Getting your scicomm on

Science communication or “scicomm” as it is termed, is becoming an increasingly important tool in the skills repertoire of scientists. This is in part due to the need to combat “fake news”, pseudoscience and misinformation but also in part because it is important that research work is shared beyond academic circles and researchers are becoming aware of its importance and the potential benefits of committing to communication in some form. Academia is often referred to as an “ivory tower”, a community that is exclusive and separated from members of the public, however, there are many researchers working toward dismantling this stigma so that all people can enjoy and understand the wonders of the world we live in.

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How does science communication benefit me as a researcher?

Many scientists are often hesitant to participate in science communication because of the fear that it does not actually benefit them and instead takes up time they already do not have. Science communication has been found to be beneficial to researchers in a number of ways, this article published last year in Steemit highlights a few of these reasons. Assistant professor of fisheries ecology at Clemson University, Brandon Peoples, the lead author of a journal article published in PlosOne found that the number of tweets about a primary ecology research article was significantly correlated to the number of citations that the paper received. Although this is a fairly new area of research and there is confounding evidence, tweets may not be directly linked to the number of citations but they are important in getting the research work out into the online community, which could then result in more people reading and citing the publications.

Another benefit is that it allows you to connect with people who may have similar ideas or suggestions that could potentially result in collaboration and future research. I have found a community of diverse researchers on my own Twitter account who I constantly learn from, although we live on different continents, it has allowed us to connect, collaborate and support one another.

Ultimately, the motivation should be in sharing years of hard work with the people it will potentially benefit, whether that benefit is direct or in the expansion of our knowledge, it is important that science is shared as it is never the property of one person.

Some researchers are uncomfortable in the public eye or with communication and for that reason, it is important to remember that there are dedicated science journalists who are trained to convey a message in an interesting and understandable way. So let us never forget that our close ties to the humanities serve to benefit all of us and all of the people we hope to reach.

Why is science communication important?

As I mentioned earlier, science communication is an important tool in combating the spread of “fake news” and pseudoscience. The advancements of technology have allowed us to access vast amounts of information at the touch of a button, and although this has greatly benefited us, it has also provided a platform for the dissemination of misinformation which can sometimes be harmful to people and the environment. There are many examples of pseudoscience, one of my personal hates as a biological anthropologist is the idea that ancient structures, such as the pyramids of Giza, were built by extra-terrestrials. This type of misinformation uses racist undertones to undermine the achievements of ancient people, most notably Africans. There are many other controversial topics which researchers have been actively addressing in order to ensure that the public receives the correct information, these relate to topics such as climate change, vaccinations and race theory among others.

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One controversial topic that has been discussed recently is the use of ancestry testing and genetics by white supremacists in order to justify “racial purity” which was denounced in 2018 by the American Society of Human Genetics, you can read more about that in the New York Times article by Amy Harmon.

How do we communicate science?

In order to communicate science effectively, it is important to understand the audience and community you are trying to address. Many make the mistake of saying “the general public”, which itself, is composed of many smaller “publics”. It is important to tailor the communication to the intended audience and to always remember that it is a CONVERSATION and not a lecture, do not talk AT people, engage WITH them. It is also important to remember that we have many different communities and cultures and that a lack of understanding and respect could potentially create problems in communication (another reason why diversity and representation is so crucial to the betterment of science!). Another topic which is important to me is the language in which we communicate. South Africa is home to 11 official languages, of which, English is predominantly used in research, this means that science becomes largely inaccessible to the millions of people who do not speak English as their first (or even second) language. There has been phenomenal work in this area by Sibusiso Biyela of Science Link, who translates scientific research into isiZulu. Please do yourself a favour and read this amazing article written by Sibs titled “Decolonizing Science Writing in South Africa”.

Once you have figured this out the rest is easy! Most science communication is done online these days, but it is important to remember traditional media such as radio, tv and print which have a far-reaching audience as well. This can be achieved through collaboration with local community radio stations, newspapers and TV interviews.

What can I do as a young researcher?

There are many opportunities for young researchers to engage in Scicomm here in South Africa and the recently published White Paper on Science and Technology by the Department of Science and Technology ensures commitment from our local researchers. Marina Joubert has discussed this policy and its implications in The Conversation Africa. In order to introduce you to the world of science communication, here are a few ideas and competitions that can help you on your journey!

