beginning to think in scientific terms.
Meanwhile, the ACPC was experiencing ups and downs. There were a few small meetings; opportunities came and went as science pages appeared in some newspapers and disappeared in others. In 1996, after a long period of inactivity, things finally began to change. A new generation of journalists, supported by the Colombian neurologist and journalist Juan Mendoza-Vega, began to breathe new life into the association. Despite some difficulties tracking down the organisation's official documents, after a couple of years the ACPC was officially established again, and ready to go ahead with a programme of activities.
Two organisations — the Colombian Association for the Advancement of Science (ACAC) and Colciencias — helped us with this endeavour. Both had begun programmes in science communication and were aware that science without communications was not really effective. People needed to be informed about science and technology activities both in their own country and beyond its frontiers.
By 1998, the ACPC had a membership of fewer than 15, but we also had our dreams. The main challenge facing us now was the sheer number of things we wanted to do. Where should we start?
One dream was to set up a science news agency, but we were not experienced enough to start with something quite this big. We had to begin at the beginning: train science communicators, journalists and science journalism teachers. And it had to happen abroad, as Colombia lacks such programmes.
At that time, only one of us — myself — had an MA in science communication. I had arrived from Boston University in 1993, where I had just completed an MA in reporting science and medicine. As a result of my experience, we began to contact graduate programmes elsewhere, mainly in Spain and the United States, to enable people from our association and from Colombia in general, to specialise in the field. At the same time, we started teaching a science journalism course at two private universities, Universidad Minuto de Dios and Universidad Santo Tomas.
As of now, eight journalists and scientists from Colombia (although not all are ACPC members) have travelled abroad to study different programmes in science communication; some have yet to return. Beginning in 2000, the ACPC also began organising special one- or two-day workshops and seminars for specific audiences.
We are convinced that you do not have to be a journalist to communicate science effectively. A scientist can also become a great communicator, if he or she trains as such. We also think that even though we focus mainly on journalism, the mass media offer other options for communicating science. So the courses we organise are designed to appeal to journalists from the print and broadcast media; to public information officers at research centres, and public and private institutions; to undergraduates and graduates in any field; and to scientists. Each programme is tailored to specific skills the attendees want to acquire.
As a result, we have taught courses on science journalism at five universities, have travelled to more than a dozen Colombian cities to develop workshops in science journalism and science communication, and have also participated in seminars organised by other institutions, to give a conference on science journalism. Generally, the organisers invite us and pay all our expenses.
Internationally, we have led three workshops in Ecuador and one in Mexico City. We have been invited to give lectures at the Universidad de Salamanca and Universidad Pompeu Fabra, both in Spain, and have travelled to several other European countries, Latin America, Japan and the United States to talk about our experiences with the ACPC.
Gradually, in Colombia and in the region, we have become an acknowledged professional resource in science journalism teaching. Our status can be measured by the recognition we have acquired: universities and institutions now seek out our services. The students on our courses range from undergraduate and graduate students to researchers, lecturers in journalism, medicine, biology, engineering, maths and many other disciplines, retired scientists wanting to learn how to popularise science, and print journalists.
Researching national science communication
We at ACPC began to train science communicators because we found that without them, science was poorly represented in the media. We decided to do some research to confirm whether this was, in fact, the case.
With the support of Colciencias and Fundación Tecnos, a private non-profit organisation supporting projects in science, the ACPC decided to research the Biosafety Protocol Meeting — the international protocol focusing on the protection of biodiversity from genetically modified organisms — to take place in Cartagena, Colombia, in February 1999. We would then analyse the articles on it appearing in all the national print media, and in a selection of international newspapers.
The conclusions of our study did not throw a favourable light on the media, the journalists, or even the sources quoted in the articles. With few exceptions, the journalists covering the issue did not understand it. The Greenpeace activists who were present as observers easily convinced these journalists that their views were the right ones — resulting in inaccuracies and serious mistakes in the published articles.
The official sources from the government, research organisations and universities did not have a precise grasp of the science behind genetic modification or biotechnology in general, and the science community preferred to keep a low profile. (At that time, genetic modification was still a new field, though some national universities were researching it.) With few exceptions, the media published alarmist headlines and inaccurate illustrations. Although we did not have the tools to measure readers' perceptions, we felt reasonably sure that the people of Colombia had received a partial — and wrong — view of the issue.
