Communicating science in a science-unfriendly environment
Communication, powered by media channels, has proved to be the pivot on which society develops and rests. Nigeria has not been an exception. In fact, within the whole of Africa, the media in Nigeria have been known to be very vocal, unrelenting and dogged in their pursuit of the ideals of social justice and political equality.
Given its chequered history drawn in deprivation, replete with obstacles but rich in resilience and resourcefulness, the Nigerian media has obviously 'come of age'. From its inception almost 150 years ago when newspapering was in its crudest form, to the present day when the media scene sizzles, the industry has truly faced all obstacles with courage and fortitude.
An admirable combination of the best in technology and high quality human resources has ensured the Nigerian media a pride of place in the nation's pantheon of development. The media today is viewed as a formidable partner in progress by many corporate entities, a pillar of strength by the government and a watchdog by the society. For an industry that draws its strength from the noble cannons of educating, informing, mobilising, and entertaining the public as well as influencing public opinion along the narrow track of public good, the media cannot afford to be static. Certainly not in a country as dynamic as Nigeria which is a vital part of a world in which change is the only constant decimal.
Change in the nation's media landscape has shown its ever-changing face through the epochs by the quality of the publications that have sprouted from this dynamic industry. Change has showed its mercurial hand in the avalanche of broadcast media that abound in Nigeria today. Change has also become manifest in the spiralling increase in the number of media practitioners and the increased patronage of those who utilise the media to their ultimate benefit.
Beyond change for itself, the media more than any other stakeholder in Nigeria has helped to change the fortunes of the polity over time. The media was at the vanguard of the struggle to change the docility of the populace towards colonial rule. In the not too distant past, the media was at the forefront of the crusade against military dictatorship. The campaign eventually resulted in the attainment of democracy. Under the current civilian dispensation, the media is leading the clamour for a more human social order.
For all its pervading influence the media has remained constant and focused. And has endeavoured to change with the times while not shrinking in its professional and patriotic duties.
The Environment of Science in Nigeria
Nigeria is a vast and varied country. There is a great deal of activity in all spheres of life. Science and technology are not left out. Research is going on in virtually all branches of the natural sciences, in engineering, medicine, agriculture, and in the area of science policy and planning as well as scientific information and documentation. Research in the natural sciences is carried out mainly in the universities. The Federal Ministry of Science and Technology and the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources both supervise a large number of these institutes whose mandates include not only pure research, but also development-oriented research, having a direct interface with the larger society.
However in the last 15 years, the activities of these research centres have been greatly hampered by massive reductions in fund allocation. With the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Program in the late eighties to the period of political uncertainty in a greater part of the nineties, funding for research in science and technology took a severe bashing, enough to truncate several on-going projects and also ensured that others were never embarked upon.
Funding has been a major issue not just in the conduct of research and development in science and technology but also in the further dissemination of information. Thus, constraints in funding have impeded attempts to meet the stipulations of the OAU Lagos Plan of Action for the economic development of Africa presented in 1980, including in particular, the recommendation that research and development activities should attract funding at least at the level of one per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country by 1990.
Apart from this, other funding strategies have been advanced particularly in the National Science and Technology Policy. The policy advocated a tripartite funding system involving the Federal Government and its parastatals, state governments and the private sector. Like its predecessors and other comparative policies, very little has been achieved. Several years after the OAU Lagos Plan of Action, the highest allocation that government has made for the science and technology sector is a mere 0.1 per cent of GDP in 1987. By 1990 when the effect of the Structural Adjustment Program had become manifest, the allocation fell to 0.08 per cent.
For the private sector whatever strides had been made were wiped out by the effects of the Structural Adjustment Program. Enterprises that survived were mostly those with links outside the country where their research and development efforts were carried out with minimal cost.
With such appalling funding levels and apathy demonstrated by the government's lack of commitment to the promotion of the sector, science and technology became and still remains the leper no one wants to touch or associate with. It is this impression that has permeated the consciousness of media practitioners such that they now hold the sector in utter disdain. It used to be the joke in media establishments that those on the Science and Technology desks were on expeditions to Siberia while their counterparts on the Economy and Political desks were on a cruise to the new world.
This, therefore, is the environment in which stakeholders in Nigeria wade through in their attempt to communicate and disseminate matters of scientific importance to the public. In fact, the latest development is that the 'dry' Science and Technology desks in Nigeria's media establishments have been 'upgraded' to the more 'viable' 'Infotechnology' desk.
The challenge therefore is very clear.
The Challenges and Prospects
In Nigeria, specialised journalism has received a large boost in the last 15 years. Currently we now have journals in specialised fields of human endeavour such as the economy, health, sports, politics, science and technology, among several others.
In the area of science and technology, apart from columns in newspapers dedicated to reporting scientific information there was the weekly science news magazine, The African Science Monitor published by the Concord Newspaper Group. Unfortunately, the African Science Monitor magazine folded prematurely possibly due to the web of political intrigues that engulfed its publisher, the late Bashorun MKO Abiola. Following the failure of that project, there has been no replacement thereby leaving the task of reporting science to weekly columns in the few newspapers that still care to feature them.