 

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  • Start your own scicomm journey on social media. This was my major start, I just started tweeting! It could be about ideas, or cool pictures or published research work. Engage in your online community
  • Online science communication course through Stellenbosch University– this course is run by Marina Joubert who is one of the leaders in science communication in South Africa.
  • FameLab South Africa- One of the most prominent science communication initiatives challenges researchers to present their work in under 3 minutes! There is also an amazing pre-workshop facilitated by Jive Media Africa which I encourage as a FameLab alumni! This competition is run annually and South Africa has produced international winners such as Tshiamo Legoale, a South African Geologist at Mintek, winner of FameLab International 2017. We have some of the best science communicators in the world and you could be one of them!
  • NRF SAASTA Young Science Communicators Competition– This annual competition allows aspiring science communicators to explore various mediums for their scicomm, this includes video, audio, written text and even writing in indigenous languages. Keep an eye out for the deadlines!
  • The Conversation Africa– The Conversation is a great platform for sharing research work. They have a dedicated team of science journalists who are professional and well versed in scicomm. They are very helpful and always looking for interesting stories! As a PhD candidate, you can write an article for The Conversation with your supervisor as a co-author.
  • South African Young Academy of Science bloggers– well, I mean, need I explain? Join us! Share your voice and write for SAYAS. The call is announced annually and next year this could be your blog spot.

Science communication is a journey, find what works for you and never be afraid to explore beyond your comfort zone, you may just find that you like the deeper waters!

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Be part of the global and national “voice” of science: G200 YF, SAYAS, ASLP, GYA and other acronyms

In current global economic and political conditions, the role of socially responsible science is stressed for its importance. To my mind, it is every scientist’s obligation to join the global voice in the quest towards sustainable solutions and a better future for the generations to come. Without even realising I was doing it, I have been part of international movements the last four years that has made me hopeful for the future: young people with potential, dream and willingness to fight against all hurdles and challenges.

To start with and as a good academic that follows rules, the first time I use an acronym I should expand and define it, so G200 YF: G200 Youth Forum SAYAS: South African Young Academy of Science; GYA: Global Young Academy; ASLP: Africa Science Leadership Programme.

The first time I was part of an “acronym” was back in 2015 at the G200 Youth Forum 2015 that took place at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. To put myself into perspective, I was fresh out of my PhD, only four years after and I was an early career researcher. Having little to no understanding of the science community, having very little experience in multidisciplinary projects and of course, little confidence in myself, in retrospect, I realise I did not exploit the opportunity in full. I made my presentation, discussed about my paper, and participated in sessions relevant to my research field, met a few interesting people but that’s where it stopped. If I could turn back time, I would have been more active in my interactions and engagements; I would have raised my hand and taken more responsibilities that week; and I would not have been self-conscious to start a discussion with others.

A few years fast forward, in 2017, the SAYAS Call for members came into my hands (by the way it is open now for 2019 until the 31st of May). To be completely honest, my first thought was “how do they define science?” – The typical and continuous debate of the complementarity or competition between “hard” and social sciences. So, being a true academic, I spent time reading on the definition of science: here from the Oxford Dictionarythe intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”.

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Oh phew I am also a scientist!!!! I applied…and I got in. My first year started and I had made the most common mistake in these cases: I thought that being a member of an Academy is the destination and the end of the journey. Wrong! It is the beginning of the journey. In the last few years in SAYAS, I met inspiring individuals and I had discussions that challenged my traditional way of thinking. “Exploiting” in a way my passion to provide a channel for the youth’s voice to the society, I accepted to continue the effort of my fellow SAYAS member, Prof Aliza Le Roux, and took over the editor’s position of the SAYAS Blog.

A few months later, I received an email about the Global Young Academy (GYA). At this point, I should mention that without the support of my own institution I would not even KNOW of all these opportunities, let alone apply or being successful at them. Of course, reading about the GYA I realised that we are talking about a completely different game now. With a “when in doubt, apply” mindset, I applied and voila!, I got accepted. This time, I was more prepared and knew that this is the beginning of a new journey.

