The necessity of science communication

I read two articles this week, which I just have to share here on this blog. The two articles are both inputs to the discussion on the role of science communication in general society today.

Self-censorship among vaccine researchersnewyorktimes

The first article “Anti-Vaccine Activists Have Taken Vaccine Science Hostage” by Melinda Wenner Moyer is published in The New York Times and discusses how the anti-vaccine movement have contributed to what looks like self-censorship in parts of the vaccine science communicty and how it seems to be  eroding the integrity of vaccine science.

“Scientists are so terrified of the public’s vaccine hesitancy that they are censoring themselves, playing down undesirable findings and perhaps even avoiding undertaking studies that could show unwanted effects.”

 

Science Journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, The New York Times

The article gives example from the vaccine science community where researchers feels pressure from their peers not to publish negative results, but also describes the importance of continuesly studying and transparently discussing also the research that touches upon the negative sides of vaccines. The article closes with an encouragement that researchers, who do good science must share their research – even when there is a risk of its meaning being twisted – and not apply self-censorship.  As the writer points out in the conclusion:

“One thing vaccine scientists and vaccine-wary parents have in common is a desire for the safest and most effective vaccines possible — but vaccines can’t be refined if researchers ignore inconvenient data. Moreover, vaccine scientists will earn a lot more public trust, and overcome a lot more unfounded fear, if they choose transparency over censorship.”

 

Science Journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, The New York Times

scientific americanA cry for help

The other article “The Truth Sometimes Hurts” by Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and published in Scientific American responds to Melinda Wenner Moyer’s request that scientists continue to share their knowledge, finding and results also when they hurt.

Kate Marvel however points out that even though science thrives on the oxygen of transparency, reality is that doing it is hard! And that scientists (especially in hot topics like vaccine and climate change) often times are up against beliefs, which are not based on science and therefore cannot be refuted by science:

“But outside the confines of the lab, scientists have to operate in an environment polluted with lies and bad faith. Vaccines do not cause autism, but many people believe they do. And because this belief is not based on evidence, it cannot be refuted by science. But charlatans can still use what appears to be the language of science, weaving inconclusive studies and minor effects into a persuasive web of lies and fear.”

 

Climate scientist Kate Marvel, Scientific American

The reality is that communicating science is hard and especially hard for scientists who are by definition trained primarily to be scientists and not communicators. As Kate Marvel points out, very few scientists receive training in communicating science or are taught how to handle it when their words and conclusions are twister or delibrately misinterpreted and misrepresented.

Kate Marvel shares examples from her own area of work, climate change, where the fear that climate change deniers will misuse scientific findings or transparency about uncertainty in climate change projections to push forward their own agenda. She also points out that there are no institutional rewards for communicating science and thus little institutional incentive to allocate time and energy on communicating their work.

She closes her input to the debate with a heart-felt request:

“So I want to approach this with something the stereotypical scientist is not known for: humility. Please don’t just tell us to be honest, help us to understand how to be transparent in an opaque world.  Truth is messy, and lies can be simple and appealing. I may not know what I’m doing, but I’m willing to listen and learn.”

 

Climate scientist Kate Marvel, Scientific American

Make science communication mandatory

I can only agree with Kate Marvel about the need to offer more insight and training to researchers, scientists and scholars on how to communicate science. I enjoy teaching science communication to Ph.d students at the Faculty of Health at University of Copenhagen, but also experience how little they know and how distant the idea of communicating science outside the scientific world seems to many (luckily it’s definitely not all) of them. Having taught a masters course on Public Health Science Communciation to public health students also at University of Copenhagen was inspirering and I wish it could be mandatory for all students to have some training and insight into how to communicate science . Even if it limited in time, it could at least give them insight into what they may encounter and perhaps give them some appetite to dig a bit deeper into science communciation later on and dare to challenge their own fear of communication what they do.

Thank you to both Melinda Wenner Moyer and Kate Marvel for inspiring inputs into the discussions around the role of science communication in today’s society and for highlighting both the importance of science communication, the risks if we don’t and the need for more training and help .


