2013, Science Communication, Public Health, Bonn

Some new years bring with them just a change of numbers – other new years bring bigger changes. 2013 seems to be of the later categories. At least if you consider moving to a different country a change. Starting from later this January, I will exchange my Copenhagen address for an address in Bonn, Germany. I guess you could claim that I’ll start a new life as a Bonn-girl.

To those who are unfamiliar with German geography

To those who are unfamiliar with German geography

I have on previous occasions moved abroad to take on new jobs (in China, Switzerland and Japan) but this time no fixed job awaits me. Rather, I have the opportunity to explore different options, try out my freelance skills and at the same time live with the person dearest to my heart.

I must admit that I know very little about Bonn. Both in general but also when it comes to the activities in science communication and in public health. Actually, I know very little about the status of science communication in Germany in general. However, since I plan to stay in the field of Public Health Science Communication, which I find to be both super interesting and a an important topic for public health, I truly can say that look forward to exploring it.

Apart from finding out what goes on in Science Communication in Germany, I still plan to have my feet planted into Danish Public Health Science Communication – as well as into global Public Health Science Communication. One of the wonders of social media (and the internet in general) is that it really doesn’t matter where you are – you are free to  work and stay connected with the entire world.

So far I haven’t got a clear-cut plan for my Bonn life, but lots of ideas, already a few assignments and a long list of opportunities. Bonn is a UN-city with a bunch of UN agencies present, so it is likely that I can engage with them. Especially due to the fact that I have experiences working with them already. The United Nations University is located in Bonn and several German Universities are close by (Bonn University, University of Cologne to mention a few) as well as a number of international NGOs and other organisations are based in Bonn. If they are not already working on science communication and social media then there is certainly a lot of new ground to made there!

Should any reader of this blog know of relevant people to in Germany to engage with,  Institutions working on science communication and social media, University courses related to science communication etc. please don’t hold back. I’d love to hear about it.

I promise to keep you all on posted on my doings in Public Health Science Communication in Bonn and in the rest of the world. So far assignments with the Department of Public Health, Medical Museion, and the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at University Copenhagen will take up my time as will communication assignments with the European Regional Office of the World Health Organisation (WHO). I would also love to explore opportunities for continuing teaching Public Health Science Communication. Perhaps the course Public Health Science Communication which I taught last year at University of Copenhagen can be adapted to other universities….

Anyhow, with this first blog post of 2013 I would like to wish you all a Happy New Year where ever you are based. Bonn adventures awaits and I look forward to you being a part of them. If not in any other ways, then by following my scribbles here on this blog.

2013-free-wallpaper-06



Online Science Communication the French way

Science communication and the internet is becoming a topic all over the world. Also France are tuning in on it. A conference next week at the Pasteur Institute brings people together to discuss how science communicated via the internet can help bring science to a wider public.

The conference which is entitled ‘Communiquer la science via internet’ takes place on the 25 September and you can read the programme here.

The conference aims to promote reflection and dialogue between science producers and citizens to improve science communication.

The conference is number three in a series of conferences focusing on communicating science. The initiative for the conference comes from a number of research institutions (Andra, CEA, Genopole, Inserm, Institut Pasteur, IRD, Cemagref), IHEST (Institute des Hautes Etudes pour la Science et la Technologie) and Universcience,

The conference is aimed at producers of science, public communicators, program designers, animators sites, the media, and the Internet.

Thanks to Karine Blandel from Signsofscience.org for letting me know of the conference.



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.


Why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?

The course Public Health Science Communication went live Wednesday last week! And based on the first experiences it survived the encounter with the students, is still in good shape and looking forward to moving on to module two this coming Wednesday.

Since the concept “public health science communication” is still not a household concept and does to my knowledge not (yet) have a Wikipedia entry or a crystal clear definition, I found it useful during the first lesson to ask the students what they, in one sentence, considered public health science communication to be. It gave some interesting responses, of which I here share a few:

In one sentences: What is public health science communication?

