Monday, 28 November 2011

Diversity & Soaps Operas for Better Science Communication

A couple of weeks ago Abby Tabor from MyScienceWork contacted me asking to interview me for an article about science communication that she wanted to write. I said yes and the result of that and other two more interviews gave as a result an amazing post that you can find in the Agora forum, For Women in Science community and in MyScienceWork blog, Multidisciplinary Research News. I hope you like as much as I do.
As more and more researchers take part in bringing their science to the public, social media provide a wealth of tools for making contact. Still, it is important to remember that the target is real people on the other end, with a desire and a need to understand. The diversity of this community also means diversifying the approaches, with new ideas and old favorites, in order to connect most effectively with groups of different needs.

Increasing numbers of researchers are living double lives. On top of a successful scientific career, many are stacking a full-time position as purveyor of science, via blogs, social media, and internet forums. Although, to many, it is more than evident that scientists should share their work with the public, Marisa Alonso Nuñez, a researcher at the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research at the University of Manchester (UK) and contributor to the Agora forum, explains that there remains some resistance on the part of the research world. Some scientists simply don’t see it as part of their job. It’s not taken into account in their job description, and those who actively communicate with the public do it in their spare time, without pay.

“Some researchers don’t like it, or they don’t have time, or they’re not good at [translating their work for a lay audience], but I’m happy to do it. A lot of our work is funded by public money, so I feel we owe that to society.”

Marisa makes good on this promise to her 516 followers on Twitter, as well as via her personal blog, in English and in Spanish, and on collaborative blogs and an online magazine.

Mayana Zatz, a geneticist at the University of São Paulo and laureate in 2000 of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award, not only keeps up the pace for the nearly 4,500 people following her on Twitter, but she also maintains a blog. She writes about her own work on neurodegenerative diseases, and other science news. The communication flows in both directions, as Professor Zatz welcomes questions from the public, via email. She receives about 20 messages per day from patients asking when a new treatment will be available, for example, or from citizens seeking to understand stem cell research.

The Internet clearly has a vital role to play but, for Federica Migliardo, a biophysicist at the University of Messina, an all-web approach without personal contact would be the wrong direction to take for enhancing relations between science and society. Writing on the Agora forum, Dr. Migliardo stresses the point that science must reflect the society for which it works, in that both women and men must be active in decision-making roles. Likewise, it could be said that our approach to transmitting scientific information to society should reflect the diversity of communication channels that exist, and the varying needs of the individuals involved.

Federica participates regularly in meetings at universities designed to expose students to a potential career in research. She says these young people actually request this kind of contact, sending her Facebook messages asking her to make a stop in their town.

“It’s important to speak personally because, if not, science is only abstract, it’s not something they imagine they could do.”

All things being relative, Dr. Migliardo admits that the laureates of the L’Oréal-UNESCO award are like gods to her. “It’s the same for young people. They imagine [scientists] live on Olympus, that we are geniuses, and that it would be impossible to reach our goals.”

When they meet her, though, she says they are struck by something else entirely: how very normal she is. This is something many women researchers feel is imperative to get across to girls interested in science. There is a misconception that to do research, you have to give up the ordinary pleasures of life: seeing friends, going to movies, having children. Mayana Zatz receives a lot of emails that touch on this subject, and feels it’s important to make it clear to young women that you don’t have to leave science to have a family, nor should you give up the experience of motherhood to do research.

Coming face-to-face, or email-to-email, with inspiring figures in research can clearly have great benefits for someone considering following the same path. But for a more general diffusion of science, what remains in our arsenal of communication? “I’m convinced TV is the best way now,” declares Federica Migliardo. Marisa Alonso Nuñez laments the undesirable time slots to which scientific documentaries are often doomed—“Who’s going to watch science on a Saturday night?”—but Dr. Migliardo has an idea that could bring science into more homes at a more influential hour. Her goal is to create short films to be broadcast just before the evening news. Each episode would let different scientists talk about their research and their life, and connect with the public on a more human level.

Mayana Zatz would like to exploit television to get science discussions out there into the world, using a genre that draws a serious following, all around the globe: the soap opera. Professors Zatz’s field of genetics abounds with ethical issues that doctors, patients and society have never had to face before. She believes these questions could be inserted into stories that would reach the public in a novel way.

The fusion of daytime drama with the grave dilemmas of medical ethics may seem an odd one, until Professor Zatz relates the story of a family that came to her for genetic counseling. The couple’s daughter had inherited a genetic disorder, and they had come for testing to determine the risk of a second child facing the same fate. Zatz and her team tested the three family members and discovered—incidentally to the test for the disorder itself—that the devoted dad was not, in fact, the biological father. If that’s not the stuff of soap operas, what is?

The question, explains Mayana Zatz, is whether to tell the couple, because questions of informed consent and personal responsibility spring to the foreground. This is the sort of debate that Professor Zatz would like to stimulate in the public by inserting scientific details into more plots on TV, “to improve the interest of science and ethics for the entire population.”

Perhaps, in time, a program full of drama, betrayal, beautiful people, and science will come to the airwaves. In the short term, though, Marisa Alonso Nuñez worries that the current climate of budget cuts will make science popularization efforts its first victims. Luckily, much of the web’s offerings, coming straight from the researcher-communicator’s mouth, are free. “Blogs don’t cost money, they cost time,” as Marisa puts it, “and more and more people are interested in doing it.”

“The public conception of science communication is changing—they demand more—and we need to take that into account,” Alonso Nuñez adds. “Now, we do it because we like to. I’d like to see it become that we have to do it, that this aspect would be considered for grants and job applications.”

This may be what’s in store for researchers down the road, yet Zatz, Migliardo and Alonso Nuñez agree that, to be most effective, science communication needs to be a joint effort: a team approach between scientists and journalists, writers, film directors, communications specialists…Because, just as a diverse portfolio of media improves the transmission of knowledge, a diversity of players will improve the quality of the message, from the start.

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