Towards better communication of science
Could a cadre of experienced science journalists from developed nations be recruited to act as mentors for colleagues in developing countries at the start of their careers? Should a series of short 'field guides' be produced for respectively scientific information officers, journalists/news editors, and scientists interested in communicating with decision-makers and a broader public? Indeed, would placing a science dictionary in every newsroom be one of the most effective ways of encouraging better reporting about science?
These were some of the ideas to emerge from a three-day workshop on science and the media held jointly last week by SciDev.Net and the InterAcademy Panel — a grouping of more than 80 scientific academies around the world — on the island of Tobago, hosted by the Caribbean Academy of Sciences.
The workshop brought together about 50 individuals from more than 25 countries. It was organised on the basis that the communication of science — particularly in the context of developing countries — is not a distinct professional activity. Rather it is a social process in which various groups of professional are involved, ranging from scientists at the one end, through public information officers (PIOs) and journalists, and reaching the public and decision-makers at the other.
The different groups involved in this process do not always share the same goals. Indeed, there are times when different professionals may be in conflict (for example, between an information officer's desire to get a particular message across through a news release or press conference, and a journalist's legitimate refusal to be treated merely as a 'mouthpiece' for institutional news or self-promotion).
Overall, however, the meeting reinforced the view that, while it is up to the members of each profession to draw up their own rules of conduct and ideas of best practice, each has much to gain by learning in detail about how the others operate.
No hard conclusions or recommendations were reached at the end of the three days; that had not been the ambition of the organisers. However, some general points of agreement seemed to emerge from the three days of presentations and formal and informal debate. Although the ideas listed below are not intended to represent a consensus of those present (or even of the organisers), they will hopefully provide some valuable pointers to the way forward for all those committed to improving the process of science communication. In particular:
- There is a clear need, particularly in developing nations, to promote capacity building — for example through workshops and training courses — in three separate areas: developing communication skills for scientists, professional skills for public information officers, and comparable skills for journalists interested in writing about science;
- Science journalism in a development context should not be restricted to writing about 'science' in the developed country sense, but conceived as an approach to the scientific aspects of issues arising in the fields of health, environment, agriculture and food production, and energy;
- In consequence, improving the quality of science communication in many countries should focus on increasing the number of professional journalists able to write knowledgably about science as it bears on these fields;
- A major challenge in achieving this goal is to convince newspapers — which in practice means convincing the editors, managing editors and news editors who act as 'gatekeepers' to what considered newsworthy — to allocate more space to science-based stories around such topics;
- At the same time, scientists need to accept that, whatever the short-term risks and concerns, it is in their long-term interests to make themselves more available to journalists, and thus more accountable to the general public;
- In some countries, the lack of willingness by scientists and their institutions to open up in this way can reflect centralised funding procedures (i.e. funding procedures that are relatively insensitive to shifts in public opinion) whose effectiveness is increasingly questioned;
- Neither scientists, PIOs or journalists are in a position to change this directly. But each can contribute by promoting a culture of greater transparency and public accountability through developing skills appropriate to their communication responsibilities;
- One practical way in which professionals experienced in such tasks in the developed countries could assist this process would be by acting as personal 'mentors' to individuals in developing countries at the start of their career;
- Although this approach might, on the surface, appear patronising, there was a general feeling at the workshop that such accusations were misplaced, as the basic principle of good practice in each of the three professions were identical in both a developed and developing country context.
- Preparing regional (and perhaps international) databases of the names of individuals involved in each activity;
- Organising workshops on a national or regional basis, at which each of the three groups could learn about professional tasks and responsibilities of the other two, and the pressures and constraints under which they operate;
- Organising regional associations of individuals engaged in each of these three fields;
- Preparing a series of short 'field guides' that provide a summary of best practice in each profession.
Change will only take place if both the willingness and commitment to change, and the capacity and resources to do so, are present. The Tobago workshop confirmed the existence of the first two of these. The next step is to build on that commitment to turn possibility into reality.
© SciDev.Net 2002
David Dickson is the Director of SciDev.Net.
E-mail: [email protected]
See also: Transcripts of papers given at the InterAcademy Panel / SciDev.Net workshop 'Science and the Media'