The risky business of communicating science

Science Online 2012 is over, and I must admit that I’m still full of all the inputs, impressions and ideas that almost overloaded my head during those three days in North Carolina. Knowing were to start and were to end when giving highlights of the (un)conference is difficult. A blog post on my general reflections of the conference is coming up, but first I thought I’d just touch upon one of the themes I encountered at #scio12.

Risk. How do we communicate it? What is it really? What happens when a calculated, objective risk on paper is processed by a human mind? This is big challenge when communicating science – and perhaps especially in communication health research. Two of the sessions I attended at Science Online focused on risk. The first one, “Science Communication, Risk Communication and the role of social networks”, moderated by David Ropeik was a great session. David Ropeik pointed out that risk may very well be something that can be calculated to a percentage but to people it is a feeling. And feelings operate differently – and are not rational. I myself experienced that today. Being nearsighted I had a preexamination today for later lasic surgery. I had in advanced received a small folder explaining the procedure and of course – the risks. Even though the risks are relatively small, and despite the fact that I know several people who have had it done and are very happy with the result, when I read the small information brochure, I did all of a sudden have a feeling of “yikes – is this risk too big?” “How much is 1% really?” “If there were a hundred of me out there would one have worse eyesight after the procedure? Or would it look different if it was a hundred different people and not a hundred me? It is true, risk is a feeling. I felt like asking the doctor if he would do it if it was him. I wanted his feeling on this too.

Risk really is a challenge to communicate. And perhaps particular in health, because disease and sickness is something that is very real to us and easy to imagine. In this regard, social media can be a challenge. Things have the potential to spread like viruses when they go online. Rumours of risk a radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant made friends and family in Denmark fear for my wellbeing when I was in Kobe, Japan although I was more than 600 km away from the Fukushima plant. People in Denmark even feared that with wind coming in from Japan they would too be at risk, if the situation got worse. And fears like that may be reinforced with unimaginable speed once they go viral.

So how do you balance communicating the facts when you at the same time risk steering fear? Are there ethical obligations to communicate all available research or the  opposite – should researchers be obligated to hold back certain kinds of information in the interest of public health, and the interest of the individual? Communication in public health is central, and reflecting on how to deal with risk should be a requirement for any public health researcher or professional (and for journalists too!). The web’s role in this is tricky. It is important to get the facts out there – and try to illustrate the proportion of risk, but the web also provides a fora where you can find confirmation of the risk of almost anything you like.

The discussions at Science Online didn’t give answers to how with deal with risk, and there most certainly is now magical solution. But the discussion triggered reflection, which should be required by all public health professionals when they communicate, whether to the public, to a journalist, at decision maker etc.

And as an end note: I did decide to go ahead with the lasic surgery – after carefully evaluating the risk and interpreting the doctors attitude and behavior. So in April, when I am without glasses, I will hopefully be able to say that it was worth the risk 🙂


Blogger – a hero or villain?

In Raleigh, NC! And ScienceOnline2012 starts in just a few hours. Yeah. During my trip here from Copenhagen, yesterday I was in many ways confronted with one of the topics which will most definitely be mentioned in today’s talks – blogs.

As if the airline knew that at least two people on their flight were heading to #Scio12, the inflight magazine opened up with the article “How to make a food blog”. Glorifying the blog as something every food lover should have. Interviews with food bloggers from across the world, who have made a name for themselves – though blogging. In the article the blogger is definitely in the hero category. (Couldn’t help thinking a similar thing should be done just focusing on blogging scientists and researchers from different fields – and it should figure in exactly an inflight magazine too!)

On the second flight, the inflight entertainment system offered the movie “Contagion”. A film about a flu pandemic causing deaths all over the world at extreme speed, followed by general panic and chaos amongst the population. One of the drivers of the panic and anger is a blogger (played by Jude Law) who doubts the intentions of the government and the pharmaceutical industry in stopping the disease from spreading. In addition, he claims to have found the cure for the virus by some homeopathic treatment, which people end up committing crimes for in their attempt to get it. All through the film, the blogger is the villain and a problem for the authorities and who in the end gets his (well deserved?) punishment.