However, here also, I fell in the next most usual “trap”. I wanted to participate in everything; I wanted to hear about everything and have my say in everything; the working groups were many and all had (and have) so many interesting activities. Receiving all those emails overwhelmed me and unfortunately missing the AGM in 2018 did not particularly help me. An email to – then- GYA co-chair – Prof Tolullah Oni expressing my feeling of overwhelm and she knew whom I should talk to. And he was right here, at the University of Pretoria. Meeting Prof Bernard Slippers, one of the founding members of GYA, made a difference – a coffee for an hour and I put so many things in perspective. I still felt that I wanted to participate in every single opportunity given but now I had an idea on how to do so. And I promised I would NOT miss the next AGM!!!!

A few months later, Prof Slippers introduced me to the Africa Science Leadership Programme (ASLP) of Future Africa firstly as an observer in a meeting. The excitement and enthusiasm of the fellows that have been in the programme intrigued me. What have they seen that I had not? And that was enough for me to decide to apply. I was selected among the 20 people from all over the African continent that came together in March 2019 to discuss the future of the continent’s science community.

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The African continent’s potential is great! 

The programme changed me personally and academically. From a promotion of science point of view, we were introduced to leadership concepts and practices, science communication skills training, profiling of ourselves within a team environment, and a number of other tools.

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My colleagues have taught me so many things in this week and I am proud to call them my family – my ASLP5.1 family (as we were the 5th cohort of the programme). Changing our mentality from focusing on the problems we face into converting them into questions for pursuing possible solutions is not easy in the work environment nor in our private life, but the ASLP facilitators made sure all participants understand that value and will at least make an effort in the future. Our common vision of an African continent that becomes the place to be will forever stay within my heart.

Not even a month from an emotional “goodbye and see you again” to my ASLP family, I found myself in Halle, Germany for the GYA AGM in 2019. If I thought the GYA electronic communication and the ASLP were life-changing experiences, I had not seen anything yet. 200 people from all over the world joined “forces” to discuss issues of enlightenment, solutions for sustainable future, among others, and what’s more important: the group does not stay in discussions, all for action to take towards change. If that is not inspiring, I do not know what is.

 

To conclude, from this journey that hopefully, it has just begun, thus far, I have learned that scientists cannot complain that society and policymakers do not hear our voice. They will not hear our voice if we sit in our office and talk to each other. To maximise the scientific community’s impact, we need to organize ourselves and at the same time, we need to open the door to society to engage with us. Also, working alone and in silos does not work anymore – when did it ever work? The planet faces challenges that old-fashioned approaches have failed to tackle. Global and National Academies, whether young or senior, as well as programmes such as the ASLP provide the platform for collaboration, engagement and exchange of experiences and ideas. They also provide experiences that can widen one’s horizon and create open-minded and critical thinking scientists.

The constant hunt for research projects, writing proposals for research grants, the competitive nature of some colleagues, as well as the inherent nature of scientists are all reasons that the journey in academia can be a lonely one. But it does not have to – the sense of belonging when being a member in one or the other organised community can improve a scientist’s confidence. The interactions with people from different backgrounds and cultures that, however, have the same challenges, same aspirations, and the same need to change the world is comforting and inspiring at the same time.

So, if you are a young emerging researcher or a PhD candidate that wonders if this is for you, you will never know until you experience it. Apply, get accepted, and go for it. For those that say there is nothing like this in their country: well, there is your challenge – we will all support you and assist in starting a young academy for example or an association (part of my journey was also to initiate the creation of the South African Association for Energy Economics (SAAEE) which would not have happened if I did not value the idea of community).

Finally, if you have applied and you have not made it, why don’t you apply again? Every year’s cohorts are different – and if you need advice or just to discuss your application, you know where to find me. If this is something you really want, don’t give up – timing is crucial. Thinking back, if I went to the 2018 AGM, before the ASLP, I might not have gone with the most appropriate mindset to receive an offer to the experience overall (see my experience with the G200 Youth Summit).

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Now, I know, for sure, I will never be the same person (academic, colleague, friend, sister, wife, mother) after meeting and interacting with tens of different people within the last couple of years. I know the impact on my life is immense; now I am looking forward to the specific impact I can make to the lives of others.