Reviving Public Health Science Communication 2.0 and welcoming its name sister

It has been 3 years since the last post. Time flies, but lots have happened: children have been born, home has switch to another country and a new company has emerged on the world stage… But it is due time for Public Health Science Communication 2. to have a revival!

After having completed several freelance assignments related to public health and science communication and seeing the potential for more to arise, I decided to take the leap and create my own consultancy company offering to complete tasks in the field of public health science communication.  The name of the company is simply: Public Health Science Communication.

Nina Bjerglund Andersen

The company  is still in its infancy and I’m not sure exactly where it is heading, but its exciting to have taken the leap. I have even completed af business start-up course (BIZ) offered by the Danish Union for Journalists and am in the process of ordering business cards!

I have already been busy teaching science communication to ph.d. students at University of Copenhagen; preparing a training on using social media in public health; helping a Danish patient organisation rewrite a scientific evaluation report; putting together meeting reports from international TB and HIV meetings and assisting university departments in communicating online who they are and what they do. I hope to expand the list and am enjoying the diversity of my work.

The revival of this blog will hopefully fit nicely with my new little consultancy company. Being almost a name sister, my thought is that Public Health Science Communication 2.0 can be a 2.0 side kick to my company, where I can continue to share thoughts and reflection also on topics that related to my assignments.

I look forward to your comments and am of course also happy to hear from you if there is anything you think I can be of help with. Just send an email to ninabjerglund@gmail.com.

See you soon in another blog post!

 

 


Awesome reading list on using social media in academia

A few weeks ago I returned to this blog with some reflections on a article about the use of social media by researchers in Denmark. I was disappointed to see that social media and academia in traditional journalist-based media is still portrayed mostly negatively.

In search of positive Danish experiences with using social media in academic work I called out to the Copenhagen Science Communication Facebook group (closed network). Being vacation time I didn’t manage to collect personal experiences with social media (I’ll give that a try later), but I was so fortunate to be made aware of an awesome reading list on using social media for research collaboration and public engagement. The list is complied by the Impact of Social Sciences Blog by LSE.

Some of the items in the reading list I have already touched upon on this blog (e.g. how Melissa Terras boosted the number of downloads of her scientific articles), but there are also some that are new to me and which add new dimensions to the use of social media in science communication.

Social media for sharing passion

A resource that I enjoyed reading is by Tim Hitchcook, a professor of Digital History at the University of Sussex. Tim Hitchcook doesn’t add anything revolutionary new or surprising to the arguments for using social media, but he phrases many of them very well. For example, I like how he describes social media as the perfect tool for researchers to share their passion for what they do:

The best (and most successful) academics are the ones who are so caught up in the importance of their work, so caught up with their simple passion for a subject, that they publicise it with every breadth. Twitter and blogs, and embarrassingly enthusiastic drunken conversations at parties, are not add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion that underpins it.

And he goes on to pin point to two important aspects of using social media. First: Get started on integrating social media into your work from early on and gain by building-up your skills in communication with the public; and second, communicate about the research process itself – not just about the results, findings etc.:

A lot of early career scholars, in particular, worry that exposing their research too early, in too public a manner, will either open them to ridicule, or allow someone else to ‘steal’ their ideas.  But in my experience, the most successful early career humanists have already started building a form of public dialogue in to their academic practise – building an audience for their work, in the process of doing the work itself.

Finally, Tim Hitchcook addresses a concern which many researchers I talk to have about using social media. That it is time-consuming, and basically takes time away from doing other important things. Tim Hitchcook however points out that using social media may almost have the opposite effect:

The most impressive thing about these blogs (and the academic careers that generate them), is that there is no waste – what starts as a blog, ends as an academic output, and an output with a ready-made audience, eager to cite it.

I can only encourage you to read the blog post Twitter and blogs are not add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion that underpins is in its entirety. And also to take a look at Tim Hitchcook’s own blog Historyonics.

