Public health science communication is back

Yes, Public health science communication is back again – and in more than one way. First of all, after a way too long time of silence on this blog – Public Health Science Communication 2.0 – I intend to be a bit more active in the time to come. There are lots of good articles, blog posts and experiences from the past couple of months to follow-up on, and now a bit more time to do so.

Public health science comm pageThe other public health science communication which is back soon (takes off from early February) is the short Masters course ‘Public Health Science Communication’ at the Institute of Public Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen. In the fall of 2012 I was given the opportunity to develop and teach the course (read more about it here) to students of public health sciences. However, being located in Bonn and busy with many other things in the spring to come the course will now – in a new and great version II – be orchestrated by my colleague from Medical Museion, Associate professor Louise Whiteley. Louise has a Masters in Science Communication from Imperial College London and is one of the coolest people I know in Science Communication. She was a great help in developing the first version of the Masters course Public Health Science Communication, so version II will surely be great.

I would have loved to take on the course myself, but am happy that I get to teach one session on Public health risk communication. It’s a topic I have always found super interesting so it fits me well. My younger sister Caroline has enrolled in the course, which means that I will get to teach my own sister. A bit surreal, but hopefully someone who can give me some unfiltered feedback.

Anyhow, it is great to be back on the blog and I look forward to blog away, with my posts also featuring on Medical Museion’s great website.


Exam in Public Health Science Communication

Wow, I can’t believe time has passed so quickly. Next to me is a pile of exam papers completed by the students of the graduate course in Public Health Science Communication at the University of Copenhagen. I feel like I just had the first introduction module, but yet I am almost done reading all these papers.

Until the students have received their results I will of course not comment on the actually exam, but what I would like to do is to share the assignment which the students were given with you. The exam was done through a course paper, where the students were presented with the task already on the first day of the course. They have therefore had the opportunity to let it simmer in the back of their minds through out the course.

Course paper in Public Health Science Communication

Assignment: Write a short introductory chapter on science communication for an imagined new textbook on Public Health Sciences. The imagined textbook is directed both to public health students and medical students. The chapter should provide a broad overview of principles of science communication and explain the relevance of looking specifically at public health science communication.

Requirement: Reference needs to be made to at least 60% of texts in the syllabus. Other literature (book chapters, blogs, articles etc.) may also be included, with clear references.

Language: The course paper can be completed either in Danish or in English.

Maximum length: 1 student: 10 normal pages, 2 students: 16 normal pages, 3 students: 20 normal pages

Evaluation: The paper will be evaluated on a 7-points scale

Additional guidance

In addition, the students were given the following guidance:

  • The course paper should illustrate that you have obtained a broad understanding of the principles of public health science communication (not public health communication) and its many dimensions. This means that you know of different medias, different target groups and different objectives/motivations for communicating science.
  • Since a requirement for the exam is that you have to refer to at least 60% of texts in the syllabus, your job is to put the texts into play with each other and demonstrate how their content are relevant for public health science communication – please also feel free to include other references (articles, blog posts, illustrations, radio programmes) if you find that relevant and as long as the references are clearly indicated in the reference list.
  • Apart from living up to the reference requirements and from demonstrating that you have understood basic principles of science communication, the evaluation of your papers will include how you combine your knowledge of public health sciences with your knowledge about science communication.
  • As the assignment is to write and introductory chapter to science communication, you will of course not be able to go into very specific details, but how you weigh different themes, topics etc. is entirely up to you.
  • As for the form of the paper, there are no requirements, rights or wrongs. You may want to write an introductory chapter as you would like to read it yourself (the target group for the paper is yourself and other students of public health related sciences) or try out a new style.  You can choose to write academically, personally, journalistic, with a dash of humor. It is up to you. Please also feel free to include figure, boxes, pictures and other illustrations if you find it relevant for your text.
  • There is no ideal way to complete this assignment and no rights or wrongs when it comes to format, disposition, language or structure for the paper.
  • You are also free to choose what reference system you like, as long as they are clearly marked and complete.

Technical report: Social Media & Public Health Research

This blog was set up as part of a research project conducted at the Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Public Health.

The research project was focused on the use of social media in the communication of research in public health sciences. The technical report, completed by myself and Professor Thomas Söderqvist, is now ready, and I’m happy to be able to share it with you all here on this blog.

Technical Report: Social Media and Public Health Research (find abstract below)

The report is a working report and the basis for more research. We therefore look forward to critical comments, debate and suggestions for future work.

