“Informative, visual, fun, relevant, interesting, engaging, stimulating and very thought provoking.” These were some of the words used to describe the recent delivery of the DRUSSA science communication course. The course is Module 2 of the 2012 DRUSSA postgraduate short course offering.
Close to 100 researchers and research managers from universities across Africa took part in the science communication training. Three two-day courses were presented in Southern Africa (Stellenbosch), East Africa (Nairobi) and West Africa (Accra). Most of the delegates are members of the DRUSSA Community, but some came from other universities and research organisations in the regions where the courses were offered.
Course presenter Marina Joubert
introduced participants to key definitions, models and trends in the field of science communication. She presented evidence of the increased global recognition of the responsibility of scientists to engage with various publics and how this is emerging as a key requirement for sustained research funding – especially funding destined for research for development.
“Universities have to recognise science communication as a strategic tool that can benefit the organisation and individual researchers in many ways,” Joubert says. “Science communication and public engagement should become an integral part of research projects from the start and the identification of beneficiaries, audiences and potential users should be an element of grant applications for research funding. If not, the communication component of Research Uptake remains an optional add-on activity in which only a handful of scientists participate, to the detriment of science, affected communities and society. It is therefore important for universities to have in place the necessary research communication support facilities that scientists can make use of.”
Joubert went on to explain how universities should develop science communication policies and strategies with strong support from top management and expert research communication facilities in place for faculties, departments, research groups and individual researchers so that they will have the support they need to get their research findings notices and into use.
West African science communication group in Accra, Ghana
The central role of the mass media and growing importance of social media in public science engagement was a central themes in the course. Guest speakers in each location provided local context by presenting their own experience of working as science communicators or science journalists. Joubert presented a snapshot of the websites of all the participating research organisations, showing delegates how university websites are often dominated by corporate news, making it very difficult, if not impossible, for journalists to find good science stories, high-quality visuals and contact details for relevant scientists.
Participants were introduced to several case studies that illustrated how university-based science media officers—dedicated to building bridges between scientists and the mass media—can make a significant difference in the public profile of science and scientists in research organisations, and can help scientists achieve high-level recognition for their work and, importantly, attract attention from research funders.
Stellenbosch University science media officer Engela Duvenage showed delegates how she used a science article on the discovery of four new bat species in Africa to achieve worldwide publicity for the team of scientists. The fact that the scientists made the article available to her under embargo—about two weeks before the publication date—made it possible for her to work closely with the research team and prepare excellent visuals, quotes and comments on the significance of the discovery and the importance of bats in forestry and agriculture. Since only one member of the research team was from Stellenbosch University, Duvenage contacted the media offices of the other universities to make sure that the press release would also reach their networks.
“Since the story was about bats, I also sent the press release to conservation organisations and bat interest groups,” she explained. The story achieved extensive online, print and broadcast coverage around the world. Prof Peter Taylor from Venda University wrote to Duvenage to thank her for the publicity, saying, “This is fantastic! The article has gone viral. This is really a lesson for us zoologists who don't do enough to promote our field to the public. As a direct spin-off of the publicity around the new bats paper, I was recently made Limpopo Agriculturalist of the Year!" Download this resource: A guide for African science media officers
Delegates were also keen to find out more about science cafés as a platform to engage the public and mass media in science issues, one of the approaches presented by Juliette Mutheu, science communications and policy specialist at the African Institute of Development Policy in Nairobi. “Although science communication may be a reasonably new field in Kenya, its impact is gaining momentum,” Mutheu said. “I’m passionate about science communication because it is extremely gratifying to involve the media, policymakers and public around the role of science and scientific evidence in development.” Download a guide on how to organise a science café.
“News perishes very fast and therefore we have to get hold of you very fast,” explained Ochieng’ Ogodo, Sub-Saharan Africa news editor for SciDev.Net and chair of the East African Network of Science Journalists. Speaking at the Nairobi workshop, Ogodo pleaded with scientists to see science journalists as a valuable part of a process aimed at humanising science and helping to involve lay people in science and technology through journalistic styles that are easily understood by those not immersed in science. “We can help you emphasise the culture and values of science, technology and innovation as key to building a more rational and peaceful world community,” he said.
Also at the Nairobi course, David Campbell from Mediae presented a fascinating account of how radio and television drama can be used effectively to take science messages to millions of people—not only to provide information, but also to change behaviour. “Shamba Shape-up is a reality makeover show with a difference,” Campbell explained. “The makeovers are done on farms!” His television production team works closely with agricultural scientists on the series. The scientists help ensure the relevance and accuracy of messages aimed at farmers in the very popular drama series. Broadcast in English and Swahili in Kenya and several other East African countries, it reaches about seven million viewers every week. View clips from Shamba Shape-up.
At the Accra course, freelance environmental communicator Ama Kudom-Agyemang presented a compelling case for improved packaging of science knowledge for policy impact, as well as the need for effective communication of evidence-based knowledge to combat the spread of misinformation. She presented tips, tools and advice for reaching policymakers, focusing on policy briefs as a key tool. Local journalists Linda Asante Agyei, Audrey Dekalu and Mary-Ann Acolatse provided practical advice on getting science into mass media outlets, including television. Tim Woods, project manager at Green Ink’s office in Accra, gave some advice on making science more accessible to all levels of society by focusing on the essence of why a specific story matters to people and using plain language.
Here’s what other delegates had to say:
“You have won my heart to science reporting! Though I know it might be quite challenging combining it with research management, I am prepared to explore the field.” Olumuyiwa M Desmennu, Research Management Office, University of Ibadan, Nigeria
“I wish to express my unreserved appreciation to you and your colleagues for broadening my intellectual horizon, sowing great ideas in my mind and giving me a better understanding of concepts and issues that were discussed. I particularly wish to thank you for your participatory, engaging and interactive facilitation style that made the short courses quite memorable and unforgettable. Like Oliver Twist, ‘I want so more ...’ I hope to translate the ideas and knowledge garnered to global visible use and action, so that ‘my science’ may be heard, felt and better appropriated.” Dr Regina Ejemot-Nwadiaro, University of Calabar, Nigeria
“To be honest I was a bit sceptical on how I could apply the principles of science communication to my profession, which is fundraising for research. Not only was the course thoroughly entertaining, it was also very practical and surprisingly relevant! I also now have a wish list, which I will be taking to our university's corporate communications department.” Ninette Mouton, Research Grants Manager, Department of Research and Innovation Support, University of Pretoria, South Africa
“Thank you for facilitating an exciting two days of learning, sharing and networking at the DRUSSA science communication course. The one thing that stood out for me is that there is a real yearning by researchers, journalists and science communicators to effectively communicate research findings with the public, so we need to ensure that we nurture the networks that have formed as a result of this workshop because there is a lot that we can share and learn from each other.” Tezira Lore, science communicator, University of Nairobi, Kenya
“I am now aware of the many channels available for dissemination of carefully packaged research outputs, that we should cultivate a healthy relationship with media practitioners to do this and that science can be simplified to suit any audience. In future, I will not be too busy to give interviews to journalists and on that note, let me start practising the sound bite … oh and our website has to be reviewed!” Prof Lucy Irungu, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research, Production and Extension), University of Nairobi, Kenya