Thought Leaders
February 7, 2022

The importance of nuanced scientific communication in an age of rising distrust

Dr Karen Jacqueline Cloete is an interdisciplinary scientific researcher whose work spans a multitude of areas. She is affiliated to the UNESCO-University of South Africa Africa Chair in Nanosciences-Nanotechnology, and the Nanosciences African Network-iThemba LABS-National Research Foundation. As well as currently working at the rich intersection between nanotechnology, chemistry and biology, Dr Cloete asks broader questions about the relationship between science and society at a time of rising public distrust. She recognises the vital importance of nuanced outreach to ensure the channels between scientific research and the public remain clear and transparent. Research Outreach were privileged to speak to Dr Cloete about her research background, and about the finer points of scientific communication.

Could you give us an introduction to your current research interests?
My career trajectory has spanned across interdisciplinary fields, and thus far, it has been a fascinating and educational journey, which has equipped me with the knowledge and skills to effectively transcend barriers into my current research field. By having an interdisciplinary background in how research questions are developed, answered, and applied, the modern scientist may be better prepared to not only survive and thrive – but also more effectively collaborate during a time when the world is facing grand challenges that require cross-border, as well as interdisciplinary, collaboration.

My current interdisciplinary research focuses on the synthesis, characterisation (with various techniques including accelerator-based), and application of nanomaterials. We are specifically focused on addressing the sustainable development goals number 12 and 13 (responsible consumption, production, and climate action) via nanosciences and nanotechnology. To manufacture nanoparticles that are cost-effective and environmentally safe, a green chemistry approach is followed that employs the use of natural green materials as starting materials. More specifically, we are aiming to contribute to the fourth agricultural revolution by developing a novel family of fertilisers termed nanofertilisers – a material available at nanometre scale in the form of nanoparticles that contain macro and micronutrients. These fertilisers may have a higher nutrient use efficiency, are more easily absorbed and translocated within plants, and may ultimately be more effective in boosting crop performance and production.

naum/Shutterstock.com

Given the misinformation which has spread during the COVID-19 pandemic, you have stressed the need for scientists to strengthen their public outreach. Do you have any suggestions for scientists who are looking to reach wider audiences?
It is important to remain cognisant of the fact that science is funded by the public realm. Sharing scientific findings beyond the borders of academia is imperative for not only boosting confidence in science, but also educating the public on the immense potential of science to solve grand challenges. Yet, the academic institution favours and incentivises publishing science in academic journals, which are frequently marginalised behind a payment wall or in an inaccessible form that is often uninteresting to a reader without a scientific or research background.

Effective scientific communication is extremely important in an era of failing science trust, miscommunication, and social media.

Fortunately, institutional communication departments that manage and mediate science communication, as well as train academic staff and students on the finer nuances of public science communication (while still respecting the inherent regulations of academic publishing), have started to flourish. However, academicians and researchers without the support of such departments need to be cognisant of the fact that the term ‘public’ encompasses a wide audience, including: family members, the media and Indigenous communities, as well as stakeholders in business, government and policy. Furthermore, public science communication encompasses communication using a different tone and demeanour than academic-style communication, which may branch beyond traditional popular scientific media, such as popular science journals or digital magazines. Outreach can be through science books, documentary reporting, cartooning, podcasting, interactive public engagements (science cafés, science fairs, and science festivals), science-themed marketing and communication, and social media, with the latter becoming increasing popular.

Dr Cloete has spoken of the vital importance of quality scientific outreach.

Collaborations with artists, poets, and photographers have also become increasingly popular for conveying a scientific message via an alternative and more enticing medium. Interestingly, school outreach programmes are now also an important educational avenue to share science – its relevance and potential – as well as science career opportunities. Ultimately, easing into and enjoying science communication via the various outreach platforms requires national and international training: training focused on the various aspects of robust and influential communication that encompass writing, speaking, and effectively engaging with public audiences of differing backgrounds and beliefs. In summary, investing in and being passionate about public science communication can be extremely rewarding, and may even boost personal research metrics.

What factors do you think are key to a strong piece of public scientific communication?
Effective science communication is extremely important in an era of failing science trust, miscommunication, and social media. The COVID-19 pandemic has further brought to light the importance of science communication. Unfortunately, in some contexts, pandemic-related science communication has failed to convince. The who, what, where, when, and why approach to communication was not always followed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the importance of nuanced and trustworthy scientific communication. GoodStudio/Shutterstock.com

For example, questions such as: 1) why a mask should be worn, 2) why sanitisation is important, 3) why social distancing is important, 4) why crowds should be avoided, and 5) why I should get vaccinated, were poorly explained by government officials who may not have taken heed of scientific advice because of poor science communication. A good scientific message, in my opinion, should respect the rules of communication – the information provided should: be relevant; provide the context – why should I care?; include analogies or examples; use simple language, devoid of jargon or complicated scientific terminology; and use visual appeal to attractively share knowledge. Be cautious of science communication pitfalls, for example, data misinterpretation and extrapolation beyond conclusive evidence. Ultimately, a piece should strongly aim to explain, educate, convince, and inspire, and be enriched with a visual tapestry either employing photography, video, or illustration to tell an inspirational science story. Most importantly, know your audience.

In what ways do you feel social media has eroded the veracity of scientific communication, and do you have any ideas about how it could be improved?
During the pandemic, when in-person meetings were not possible, some scientists turned to the internet to communicate their work to an online audience via the various social media platforms that include: LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Twitter, Facebook, Academia.edu, TikTok, and YouTube, plus more recent platforms such as Clubhouse. These may not only be used to convey scientific findings, but have also been used to post job offerings, lab imagery, or lab methodologies. During the pandemic, social media was also used to educate the public on COVID-19. However, although social media can be a very powerful multidimensional tool to educate and influence, this type of science communication tool remains less supported, developed, and censored. Furthermore, social media is accessible for anyone to weigh in on the science debate with biased views often supported by personal, religious, or political affiliations.