It was interesting to see these two perspectives on blogging. I look forward to spending the day with lots and lots of bloggers, tweeters etc. (heros as well as villains and all those in between). I have a feeling it will be a blast (as a participant of previous ScienceOnline conferences told me at the bus stop yesterday). The Tweeting have definitely already begun and I fear a little how to make it through 450 people tweeting at the same time…..


Lots of Twitter communication about science communication

Before the year of 2011 came to an end, I did a few posts about science communication and the challenge of communicating science communication. This was inspired by various talks I had had with friends, colleagues and the planning of a masters course in Public Health Science Communication.

And as one of the first things in 2012, the #hcsmanz weekly Twitter discussion group on Health Care and Social Media in Australia and New Zealand decided to base their first chat of the year on some of my reflections. Unfortunately, I was on a plane when the discussion took place, so I couldn’t participate myself. But luckily transcripts are made of these discussions and thus also for this one!

Since I couldn’t join the discussion, I thought I’d share some highlights from it here. First of all, it was great to experience that something I put out there in cyber space triggered others to start discussing. And people whom I would have been unlikely to discuss this with otherwise. It is a great example of how sharing thoughts and views in the process can be beneficial to the bigger project/research study!

The #hcsmanz discussion was structured around five elements, which I in my blog post had highlighted as important to communicate in a course on science communication. They were converted into the four questions/statements below:

  1. Communication should be considered as an integrated element in the research process.
  2. Communication can be beneficial to the research process.
  3. Who should researchers be communicating with and what channels can utilised?
  4. What is the secret sauce of communication that generates feedback/reaction?

These four questions (refered to as T1, T2, T3, T4 in the chat) generated a lot of interesting tweeting, not just from people in Aus/NZ but also participants from Canada and the Netherlands. Some of the interesting things that were brought forward I’ll try to summarize below supported by 23 tweets (out of hundreds) – I should probably also have used the cool tool Storify for this, but that will be next time 🙂

  • Communication is an integrated part of research, but requires that researchers are trained and the necessary support is available – both to give guidance but also to support the prioritization of spending time and effort in communication activities.

  • Communication also of non-news material is important.

  • Social media provides new opportunities for science communication, but is not yet well-regarded and knowledge is still limited among many researchers.

  • Science communication is beneficial to the research process – if you communicate with the right ones and in the appropriate way depending on who they are. The importance of making feedback easy and quick is not to be underestimated.

  • One thing is to communicate and the best ways to do that, but to communicate so that you engage your audience is an additional challenge. A keyword is to provide efficient feedback opportunities for the reader and the researcher. Social media such as Twitter and blogs provides forums for this (but does not solve the engagement challenge all together).

I could have highlighted lots of other tweets, and would as said have loved to participate in this, I hope however to join next time and continue to share thoughts and reflections with the rest of you. And big thanks to Kishan Kariippanon (@yhpo) for taking up this topic!


ScienceOnline2012 – a look at the sessions on students and online science communication

Is it possible to split oneself into several Is? Could I perhaps borrow Hermione’s time turner next week and thus be able to travel back in time? Both would be great solution to this small problem I have. Next week, I’m attending the ScienceOnline2012 conference (see more below) in North Carolina, and the programme is simply packed with super interesting sessions – many of them taking place in parallel.

I will not try to summarize the full agenda of the conference, but encourage you to take a look at it yourself. Even if you can’t attend there will surely be lots of live-tweeting from it.With a masters course in Public Health Science Communication coming up this fall at University of Copenhagen, (mentioned in earlier posts), it seems only relevant to try and make it to some of the sessions that focus on students and science communication. I have listed some of them below. It looks like a great place to get some inspiration on both tools to integrate into the classes (eg. blogs), and topics and themes to bring up. It will also be great to hear from students who themselves have blogged and acted as messengers of science.

Blogging in the undergraduate science classroom (how to maximize the potential of course blogs)

Thursday January 19, 2012 2:45pm – 3:45pm

This session will mainly feature a roundtable discussion of “best practices” for incorporating blogs into undergraduate courses. Possible topics that will be covered: Developing, evaluating, and grading assignments, incorporating blogs into syllabi, how blogging can contribute to learning goals, privacy versus openness, especially with respect to FERPA, and interacting with students with social media more broadly (e.g. twitter, G+, Facebook, etc).

