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Communicating Science in Covid Times · Elephant in the Lab

Written by Elias Koch

Stefanie Molthagen-Schnöring on science communication in times of a global pandemic and why communication with “the public” shouldn ´ t be its goal

Communicating Science in Covid Times

During the Corona crisis, the value of science and science communication has been clearly demonstrated. Scientists – especially virologists – are prominently represented in the media, their opinions are in demand, and the public’s trust in science and research has remained high and steady (cf. Wissenschaft im Dialog 2020). However, reactions are not only positive: Conspiracy theories and fake news play major roles in the COVID-19 discussion and new protest movements, which perpetuate unscientific findings and arguments, have emerged in response to the pandemic measures. Against this background, the question arises as to what contribution science communication can make to public and democratic discourse beyond the commitment of individual scientists (cf. Baurmann 2020).

This article contributes to this discussion by examining different spheres of science communication: (1) communication between science and the public, (2) communication between science and politics, and (3) communication within the scientific system.

It will become clear that it is often unrealistic as well as not always the goals of scientists or research institutions to reach the public in the broader sense. We live in a differentiated and heterogeneous society and only by taking the needs and interests of different stakeholders into account, can (science) communication reach its full potential.

Science and the public

During the Corona crisis, research has assumed a prominent public role. First and foremost, the Berlin virologist Christian Drosten achieved nationwide fame through numerous media articles and his daily podcast on Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), becoming an “advisor to power” (Hornig, Frank et al. 2020).

The intensive public perception of some virologists is due to the rapid spread and impact COVID-19 has for the entire population. “Rapidness” is to be emphasized here as there are also other crises that affect the entire society, such as climate change. In this context too, scientists have raised their voices in recent years and have achieved certain prominence. However, in contrast to the pandemic, climate change still appears to be a rather abstract threat, which may manifest in unusual weather phenomena, but rarely directly impacts the lives of individuals. This was and is different from COVID-19, and thus enabled some scientists to dominate the public discourse. This is also underlined by the undeniable importance and competence of science, especially medicine, in researching a new virus and this had a confidence-building effect. Not only virologists profited from this, but also politicians who were trained as doctors or at least in the natural sciences. Take the examples of Karl Lauterbach, the health policy spokesman of the SPD parliamentary group, or Peter Tschentscher, the SPD mayor of Hamburg – both trained doctors, albeit having long standing careers as politicians. Their opinions on the disease and its consequences are more in demand than ever, which allows them to build increasing levels of public trust.

Science communication has also benefited from the narrative that arose at the beginning of the pandemic. Under the motto, “flatten the curve”, measures to protect citizens from the virus were communicated and implemented. The image of a flattened curve was plausible and easy to understand and thus well suited to use as an explanatory narrative when communicating about restrictions on public life in the interest of public health. Since then, the discourse has become more diverse. On the one hand, this is the normal state of affairs in a democratic society, but on the other hand it also leads to communicative and practical challenges. One major challenge is the emergence of conspiracy theories about the virus on social media. Looking at the number of followers these theories have, it is doubtful whether a second phase of contact restrictions could be implemented in Germany as quickly without resistance.

The importance of social media should not be underestimated in the development of (alternative) public spheres. In forums and groups, information and opinions are exchanged independently of journalistic standards of traditional (mass) media. Instead of scientists and journalists, opinion makers of dubious competence are listened to. On the other hand, social media offers promising opportunities to reach people and convince them of the importance of science and the relevance of its findings. Online hackathons, such as “Hack your fashion” or YouTube channels such as maiLab, speak to young people. More and more formats are being developed for groups that are less involved in science, which are fun and encourage experimentation, such as “Wissenschaft für alle” (“Science for all”) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, which was awarded the “Hochschulperle des Monats” (“College Pearl of the Month”) in June 2020. So far, these are individual initiatives, but they are highly effective as they directly connect to the reality people live, just as science communication did during the Corona period.

Science and politics

Interaction between the scientific and the political system has always existed in different contexts. Of particular interest is the advisory function of science, which again became very clear at the beginning of the Corona pandemic. For example, politicians sought advice from virologists during decision-making processes and based their decisions on the latest scientific findings. However, for many scientists, the role of political advisor is suspect as they do not want to be instrumentalized, they feel misunderstood by politics and/or simply do not find the time to become involved in political consulting in addition to their scientific tasks. Apart from this, they fear that they may tarnish their reputation if they are affiliated with a certain political position or even a party. Nonetheless, in science policy debates, the socio-political responsibility of science is increasingly emphasized – and that is a good thing! After all, science does not operate in a vacuum; its findings have an impact on people’s lives, which in turn is also influenced by political decisions. This interdependence means that science and scientists have a social responsibility, which can be fulfilled by providing well-founded policy advice. On the other side, successful cooperation requires a certain level of scientific knowledge by decision makers in politics, as well as a fundamental openness to consultation, so that the dialogue between science and politics does not degenerate into an intellectual exhibition.