Abstract

Ten years after its introduction, web and mobile based social media have become an integral part of modern society. The point of departure for this report is that social media will also play an increasingly important role for public health researchers.

One obvious use of social media is for communication between scientists and the public. In contrast to traditional one-way dissemination, social media can foster a more intense, engaging and democratic discussion about public health problems between researchers, public health officers, general practitioners, and the general public.

By providing platforms for knowledge sharing and scientific discussions, social media also offers great opportunities for public health science networking. The cross-disciplinary and community-oriented features of social media make it ideally suited for informal and rapid communication among public health researchers globally. In addition, social media can also be utilised for data collection and data sharing and as a tool in public health teaching programmes.

Like all other modes of communication, social media has its advantages and problems. Its major strength – the rapid, informal and open structure of communication – also opens up for potential misuse and lack of quality control. Another perceived problem is that social media allegedly takes time away from research; however, as this report points out, social media, when properly used, can be yet another support tool for research.

The report ends with an overview of research topics that can help foster a deeper understanding of how social media can facilitate public health research and public communication.

The thrust of this report is that public health research communication goes beyond the mission and capacity of university communication departments; that science communication is a continuous component of the entire research process; and that public science communication is a task for individual researchers as well.


No simple recipe for translating science

The second module of the course in Public Health Science Communication focused on Translating Science to Traditional Media. On paper a nice and concrete topic – but both choosing literature for the syllabus and preparing for the class proved a little bit more challenging. Because what does ‘translating science’ mean? And is there a recipe for doing so?

The simple answer to the last question is: no. There is no formula to follow or an optimal way of doing it. It depends on the scientific topic, the scientist, the context, the targeted audience and the chosen media. This was one of the take home messages for the students. Not a very helpful message I fear. Hopefully, they did get something out of the module despite the lack of clear-cut facts and recipes. As a theoretical background, the students were presented with some perspectives on historical developments in the theories of public communication of science. The idea was to show the students how motivations behind communicating to the public had changed over time, and how the perception of the public influences how and why scientists communicate. For me personally, understanding developments in different approaches to translating science helps me think about how science can be translated today.

Framing

The power of ‘framing’ in translating science and reaching target groups was also talked about. The article by Myers, Nisbet et al A public health frame arouses hopeful emotions about climate change gave a nice public health context and demonstrated the power of health topics which is something all people can relate to. It was however just an appetizer for the extensive ‘framing’ approach.

We also had a nice discussion about whether and why scientists should communicate to the public. And what advantages the scientist may have for communicating (as the common perception is that scientists are bad communicators). The discussion was helped along by the article Of course scientists can communicate by Tim Radford. Again, there is no right or wrong answer for this, but the discussion gave a good feel for the challenges in translating science, but also some of the mechanisms that could help this communication along.

A lot of video clips, sounds clips and images were used to inspire and illustrate different ways of translating science:

Some more examples were shared by readers of this blog in the comments section. Thanks to all, and keep’m coming.

Some practical writing tips and tools

Although the course is not a practical communication or writing class I chose to spend some time on some basic communication tricks. Tricks that I was introduced to at the Danish School of Journalism and which I have found useful – especially for my written language. Many of the concrete writing tips can be found in Roy Peter Clark’s book Writing Tools – 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (short online version is available and podcasts). Simple things like thinking about making your verbs active, choosing your verbs with care, walking up and down the ladder of abstraction, remembering the inverted news triangle, reading your text aloud while walking etc. It was all a bit rushed and a whole writing course would have been relevant – but unfortunately it could due to time restraints only be an appetizer.


Favorite examples of the translation of health science to traditional media?

For the second module of the course in Public Health Science Communication we’ll be looking at the Translation of public health science to traditional (and new) media.

I have asked the students to find and bring examples of public health sciences communicated in news articles, YouTube videos, blog posts, TEDtalks etc. but I was hoping that I could get even more examples of favorite health communication examples from readers of this blog. It can be any example – a favorite because of its bad communication, fun communication, creative, alternative, good.

An example I like of how comparison of scale can be to used communicate something difficult to understand because of the micro universe it takes place in is the documentary “The great sperm race” by Channel 4 in conjunction with the Wellcome Trust. The documentary is supported by a website with additional materials, facts, games etc.

What are your favorites?