Undergraduate Education: Collaborating to create the next generation of open scientists

Thursday January 19, 2012 4:00pm – 5:00pm

Science faculty and librarians can collaborate on many aspects of undergraduate education – two ideas are the focus of this discussion. First: How can we best help undergrads understand and explore the scholarly information landscape? In addition to formal sources like journal articles, informal sources (e.g., blogs) are of increasing importance/relevance, which raises a question: How do we get students to think about what formal and informal really mean? How do we – faculty, librarians and others – work together to teach students to navigate the disciplinary landscape and become productive and critical consumers of – and contributors to – the disciplinary conversation? Second: How do we introduce students to the great big wide world of open science? How do the various players in higher education communicate to the next generation the incredible depth and complexity of what going on out there? How do we raise (inspire? support?) the next generation of Cameron Neylons, Steve Koches and Jean-Claude Bradleys (not to mention the next generation of Dorothea Salos and Christina Pikases)?

Next generation of Bloggers

Friday January 20, 2012 10:45am – 11:45am

From classroom blogging, to blogging at Nature, these students had quite a year! They’d like to start by talking about their experience with blogging so far, what they’ve learned, where they’ve had problems, and where they’ve been successful. Then, they want to get ideas from the audience on how to start a 1 day conference in NYC for middle/high school students interested in blogging.

Students as messengers of science

Saturday January 21, 2012 9:30am – 10:30am

High school and undergraduate students have a unique place in engaging their communities through science, while becoming the next generation of scientists, science writers, and journalists. As an increasingly diverse pool of students engage their families in their pursuits through mentoring, research and other immersion programs, as well as writing and journalism, they lay the groundwork for making science accessible for the non-scientists in their lives, representing a range of diverse ethnic and socio-economic communities. How as educators and mentors do we nurture them as scientists and communicators? What skills and practices are key for helping young people reflect on learning while also developing effective communication skills? This session will foster a discussion of the barriers, challenges and best practices for creating the infrastructure, mentoring relationships, and building the confidence of students as they experience science to help them develop their voices. The session will also explore how we recruit readers of such sites, and will explore examples of online media connected with science engagement programs geared toward high school and undergraduate students that are creating a local culture of science, among traditionally underrepresented communities, with a local impact.

Some facts

ScienceOnline2012 is the sixth annual international meeting on science and the Web. The participants are scientists, students, educators, physicians, journalists, librarians, bloggers, programmers and others interested in the way the World Wide Web is changing the way science is communicated, taught and done.

ScienceOnline2012 – #scio12 across social media – will take place January 19-21, 2012 on the campus of N.C. State University, with some 450 participants


Comics for public health science communication?

Could Public Health research findings, public health messages or social aspects of health care be communicated through comics? Would it only be relevant if you want to target children?

If you lived, in Japan you would be very likely to answer no to that question. Manga, a Japanese form of comic, is an integrated part of the Japanese population’s every day life. In any convenience store, news papers will be side by side of Mangas and they are not ‘just’ comics. There is actually a Manga newspaper (direct link to Manga No Shimbun) and manga is used for many educational purposes too.

That not only Japan makes use of comics to communicate professional issues, including medicine came to my attention yesterday, when I on Twitter came across an upcoming conference on Comics and Medicine in Toronto in July 2012.

This interdisplicinary conference on Comics and Medicine is the third of its kind and aims to explore the intersection of sequential visual arts and medicine. The upcoming conference will look at perspectives which are often under-represented in graphic narratives, such as barriers to healthcare, the stigma of mental illness and disability, and the silent burden of caretaking. They are currently accepting proposals for scholarly papers and discussions: Comics & Medicine Call for Papers.

Very often science communication is considered as something that takes place only in peer-reviewed journals, international conferences and internal seminars, but the example of Comics and Medicine just illustrates the range of channels and formats for science communication is diverse! This I find exiting!

Al though I do not myself have experience with comics for science communication, I feel like highlighting a Japanese Manga that I myself have become quite hooked on. Oishinbo is a Japanese manga about Japanese food, traditions on how to prepare it, the philosophy behind it etc. It is extremely educational, interesting and fun. Have you got just the slightest interest in the Japanese cuisine, I can only recommend that you dig into the universe of Oishinbo!