A clear division of roles is also important in science-based policy advice: while the scientist brings scientific evidence and facts to the table, the politician must make a decision and represent it publicly. Politicians make decisions on the basis of the available facts, but always take into account other circumstances and framework conditions, such as in the case of COVID-19 with the expected economic consequences of contact restrictions in the interest of containing the pandemic. These different roles must also be made transparent to the public in order to dispel from the onset prejudices and misunderstandings about scientific policy advice. This is especially true for the media, which loves to see their circulation rise. As a result, the unusually close connection between science and politics at the beginning of the Corona crisis, ascribed science – in this case virology – quasi political power.

Even then, the challenge remains to maintain the quality of scientific knowledge in political decision-making and implementation, which in turn can only be achieved through permanent, open communication between politicians and scientists. For science communication, this means that findings need to be prepared for political decision-makers in a way that is appropriate for the target group. This may mean not making results available to the broadest possible group of people. Policy advice is rarely given through the public, but mostly through direct discussions with decision-makers.

One last thought on the discourse between politics and science: Which scientific studies, researchers and disciplines are actually being heard? Is it always the same people, because they are known from the past and can be assessed, or do we also listen to new voices and perspectives? This directly raises the question of diversity and representation in policy-advising science communication – important societal debates, which have so far received little attention in the science sector. And what about the methodological and disciplinary relationship: Do survey figures weigh more heavily in practice than qualitative research methods? Do the natural sciences promise greater certainty and clarity, which is why they are preferred to approaches in the humanities? Especially in times when we have to live with a high tolerance of ambiguity, the latter could be very valuable, especially in combination with the former.

Science and science

Last but not least, one communication dimension that is of imminent importance for science needs to be addressed: communication within the science system. The main “currency” in this system is publications, which are often the result of elaborate peer review processes. In addition, researchers meet at symposia and conferences where they present and discuss the results of their research. The public is largely disinterested in these scientific discourses, if one looks at the circulation of scientific journals or the media response to the vast majority of scientific conferences. This does not matter, since these purely specialist discourses develop science through mutual exchange. There is a need for places that facilitate professional and concentrated exchange that would never translate into a public forum or a TV talk show. In this respect, it is evident that: THE public is not a primary target group for the dialogue between science and academia.

But what is important for profitable communication in the science system? Criticism of traditional forms has been ignited: Peer review procedures are considered to be untransparent and cumbersome. Moreover, the Corona pandemic has once again shown that time can become a critical success factor in the acquisition and use of scientific knowledge. If research results are not published until months or even years after they are produced, interest in them may have waned. This is why more and more studies are being published in so-called preprint procedures. Preprints have not yet been subjected to a peer review process, but are stored directly on preprint servers where they are freely accessible. In this way, science is able to react quickly to the need for knowledge, for example during a global pandemic.

Besides the advantage of speed, which often leads to intense discussion within the expert community and contributes to the further development of research, a decisive disadvantage of preprint is the fact that studies reach the public too quickly and journalists do not classify the status of preliminary study results, for example (cf. Deutsche Welle 2020). Both sides – researchers and recipients of research – still need to go through a learning process. A combination of traditional procedures with new, innovative approaches currently appears to be a good way to further develop system-immanent science communication.

Conclusion

Science communication is diverse and includes not only the different actors (individual scientists, science organizations, science journalists) but also different dimensions, depending on whether the communication remains in or leaves the science system. But even in cases of external science communication there are different target groups, each with different needs and interests in the exchange with science. Politics on the one hand and the public on the other are two important stakeholder groups, even if THE public exists just as little as politics per se. Just as there are audiences with an affinity for science and audiences that are far removed from science, politicians are open to scientific expertise in different ways, and scientists are sometimes more, sometimes less in demand and have different perspectives on reality and communication. Accordingly, science communication is faced with the task of developing and constantly improving various communication channels for specific recipients of research results. The seemingly simple claim to be there for everyone – the public – often leads to nobody being reached. Instead, science communication needs targeted dialogue and discourse in order to convey questions, methods and findings. Where this is successful, progress in science and society is promoted. After all, science is ultimately there for the people.

This article by Elias Koch, originally published on Elephant in the Lab is licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported(CC BY-SA 3.0).

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