A call out for texts on (public health) science communication

“Public Health Science Communication”. The name of the course that I’ll be teaching to master students of Public Health Sciences at University of Copenhagen this fall. It will be my first more formal teaching responsibility. I’m super exited about it, but must admit that I at the same time am a nervous rack. How did time pass so quickly that all of a sudden I’m the one who (is supposed to) know everything about science communication in public health – or at least enough to pass it on to others? On the other hand, I’m sure that most teachers had the same feeling the first time they taught, and I’m told that even very experienced teachers and lectures still feel so. In that way all my emotions are probably pretty ‘standard’.

Your favorite texts on (public health) science communication

None the less, I am reluctant yet to call myself a public health science communication expert. And in the planning phase of my course it would be absolutely wonderful if some of all you experts and non-experts working with or interested in science communication would be willing to share some tips on reading materials for the students.

What are the must reads for any science communication student? What opened your eyes to the field? What topics should be covered? Who are the good old ‘gurus’ in science communicition and who are the new ones according to you? And are there some shinning examples of good health sciences communication which I should not miss introducing the students to, and what are the examples of bad science communication? Public health is of course at the core, but examples and science communication theories from all other disciplines are more than welcome!

Science communication is understood in its broad sense. Not just as dissemination, but as communication. And it is communication between researchers, to the public, to policy makers, journalists and communicators etc.

Your help would be greatly appreciated! And I promise to keep you updated on the course’s development in the time to come.

All tips can be posted as comments on this blog or if you’re shy on email to ninabjerglund@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing from you.


Cultivating followers on social media when you want to communicate science

How do you explain why social media can be a good thing for researchers to look into? What advantages and what challenges are important to highlight? Next week, I’ll be introducing social media for science communication to the Danish Public Health Sciences Alumni (in Danish). It always helps being quite convinced yourself of what you are talking about, but reading other people’s arguments can also help. Especially, if they are in line with your own experiences.

I was therefore delighted to read a blog post on Nature’s community guest blog, Soapboxscience, by Matt Shipman, a public information officer at North Carolina State University. He writes about using social media (like Twitter and Facebook) and science blogs for taking science to the public.

Building networks takes time

Apart from the simple and convincing argumentation, what I like about the blog post is that Matt Shipman points out the fact that it takes time to build up the necessary network to get the full value of social media. This aspect is not that often acknowledged. My own experience is also that it takes time, and that you need to be patient in the beginning and that it requires some work. Just like you need to be patient when building up networks in real life. As Matt Shipman writes:

“Just because you set up a social media account doesn’t mean that anyone will know about it. You’ll need to take the time to cultivate a following.” 

And how do you do that? Matt Shipman has a few suggestions, which match very well my own experiences.

“You can start by figuring out your desired audience. Who do you want to be following you? Other scientists? Relevant science writers? Potential grad students? […] Once you’ve defined your target audience (or audiences), you can begin reaching out to friends and colleagues who are already online. They can help point people to your Twitter account, Facebook page, etc”

In my experience making searches on e.g. Twitter and looking at who pops up is also a good start for finding out who to follow. And just like looking at the references in a scientific article can give hints on where to find more knowledge, so does it help to look at who key people are following – making chain searchers so to speak.

Getting people to follow you

One thing is finding out who you should follow, getting the relevant people to follow you is also a challenge, and probably a bigger one. Without followers you are missing the whole point of social media. To get full advantage you need to have the relevant people to follow you – and not only that:

“.. if you really want people to pay attention, you need to have something to offer. Content is king, and you need to contribute something to the online conversation. In other words, why should people be listening to you?”

Social media like Facebook and Twitter are good for drawing attention to things, and communicate short messages but not always for more extensive communication:

“Social media platforms can be very limiting. For example, can you define genotype and phenotype in 140 characters or less?

“If you want to use social media to communicate effectively, you need to drive readers somewhere.”

‘Somewhere’ could be an already published article, a new report or an event, but it could also be a blog. Matt Shipman goes on to write about the blog and how it is useful for science communication. I won’t repeat that but encourage potential new science bloggers to read the blog post.

Lots of advice on how to get followers

Searching Google for tips on how to get followers on for example Twitter, lots and lots of websites pops up. For new comers to social media and science, Matt Shipman’s blog post on Nature’s community guest blog, Soapboxscience is a good starting point on why the combination of social media, blogs and science communication is not such a bad idea, but also that it requires some work.


Why social media is particularly relevant for public health science communication

Social media is a gift to science communication. I am quite convinced about that. But is it particularly relevant for Public Health Science Communication?