  • Simplifying public health science so that it is easier to understand for the public
  • Public health science communication is the science of communication of scientific research to the public
  • Communicating the essence of public health research to the public
  • It’s an interaction among public health workers, public and policy makers to improve health of general public
  • Ways to create greater understanding amongst public, governments and general public about advances in science in particular and relevant formats
  • Communication of scientific health information translated into understandable messages to the public
  • That it is important – why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?

Most of the responses are not surprising, and combining them gets us around several aspects of the concept. I do however still find it a little surprising that focus is so heavily on communicating to the public. Where is communication with researchers? Only a few mention e.g. policymakers and public health practitioners. Of course the word public could be understood in its broadest sense – but my feeling is that many are thinking about Mr and Mrs Smith/Jensen/Sanchez when they say “the public”. Some also understood public health science communication to be communicating for behavioral change, which would probably fall more under health communication. Secondly, it seems that science communication is regarded as being about communicating to the public and not with the public. I look forward to expanding the students’ perception of this in the coming weeks.

All the responses are interesting, but my favorite response is this one: “That it is important – why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?” In my head it nails it completely.

I also asked the student what they expected to learn. Below some of their responses:

What do you expect to learn?

  • How to be a better communicator of science
  • I expect to learn something about how to communicate public health science to the public, what information is interesting for ”the public” and which strategies are useful in communicating and how I do it
  • Something about the relation between the scientific world and the public – the role of science communication
  • How to better communicate health related information to individuals  (with diverse backgrounds) + communities in an effective and respectful manner
  • A broader way of thinking/analysing/communicate science so it is easier to implement them locally/nationally/internationally
  • How to make research tangible for people outside the field. How to sell the message
  • How to communicate to the public 1) what is public health science, 2) communicate results of public health sciences
  • Challenges of communication with policy makers from public health workers point of view
  • Theories and practical stuff about communication

I’m exited about what the responses. Hopefully, the students will feel that they have been given a few tools, and a better understanding of the role of science communication in public health when the course is over. I also hope that they will have seen that public health science communication includes more than reaching the public and ‘selling messages’, but is just as much about engaging and interacting with the public (understood in its broadest sense) and that communication is not only in aimed at educating the public but may also serve a purpose for their research and for themselves as researchers.

Although the students’ expectations and the objective of the course weren’t all that different I still clarified what the course was not – and what it was intending to be. Perhaps this may be useful to readers on this blog as well.


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.


Does the technical staff at the World Health Organization (WHO) tweet?

At least on paper the World Health Organization (WHO) constitutes the foremost authority when it comes to public health. According its own website the organisation is “responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.” (quote from WHO.int/about)

Having worked for the organisation on several occasions, WHO is in my opinion not always living up to their foremost authority status. And when it comes to exploring the use of social media in public health they have definitely not been front-runners but rather seriously been lacking behind.

All though WHO has applauded their own use of social media (eg. in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization), I believe that they until recently have taken their mouth a little full when doing so. As I mentioned in my blog post A very non-social media article about the World Health Organization, public health and social mediasocial media was definitely not a part of my world as a WHO professional staff member. It was never encouraged used or explored. And even though the organisation is now a frequent tweeter on @WHO and have profiles on both Facebook and YouTube, I still miss more integration of social media in WHO’s work and traditional communication channels like Bulletin of the World Health Organization. But most importantly I miss seeing them integrate social media into their technical work, research and research communication.

Changes happening?

But changes might be happening, and even slow starters can get going. I was therefore happy to read the blog post WHO Finds Social Media Indispensable in Managing Global Health Crises by David J Olsen. David Olsen have visited WHO’s Strategic Health Operations Centre (SHOC) and talked to Christine Feig, WHO’s head of communications and Sari Setiogi, a WHO social media officer, about the organisation’s use of social media. Christine Feig describes how social media has fundamentally changed WHO health surveillance and gives examples from the response to the Japanese tsunami and Fukushima radiation crisis of 2011. Social media officer Sari Setiogi (on of two social media officers in the entire organisation) even acknowledges that WHO have perhaps not been among the fastest to adopt social media, but that they during the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic of 2009 “learned their lesson the hard way” by totally ignoring social media. And according to Sai Setiogi, social media is likely to become a bigger and bigger component in WHO’s work.