Karoon Cha/Shutterstock.com

Such an uncensored and non-peer-reviewed online conversation can quickly escalate into a scenario in which scientific findings can be skewed, misinterpreted, or ultimately miscommunicated. In effect, scientists require quality training on the effective use of social media – and also its pitfalls and advantages. Furthermore, choosing and combining different media is important; for example, communicating your research deposited in ResearchGate on Twitter whilst correctly timing the publication of your message is also critical. Other important considerations when interacting with social media platforms include: respecting science ethics and rigour; clarity and consistency in presentation style and word use to provide balanced and transparent factual evidence without scientific jargon; and most importantly, choosing the right target group and platform to relate to, influence, and educate to ultimately change mindsets.

Inaccurate or biased portrayals of science and scientists can erode public trust. How do you feel we could enhance transparency when it comes to the processes of scientific research?
In popular film media, scientists are often portrayed as agents that are consulted to dissolve a public dilemma at lightning speed. In contrast, some media and film also highlight the ignorance, disinterest or even animosity towards the scientific enterprise. For example, today, we are experiencing the devastating consequences of climate change after governments largely ignored the relevant evidence-based advice provided by scientists. This may be underscored by the fact that the rigorous, and often lengthy, scientific approach to developing and answering a problem to deliver evidence-based science, the financial support required, and often lengthy peer-reviewed publishing processes are often inadequately educated to a public audience. Moreover, the scientific approach that traditionally delivered tried and tested evidence-based answers was challenged during the pandemic, when robust and fast solutions were required to dissolve the devastating effects of the pandemic on various spheres of society.

Currently, what further exacerbates the scientific process is the lack of science ethics and inclusivity training at the graduate level. To illustrate some of the above, although interactions involving citizens including Indigenous communities and scientists can yield powerful collaborations and results, more often community members may not be aware of the nuanced and lengthy process of ethical data collection and management, as well as the pressure scientists face publishing their findings that may not always agree with community regulations.

In lieu of face-to-face meetings, more scientists have turned to the internet to disseminate their work. Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock.com

Alternatively, some scientists may also not be aware of the legal and ethical responsibilities of data analysis, interpretation, sharing, and overall management related to such collaborations. In effect, training scientists in the ethical and social justice dimensions of conducting science studies, the importance of following robust scientific design and methodology, adhering to reporting guidelines to promote transparency and reproducibility, the correct interpretation and management of data, and the overall scientific process should receive more attention. Alongside this, training the public on the finer nuances and dimensionality of science via social media channels such as YouTube should also be prioritised.

Science communication is starting to receive attention – and today, various channels beyond the traditional academic outlets are being tested.

Do you feel hopeful that, in light of the pandemic, we will see more channels through which scientists can reach the public, and vice versa?
The pandemic has brought science to the forefront, and particularly its importance in unravelling the virus in terms of its transmissibility, symptomatology, and the efficacy of vaccines against it. However, a lack of robust science communication, combined with misinformation inflicted by governments, institutional environments, and even scientists, have also tainted science and its voice. Fortunately, these concerns have been raised among the scientific community and steps have already been taken to remedy the damages inflicted.

Science communication is starting to receive attention – and today, various channels beyond the traditional academic outlets are being tested. For one, since in-person meetings has been limited to curb the spread of the virus, increasing interest has been noticed in the use of social media platforms (such as YouTube, TikTok and Clubhouse) as educational and collaborative avenues. In this environment, various communication methods, such as photography, video, and text, can also be used to: pose questions, advertise published research, collaborate, and ultimately educate the public to change perceptions. In turn, the public can interact freely with scientists within an essentially inclusive environment unrestricted by membership fees or academic criteria. However, both scientists and the public should be aware of the pitfalls of using social media, as well as the ramifications of irresponsible use of such tools, and hence use it respectfully, inclusively, and responsibly. Interestingly, podcasting and video documentaries as well as collaborations between scientists and artists have also seen a revival in recent years – mostly to popularise science via a more exciting and accessible form.

Social media platforms have become increasingly popular as channels for communicating research. DG FotoStock/Shutterstock.com

You have been involved in projects which seek to unite the arts and the sciences. Do you feel that art is an effective method through which science can be translated into new forms for new audiences?
I am honoured to be part of the Science + Art = Peace and Justice working group of the Global Young Academy, which is involved in a range of different projects popularising science via art, sketching, and poetry (www.globalyoungacademy.net/science-art-peace-and-justice). This group has broadened my views on the fascinating and largely unexplored link between science and art to showcase the finer nuances of the complex scientific voice. In essence, art can be a very powerful medium to convey a message in a fun and visual manner to popularise science, or can be deployed as an educational tool to comprehend science more easily. Art also allows us to share the beauty of science in the form of videography or other artistic outlets. Interesting examples of how art can be used to popularise science include: science image competitions (Nikon small life – www.nikonsmallworld.com); science poetry (www.blogs.scientificamerican.com/poetry-can-help-communicate-science); and the collaboration between scientists and cartoonists, e.g. the ‘Flatten the Curve’ GIF developed by cartoonist Toby Morris and epidemiologist Professor Siouxsie Wiles to explain the importance of social distancing and sanitisation. The important role of museums also comes to mind, as well as science exhibitions and festivals that can serve as platforms to showcase science via art and its importance for societal sustenance and development.

This feature article was created with the approval of the research team featured. This is a collaborative production, supported by those featured to aid free of charge, global distribution.

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