As many of the blog posts on this blog illustrates there is huge value and potential in using social media for public health science communication. And not only to disseminate research, but to communicate with the public and fellow researchers and use it as an inspirational tool in an academic public health life – even as a tool to conduct public health research is social media useful.

If one looks across examples of use of social media in public health, it is possible to identify some similarities between public health sciences and social media. As I see it, there are a least three shared characteristics. These are: the concentration on the community and general public, the interdisciplinary profile, and the reliance on data aggregation to do research. The shared characteristics means that combining the two worlds into what one could call Public Health Science Communication 2.0 is perfectly relevant.

Community-oriented

Public health is about people. Public health sciences is about observing people, collecting data about them, asking them, telling them, comparing them, testing them, exchanging information etc. The masses are of essence. In medicine you often deal with the individual patient, but in public health it is the larger communities and population groups that are at the core. It is through the contribution of each individual that general trends and patterns in larger communities are developed and discovered.

Social media is about people. It’s about the exchange of information. It’s not about the one person or the group of two to three, but about communities, about large population groups, about subgroups, about trends, patterns and the interactiveness of the whole thing. Social media is owned and generated by the public, both when it comes to content and form. This democratic structure means that social media is an arena for all corners of the public. But also that it is through the combined input and contribution from each individual that general trends and patterns in larger communities are developed. Even the smallest niche of people can become a group or community of its own through social media.

Finally, people are not static creatures and thus neither is public health sciences or social media. Both adapts to itself and surroundings. Changes in people’s behavior results in changes in public health. This means that continuously observation and interaction with the sources of research and among researchers is essential, if research is to take place. Social media can be a place to do this and to share the information. With the public, with counterparts or fellow researchers.

Interdisciplinary

Public health is an interdisciplinary science. It draws upon research from fields as different as biostatistics, epidemiology, sociology, psychology, economics, medicine, pharmacology and several others disciplines. In addition, much research in public health happens in close collaboration with public health practitioners, and with the population as a whole.

Similarly, social media goes beyond disciplines, beyond communities, countries and sectors. The flexibility of the media means that it can be adjusted to the individuals preferences and needs and reach across disciplines in ways that traditional media can not. In addition, the more informal manner of the media makes it a good place to explore across sectors and disciplines. It gives an easy approach to other people’s main areas of work, of interests and their style. All things that are useful when you need to communicate with people outside your own field.

Public Health sciences’ interdisciplinary profile and the interaction with non-research oriented communities necessitates effective communication both from researcher to practitioner, researcher to researcher and the other way around. Social media provides this cross cutting communication platform.

Reliance on data

Public health research is a data-oriented discipline. Both qualitative and quantitative data frames most research in public health. Based on data, trends and patterns can be tested, theories can be discussed, data reviewed.

Social media is in its essence also all about data. Through interaction, communication and sharing of information it is one big collection of data. It is through the broadness and amount of data that trends and patterns are identified and information is spread. It can sometimes even go viral (a good old health related word) and information and data is spread.

The common central role of data in public health research and social media makes combining the two intuitively compatible. Data collection or spreading data/information through blogs, Twitter and Facebook are tools that public health researchers should explore. It might even end up in communication!

More similarities and arguments?

The above similarities may of course also apply to other research areas. After having been on social media for almost a year now these three just stood out to me. But I might have missed some, and perhaps I am elegantly overseeing reasons why social media and public health science are not so compatible. If that is so, I’d love to get you inputs on this! It could be helpful in an endeavor to get more researchers in public health sciences to regard social media as a natural and necessary tool for science communication.


Students minding the science gap in public health

I have previously written about the use of blogs by students and researchers at schools of public health (I called them Schools of Public Health 2.0). One example was School of Public Health at the University of British Colombia.

This week, I came across another school of Public Health Sciences that is actively using blogging in communicating with the world, and in giving students communication skills.

For ten weeks between January and April 2012, ten Masters of Public Health students from the University of Michigan (UM), have taken on a blogging challenge. On the website Mind the Science Gap they are posting weekly articles about various public health related news, research studies etc. The aim is for the students to learn how to translate complex science into something a broad audience can understand and appreciate. The objective of this whole blogging exercise is an ambitious one:

“to help ensure that UM School of Public Health graduates are some of the best communicators around when it comes to translating scientific evidence into something that others understand, and can act on.”