I have pointed out in the preceding section that the greatest challenge facing the task of communicating scientific information is the unfriendly environment in which stakeholders have to operate in. Stakeholders are expected to spend financial resources in order to receive the attention they deserve. I have also pointed out that for the sector, these resources have been difficult to come by. Naturally therefore, the ability of stakeholders to disseminate scientific information in a timely manner, or even to dare to influence editorial judgement in matters concerning science is greatly limited.
In Nigeria, of the close to eight national newspapers, only The Guardian (Lagos) has kept faith in providing a steady, regular column for reporting scienfitic information. In our experience, economic and financial considerations usually override editorial judgement in Nigeria. In several cases, editors have been known to have authorised the replacement of a science page with an advertisement paid for at the closing hours leading to production. This is very frustrating not only to the media personnel on the Science and Technology desks but also to the devoted army of readers and stakeholders. The industry has been treated with so much contempt because it lacks the financial wherewithal to assert its rightful position as the engine of growth in the society. I will elaborate further by outlining just two cases and projects that we have been involved in and how we would have achieved optimum results were the necessary resources required available to the Academy.
Case One: Information Concerning Academy Public Lectures/Forums/Workshops
As a matter of routine, the Academy holds quarterly public lectures on areas of importance to the public. Usually, press releases are sent out to media establishments for their use in sensitising the public. In 50 per cent of cases the content of these press releases are never used. Where they are used (in about 30 per cent of cases), they are often used in brief and tucked away in a corner that requires a sharp sense of alertness to notice them. In 20 per cent of cases, the materials are used after the event as a post-script. Our experience is that media establishments that decide not to use the press materials consider them as advertisements that should attract a charge.
Even after the events, the reports and communiqué forwarded to the media are hardly ever used for the same reason. Media establishments expect the Academy to pay for the publication of such materials as if they were advertisements. And in our peculiar case where funds are difficult to come by, advertising the communiqué or the report could be a real luxury.
Case Two: The HIV/AIDS Cure Controversy in Nigeria
Of all the activities of the Academy, none has attracted so much controversy and publicity as its statement on the claims of a cure advanced by a number of people, orthodox and natural medicine practitioners, on the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). When these individuals, led especially by Dr. Jeremiah Abalaka went public with claims that they had found a cure for HIV/AIDS through vaccines, the informed and enlightened scientific community naturally raised eyebrows. Not only did they go public, the manner of their publicity campaign suggested the complicity and support of some senior and influential people in government. At the peak of it, the Chief of Army Staff, himself not a medical doctor, attested to the efficacy of one of the vaccines while the public waited with baited breath for a confirmation from the Director of Army Medical Services. The Director, a thoroughbred professional, quietly read the political undertones in the support offered by the gladiators, and kept out of the controversy.
The Academy had to set up a panel of experts to examine the claims made by these various individuals with a view to advising the government. The report, when submitted, was forwarded to the government. In addition, the report was released to the press at a press briefing, with a plea that the media should publish the entire report to avoid cases of misinterpretation.
On this particular occasion, the media rose to the occasion by making the report front-page news. As expected, the report indicated that the various claims should be subjected to further scientific analysis before a conclusion could be reached on their efficacy. From the work of the panel, it became very clear that Dr. Abalaka, a key figure among the claimants, had never personally claimed to be capable of curing HIV/AIDS. His vaccines, he claimed, could only reduce the viral load of patients. But the press had reported that Dr. Abalaka could cure HIV/AIDS. Even after the report by the Academy panel, a large segment of the public still believed that Dr. Abalaka could cure HIV/AIDS as his hospital continued to witness an astronomical rise in patronage by patients and potential patients.
Here, the communication of information was effectively done but due to ignorance and preconceived notions on the part of the public and even the media personnel who covered the event, the public still held on to the wrong message. The panel's report itself and the attendant reverberations have landed the Academy in a court case in which Dr. Abalaka is claiming the sum of one trillion Naira, a sum compared to which the budget of the Federal Republic of Nigeria for the last four years would amount to an infinitesimal fraction.
In the preceding section, I have cited just two cases of the kind of problems that crop up when attempting to communicate or disseminate scientific information in Nigeria. These problems are representative of the totality of problems that hamper or impede the process as far as Nigeria is concerned. Solving these problems presents a spectacular challenge that I am certain the Academy is not adequately equipped to tackle on its own. But brainstorming sessions such as this could facilitate the process of exchanging information and sharing ideas by stakeholders towards addressing the issues involved. In the light of this, I commend the organisers of this workshop for taking the initiative to convene this meeting.
The author is administrative secretary of the Nigerian Academy of Science. This paper was given at an international workshop, "Science and the Media" held in Tobago in February 2002 by the InterAcademy Panel and SciDev.Net.
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