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One Health

One Health

Updates on research, policy and teaching activities exploring the complex relationships between human, animal and planetary health.

What has WOHC 2020 taught me about science communications?

Authour Yasmin Abdalla

Attending the 2020 World One Health Congress virtually has been an exciting opportunity to meet researchers, students and stakeholders in One Health. The virtual congress has presenters and attendants from all over the world and gives an opportunity to learn a huge amount about various One Health issues. Sessions have focussed on Covid-19, antimicrobial resistance, science policy interface, the environment and social sciences. So far, the talks have been interesting and wonderfully diverse.

Although it is hard to pick out specific sessions as they have all been so good, todays keynote on “Scientific communication during a pandemic” has been an absolute highlight of the congress so far for me.

Debora Mackenzie (journalist for the New Scientist) and Kai Kupferschmidt (journalist at Science Magazine, Germany) came together to talk about their experiences and the challenges faced with reliably circulating scientific information in the middle of a crisis.

Debora began with a presentation on the barriers that have existed in Science communications during this pandemic. She made the excellent point that as scientists our temptation is to convince people of facts by overwhelming them with evidence, when studies show that this will often just alienate the people we are trying to convince. She discussed the psychological biases, that meant that many governments convinced themselves that Covid 19 was not going to happen, even when the warning signs were impossible to ignore.

Kai then followed up with a discussion around the information vacuum created by poor communication from governments and public health organisations. A vacuum that the media has often had to step into, a role that the media is not really designed for. He also pointed out the holes that Covid 19 has exposed in our peer review system, with scientific information needing to be published faster than it could be peer reviewed (leading to the reliance on pre-print papers and the introduction of a kind of real time review from experts on twitter).

Both debated where the responsibility of scientists ends and of government begins, and the paradox of living in an age when people have access to more high quality information than ever before, yet there is more disinformation than ever before. They also brought to the forefront how important this communication is; no pandemic has ever been successfully managed without effecting peoples’ behaviours.

Watching their keynote made me reflect on myself as a scientist and how I have engaged with science communications, and there are three main takeaways from this session that I see for myself.

Firstly, learning to communicate openly and effectively with people in every discipline is key. When faced with a major challenge, be it Covid-19, climate change or the next pandemic, good decision making needs to take into account economics, ethics, human behaviour, psychology, culture and more. Scientists in all of these fields need to be able to communicate and understand one another to allow them to advise better decisions in an emergency.

Secondly, no matter how daunting engaging with science communications is in the “fake news”, ”post truth” era, it is essential and it is part of my responsibility as a scientist. A lot of the publics’ perception of Covid is characterised by extremes, best exemplified by mask wearing being seen as the end of freedom or as a civil duty. It’s tempting to look at the current landscape, hear Debora’s point that supplying more evidence isn’t the answer, and just decide to step back. We mustn’t. If more evidence isn’t the answer, maybe a different approach to governance is. Maybe communicating the same evidence through different channels is (such as Kais pandemic podcast). No matter what, not participating is not the answer.

Thirdly and finally, remember, as both Kai and Debora put so well, “do not sacrifice the good for the perfect”. As scientists, one of our fundamental skills is looking at each others work critically and analytically. This is an essential and defining trait of science, but faced with a global crisis situation such as Covid-19 we need to remember not to cloud and undermine key messages to the public by being overly critical. This is, without doubt, a difficult line to walk. How do you make sure you aren’t confusing a key message, but you also aren’t letting bad science pass without comment?

I don’t have the answers to a lot of this, but after todays discussion, I will be thinking about science communications in a new light and will be trying to carry these lessons forward with me.


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