As part of the initiative, readers of the blog have been encouraged to write comments, both on the content and the form. So-called mentors from all backgrounds have signed up to comment on a weekly basis (you can still sign up here). With the comments the aim is for the students to improve their communication skills though the ten weeks.

I have read a few of the blog post and also commented and my impression is so far very good. Both because the blog posts are interesting and well written, but also reading the many comments to each of the blogs is great. There are good tips from experienced science bloggers that others than the ten students can learn from. And then I do in general appreciate the ambitious tone of the blog initiative: ensuring that UM School of Public Health graduates are some of the best at translating scientific evidence into something that others understand, and can act on. Imagine if they are succesful in this. Not only will that be an advantage for the work places that will later on recruit these ten students, it could potentially put pressure on other schools of public health to make sure that their students are even better – and are they succesful in that imagine all the benefit that could be achieved to public health! Okay, maybe this is a little naive – but one can always hope…

A blogging school

In addition to Mind the Science Gap, the MU School of Public Health also has a student blog where students blog about life as students of Public Health, and a long list of blogs from several SPH faculty, alums, and student groups. For example: Rackham Graduate School blogs, run by two Ph.D. students, a Risk Science Center blog, a Public Health Library blog, a UM SPH Epidemiology Student Organization blog, the blog 2020 Science about emerging science and technology and many more (see the complete list here).


Communicating the doubtfulness of Public Health Sciences

Asbestos causes lung cancer. Smoking is responsible to the majority of lung cancers. A specific genotype increases your risk of breast cancer, and measles is a virus that if not prevented can cause brain damage or in sever cases death.

All the above statements are scientifically supported facts, identified through public health research. Unfortunately, the world of Public Health Sciences is not all facts. Lots of possible connections, probably associations and complex causal structures determine our wellbeing, health and life span. Read any peer-reviewed health journal and many of the articles will have titles such as ‘indication of…’, ‘probable…’, ‘likely association…’ and the conclusions will be full of reservations and expression of the need for further research. In many ways it illustrates the premises of science: that answering one questions gives rise to a whole bunch of new ones.

The complexity and uncertainty in much health research is one of the reasons that headlines on news papers may change between “Chocolate can kill you”, “Or this is how chocolates saves your life”. In addition, public health is not ‘owned’ only by scientific researchers. Public health is exactly public health and the public may contribute to the picture with their own experiences, such as “Soya milk cured my child from chronic ear infections” or “My child became autistic shortly after it had its first measles immunization.” All of which may contribute to confusion on what is true and what is false.

Research studies are only very rarely 100% conclusive and it is therefore practically impossible for researchers to make clear-cut statements about health risks of various exposures. And this can be used to the advantage of industries or people for whom doubt is enough to sell a product or an idea. This is very well illustrated in this small video called “Doubt” made by The Climate Reality Project. The video shows how scientists inability to draw unambiguous conclusions can be turned to the advantage of for example tobacco companies and climate change sceptics. Add to that a lot of propaganda and the scientific community are up against a tremendous challenge, illustrated by this short quote from the film:

If doctors smoke – are the scientists wrong?

They [the tobacco companies] realised that the science doesn’t need to be disproven – it was enough to create doubt in the minds of the public to keep them from recognising the truth”.

The video, which takes the case of smoking as an example of how disagreement among scientists or their inability to make non-debatable conclusions (at least in the early stages of research), illustrates that public scepticism towards and doubt in what scientists argue has existed and flourished long before social media came into existence. In this case it is the damaging effects of smoking, but acid rain or nuclear risks are other examples.

Today, social media surely plays an important role in the scepticism towards eg. vaccines and climate change. And it enables it to spread quickly. What is the solution to that? That we close our eyes and say that social media is dangerous because it spreads non-scientific ideas? That seems a bit naive. Social media is unlikely to disappear, and so are all the blog posts, Twitter discussions and Facebook postings warning against measles vaccines etc. From my perspective the solution is for scientists, research institutions and others representing the scientific community ALSO to get out there, and make their view, knowledge and opinion head. Just like social media is a platform to quickly spread incorrect knowledge, it is equally good for spreading correct (in the eyes of science) knowledge and not let the allegations go unanswered. Of course social media would or could never stand alone, but it is an important communication channel not to overlook or rule out because of fear. If fear of misunderstandings of researchers blogging or tweeting or doubt in the credibility of social media rules the science community’s use of social media then the researchers are no better than the public who responds to doubt and fear…