Back!… to a battlefield for researchers?

A year (almost to the date) has passed since my last blog post. How did time pass so quickly?* And how in the world do I get started on this blog again? Following developments in public health science communication and social media for science communication mostly from the sideline, how will I know what’s the latest development? Am I up to speed to write about this topic?

The battlefield of Facebook

FullSizeRender (1)

And then this weekend as I was flipping through the latest issue of the magazine of my Danish work association DJOEF, I came across this headline: “Forskerfejde på Facebook” (trans. Researcher fight on Facebook). A short article about Facebook as a place where researchers who dare to put themselves and their research out there are bullied and criticized and how social media is a big challenge for people working in academia. Although I agree that Facebook and other social media in some ways represent a challenge for the academic world, I was sad to see that we in Denmark apparently still are at level were social media is regarded only as a challenge and not as an opportunity for science and science communication.

FullSizeRenderThe article is in Danish but the illustration of the article is universal and very much covers the focus of the article: Social media is a fora for heavy criticism, for fights, bullying, hitting each other in the head and the researcher who enters the world of Facebook need to have tough skin and be prepared to be hammered by both their peers and the public. The rules of the game of are different. Social media have altered the premises for how scientific results can be discussed, is a key message in the article.

Focusing on the negative sides

Although short, the article is supported by a few cases of scientists fighting over Facebook. There are even a couple of researchers calling out for keeping discussions to the already existing academic circles and journals. But is this really a telling picture of how social media is used and the consequences they have in the Danish academic world today. I know the answer is no. So why, do I ask myself, why did the journalist not bother to find a positive case story as well or why didn’t he broaden out the focus from just Denmark to also look at international experiences and trends in using social media? At least just make a small mention of it. Yes, conflicts and dramas make good stories, but I think it is misleading only to portray the battles and disagreement and argue that only researchers with tough skin can successfully use social media.

Compulsory science communication education

The article confirms me in the fact that we still have a long way to go in taking in social media in science communication in Denmark. Much progress has been made over the last year for sure, but still I feel a dominating skepticism towards using these open interactive media in science. As is rightly pointed out by a specialist in social media from University of Roskilde and quoted in the article, we can only expect social media to play a larger and larger role in the scientific debate. Being in agreement with this, I really hope that science communication education and training, including using social media in the research process, could be made compulsory for all university students. Social media have so much potential for science communication that it would be a shame if all researchers who do not feel their skin is ‘tough enough’ would refrain from using it.

I’m back

So with this sad reassurance that there is still a lot to do on science communication and social media and lots of experiences to harvest from the world, I am happy to take up this blog again and explore, comment, recommend, learn and share with all of you what I find.

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*answer: a lovely little girl came in the way


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.”


Viral public health science communication

My new bedtime reading is made of dramatic stuff. It is about children with dangerously high fevers, about parents fearing for the life of their offspring, and about healthy maids milking cows. It is about the enthusiastic joy of getting closer to immortality and the birth of fears so great that people turn their backs on what their parents just a decade earlier glorified to the skies. It’s about vaccines and infectious diseases!

At Science Online 2012, I was so fortunate to win a copy of “The Panic Virus” by Seth Mnookin, and with a long stopover in Chicago on my way back to Copenhagen this was a perfect way to pass time and close Scio12 with a well written story about the role of public health science communication! I have not yet finished the book, but will most likely return with a separate blog post on it when I’m done. There is lots of interesting stuff in that book.

I will however just share a poster or infographic that I came across the other day. Actually, it kind of summarizes a big part of “The Panic Virus” or is at least a response to the panic which, among other things, a false report of a link between vaccines and autism created among parents. A panic that still has a strong take on many people today. The poster is created by Medicalcodingcareerguide.com and uses data on vaccine and disease by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

I like the poster for several reasons. Firstly, I find the layout very appealing. There is something very retro about it. The yellow colour, the choice of font and the style of the images. Secondly, I like that it plays with the format of a poster. It doesn’t use a conventional format, but plays with the proportion. Thus, it is long and thin (a little bit like a syringe) and it tells a continues story. You can jump in anywhere, but you can also let the poster tell you a story from beginning to end. Thirdly, the numbers are to the point. No excess information or complicated graphs. It gets the message across without being overly complicated, but not naively simple either. That goes for the text too. There isn’t a fear of using latin words, but it is still informative. And then again, it is just a poster/infographic so it can’t contain all the complexity. I still like it however.

One element of critic could be that the two crossing syringes in the title could be interpreted as a crossing out of the word vaccination – which is definitely not the intention by the designers I assume.

Voila the poster, an example of public health science communication:

Medical Coding Career Guide
Created by: Medical Coding Career Guide