Undergraduate for many of us was more than just getting a degree(s), it was also a time where we found ourselves, passions, and purpose. Besides the freshman 15, we also gained new interests and hobbies that went on to define our careers. While there are numerous articles on how to get a wholesome college experience, one skill less emphasised – especially among science, technology, engineering and maths majors – is communication. This begs the question: What is science communication? Jane Gregory, co-author of Science in Public, defined science communication as: ‘the communication of scientific knowledge and ideas to people who are not scientists.’ This is my favourite definition because it acknowledges the importance of the flow of scientific information outside its community.
As scientists, generally, we are passionate and excited to talk about our work. However, we often fail to realise not all our audience have a scientific background, and sometimes we use jargons, methods, and topics the average person has never heard of. The future of science communication depends heavily on scientists who are better equipped to effectively communicate their work to the public. To this end, David Skorton, former Cornell University president, points out: ‘Many of us never received the education in the humanities or social sciences that would allow us to explain to nonscientists what we do and why it is important.’ Scientists can be so much more innovative when the pool of knowledge from which they draw is deeper and wider. Dr Loretta Jackson-Hayes, a chemistry professor at Rhodes College with a background in liberal arts, opined that her wholesome college experience was the key that unlocked true learning, and the ability to draw from other disciplines made her a better scientist and communicator.
Their sentiments are spot on. As a STEM major, in college, I often wondered and admired how students from the School of Business always seemed very social and approachable – especially students from the Sales Excellence Institute, in their neatly pressed blazers. Having a curiosity with boundary issues, I decided to enrol in the sales programme at the University of Houston. I learned who I am and what my values are in a cut-throat environment, where the power of quota can drive one to desperation. Additionally, my sales training helped me hone in on my communication, presentation, and public speaking skills that I would not otherwise learned in the classroom or laboratory. STEM students stuck exclusively in science lecture halls will not evolve the same way.
Why is science communication important?
In a COVID-19 pandemic, a powerful tool for managing public health is science communication. It bridges the gap by promoting science understanding to strengthen societal immunity, while minimising outbreaks of infectious diseases. One country widely credited for its effective science communication campaign, among other measures, is New Zealand. WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, Dr Takeshi Kasai, explains that ‘New Zealand combined strict physical distancing with strong testing, contact tracing, clinical management of those infected, and clear and regular public communication.’ The New Zealand government largely credits the success to a team of 5 million New Zealanders.
Unfortunately, for the rest of the world, this has not been the case in large part, due to the massive spread of misinformation and disinformation. While the former is unintentional, the latter is the intentional spread of false or misleading information about the coronavirus – both equally damaging to public health. Social media platforms, in combination with other factors, are inundated with conflicting information about COVID-19 and its vaccine. The result has enabled widespread confusion, complicated public health response, and contributed to the global mortality rate during the pandemic.
What we can do
A recent article published by WHO identifies seven steps to flatten the infodemic curve:
With misinformation and disinformation spreading faster than the virus, initiatives by government and health agencies to combat the spread can only go so far. Meaningful change can be accomplished when accompanied with grassroot communication on the importance of science in a healthy society.
We are the change. While it is human nature to fear the things we do not understand, it is incumbent on those of us who do, to combat common myths about the coronavirus and its vaccine within our social circles, however small, for a bigger societal impact.
Rita Idugboe graduated with BSc in Biotechnology from the University of Houston. She is involved in a number of volunteer opportunities and leadership roles.
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