We carried out further research in 2001, when we studied the information appearing in the permanent science sections of Colombian newspapers. We concluded that even though there were journalists interested in covering science and technology, they did not have the support of their editors to carry out the reportage in the first place, enough time to research, or even enough space in the section when they finally could write a story.
These studies confirmed to the ACPC that in Colombia there is a definite need to train professional science journalists and convince the print media to develop an editorial policy regarding science issues. Most of the science published in our newspapers referred to developments in the North — and according to other studies, this is a central reason why Colombians felt that science was irrelevant to their daily lives.
In recent years we have also looked closely at the environmental and health sections of Colombian newspapers and reached similar conclusions. The experience has inspired us to participate in brain-storming groups convened by official institutions and some nongovernmental organisations, to think about different ways of effectively getting the science and technology message across to the layperson.
Dream come true
Finally, beginning in 2003, ACPC's big dream came true. With the support of Colciencias and the National Academy of Medicine, we created a news agency: NOTICyT, the Colombian Science and Technology News Wire Service. Through this we began disseminating news about the science and technology activities of Colombia's science community.
Over eight months, we sent a weekly bulletin to more that 600 journalists in Colombia and the Latin American region. Overall, we sent 32 bulletins with 106 science articles, each 550 words on average and covering a huge range of disciplines — health, science policy, technological innovation, social studies, basic science, the environment, biotechnology, electronics, telecommunication and information, education, water studies, agriculture and energy and mining. We also wrote book reviews, and sent out 28 agendas for science meetings that took place in Colombia.
The service was well received by the editors of 14 local and national daily newspapers and five weeklies and monthlies, as well as one journal from Uruguay. Nine of them started publishing our articles in their science sections. In this way their readers started to hear about local science from a number of regions in the country.
The number of NOTICyT stories published in newspapers increased month by month, reaching a total of 206 by September 2003. Journals also began to look for science stories in their own neighbourhoods. Some of the NOTICyT articles proved highly popular: for instance, seven newspapers published a piece we did about crying, based on the work of two researchers. One, a very elderly paediatrician, had studied crying in babies, and found that they cry in different ways depending on their specific needs. The other had studied crying in adults, isolating two different types — one a response to their own pain, and the other an empathetic response to the pain of others.
The most important achievement of NOTICyT, however, is that it has inspired the journalism students who were with us as interns. Four of the five who had received minimal training in science journalism became really motivated to go on with the career.
In 2003, NOTICyT won a networking award from the Packard International Networking Initiative, a programme run by the scientific research society Sigma Xi. Worth US$2,500, the award is sponsored by Hewlett Packard and given to innovative science initiatives. IBM also donated two computers.
The lessons learned
The first lesson from the ACPC experience is the one I stated at the beginning: you do not need to be a large group to influence society. With clear goals and good strategies for reaching them, a few people can do a great job.
The second lesson is that you have to be visible if you want to be effective in getting information on science to the people. It is just as important to convince the scientific community, policy and decision makers, media owners, journalists and laypeople of the need for science information. The ACPC has a comprehensive database of Latin American journalists, science communicators and people who might be involved in these issues, and we send our official bulletin to them every two months, informing them of our activities and of developments in science journalism and communication in the region and throughout the world.
The third lesson is that you can do a lot with very little money — you just need to think in the long term. The NOTICyT experience was very successful and our sponsors were satisfied with the results. This is not to say there haven't been hiccups: we had to halt the agency's activities when the old director of Colciencias stepped down.
On 12 December 2003, however, Colciencias and ACPC signed a new six-month contract, so we started the new year with NOTICyT up and running. And we intend to ensure not only that it remains a very good source of science stories for the Colombian and Latin American media, but also to make it last forever. Business sense is not something journalists are generally known for, but I'm stubborn, and one of my goals for 2004 is to transform NOTICyT into a successful and lasting enterprise.
The ACPC is one of the most active associations of this kind in Latin America. Though we have gone through hard times — we don't get a salary, and we only earn money if the projects we present are approved — we are all convinced that keeping the channels of science communication open in Colombia is vital.
Lisbeth Fog is the president of the Colombian Association of Science Journalism.
This article was previously part of SciDev.Net's e-guide to science communication and has been reformatted to become this opinion.