Where is the technical staff?

So WHO has taken on social media. They (or at least their communication department) are actively communicating to and with the public and they are analyzing and identifying trends on Twitter and Facebook with relevance for public health (eg. the fast spreading misconceptions of intake of iodine during the Fukushima radiation crisis).

Using social media not just for mass communication but also for research is refreshing to see. What I miss from David Olsen’s post is however the voice of the WHO technical staff. It is natural to approach the communication department when wanting to learn more about an organisation’s use of social media, and if anyone in the organisation should using social media it is the communication people, right? But what about other staff members? What about the technical staff? And how about the managerial level? Are they blogging, tweeting, members of LinkedIn groups etc.? Giving the voice only to the communication department makes me wonder:

  • Is the use of social media in WHO something confined to the communication department?
  • Is it only used for the management of global health crises, or does it go beyond catastrophes?
  • Is social media a tool used by for example the department of Non-communicable diseases when doing research or providing technical guidance and support?
  • Does the professional staff of Roll Back Malaria (WHO’s malaria programme) blog about their work?
  • Is the director of Health System Financing on Twitter?
  • Does the mental health department staff participate in Twitter discussions?

WHO’s technical staff might very well be using social media (even though it isn’t mentioned, doesn’t mean that it is not happening). Perhaps they are encouraged to do so, perhaps they are doing it on their own initiative. Perhaps there are regional differences (which is the case for many issues in WHO) and even differences from country office to country office in the use of social media for science communication. In any case, I really would encourage WHO to open its eyes to social media as a tool not just for communicating health messages and analysing influenza trends and misconceptions of iodine intake, but also as a means of science communication. As several examples on this blog shows there are lots of opportunities worth exploring. By taking on the challenge WHO could potentially also in the area of social media and public health science communication become an organisation “providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.”



Some challenges of social media as a tool for public health science communication

Social media presents several advantages to public health science communication. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge that there are also challenges to the media. Below I have listed some of them. As with the advantages, I am sure there are many more challenges than those below, so please do add to the list or disagree if you think what I have put down is incorrect.

Values, opinions, feelings and politics

As with many other social sciences, research in public health exists and operates in a political context where values, opinions, and ethical considerations play a big role. In addition, health is not only owned by doctors and researchers, but is a topic and condition that is relevant to all human beings, which means that almost everyone have an opinion or personal feelings entangled into it. Health is a mayor topic in politics, economics, human development etc. The multiple number of stakeholders challenges communication of public health sciences. Few people would be outraged by a scientific debate among mathematicians, but in public health the story is another. New research projects or findings can quickly turn into debates influenced by other stakeholders in health and by non-scientific arguments. Open platforms like social media used to present and discuss public health sciences may open up for such debates with potential inputs all segments of the population. Such debates can be time-consuming, problematic both politically and scientifically and in the end not benefit neither the scientific process or the researcher.

Fear of drowning and loosing time

“I don’t have time to be on Twitter.”, “I’m already behind in reading reports and journals”. These are some of the worries many researchers and public health specialists raise when they are confronted with using social media in their academic practice. And although their fear of time consumption and information overload may be exaggerated, it is true, that especially in the beginning it does require time to get acquainted with social media for scientific purposes and to build up an online network. Since social media does provide new information, it will often be an additional information source, which requires time. Proper introduction in how to use social media for research purposes could overcome this however. And in the end I would argue that it can actually save time (and money). For example time and money saved on following a conference through Twitter rather than physically being present at the conference. In addition, social media can actually be a way to filter all the available material through its search functions and by following people who are interested in the same area as one self.

Lack of control with the media

Many research institutions have social media policies setting out rules for what kind of media can be used and for what purposes. Some of them are pretty strict and leaves it to the communication departments to be in control of what goes out on social media. Due to the openness and interactive characteristic of the media it does of course open up for risks such as scooping of research findings, false accusations and irrelevant or perhaps harmful communication. Avoiding these situation depends to a large extend on the users responsible behavior when communicating through social media and proper guidance on how to use it.