 

 

 


A study and article not to be missed: Translating Research For Health Policy: Researchers’ Perceptions And Use Of Social Media

Had I got my arms free I’d write a long blog post with some reflections on this recently published study. But as at least one arm (often both) seems constantly occupied by this adorable two months old baby it os just too much of a challenge to sit by the computer and type long sentences.

But this article: Translating Research For Health Policy: Researchers’ Perceptions And Use Of Social Media is just too relevant for this blog to miss out on, so some quick one-hand typing is necessary. The study is also described in the ScienceDaily and basically highlights how health policy researchers lack confidence in social media for communicating scientific evidence. Most (especially the younger generation) believe that social media can be an effective way to communicate research findings but simply do not know how to use it and feel their academic peers and institutions do not value or respect it as much as traditional media and direct contact with policy makers. A super interesting finding which only highlights the need for integrating training in the use of social media (and communication in general) in the curriculum of health researchers and, would I argue, already from public health students enter university.

 

 


Pregnancy science communication

Public Health science communication has for the past years been my field of interest. I have studied it, I have taught it, I have networked over it. But have I actually been a user of it – like I was before I started studying it? Well, over the past nine months I actually have. At least one particular field within public health communication has had my special attention. Not for the sake of how it is communicated, but the actually public health knowledge. The field relates to pregnancy, which coincidentally for the past nine months (and still is as I write these words) have been a part of my life.

A circus of information

When you become pregnant not only do a lot of questions pop up in your head, but a lot of information relating to the health and wellbeing of yourself and the baby is communicated to you, whether you like it or not. Doctors, midwives, health authorities, friends, relatives – all have information to share with you. It can be quite a circus of information and you quickly discover that the science of pregnancy is full of science AND of urban legends, gossip, personal narratives and experiences, and culturally imbedded practices. The later become especially obvious when you as I choose to have a child with someone from a different country than your own and go through your pregnancy in neither’s of yours home countries.

To do or not to do?

As a public health professional I have of course been interested in doing what is best for the baby, and with an academic background I lean towards following advice which is based on scientific research rather than word of mouth or traditional practices in the country I happen to be. I quickly realised however that the two often get mixed up. Even in official guidance and pamphlets are you sometimes left to wonder what the advice is based on. In the wine country Spain for example you can drink alcohol (in moderation that is) while in Denmark your are advised not to. As my iron level dropped my German doctor advised me to start taking iron tablets and continue throughout the entire pregnancy. My midwife has, for reasons I have yet to understand, advised me to stop some weeks before my due date. The argumentation for all these different recommendations is very often: “It’s better for the baby”. But says who? Based on what? What is the evidence? All theses questions arise all the time and it seems like way to big a task to investigate the scientific background behind all of them. I was therefore happy to learn that I didn’t have to! Thus, my cousin told me about this book she had read a review of, which basically did what I felt like doing with every piece of advice and recommendation I was presented with: Learn about the basis or science behind the recommendation and based on that make my own decision on what to do and how to act.

Expecting better

Expecting-Better-Why-the-ConEmily Oster, an associate professor of economics, decided, upon becoming pregnant, to test the facts of medical advice she was given by using the methodologies she knew best: an economist’s tools. The outcome of her struggles not only resulted in her making informed decisions right for her and her husband but also in the book “Expecting Better – why the conventional pregnancy wisdom is wrong and what you really need to know”. I have with joy been reading this book. Both for the content, but as I was reading it I realised also for its public health science communication value. Emily Oster manages to explain medical research without oversimplifying it and in a manner that most people without a health (or economist) background can understand. For a public health savvy person it is perhaps sometimes a bit too pedagogical and one can quickly become tired of having explained what a cross control study and a randomised trial is, but as public health professionals are not necessarily the target audience of this book this it not necessarily a bad thing. In addition, if one uses the book as a tool for looking up specific topics rather than reading it from A to Z the repetition is of course fine.

Facts and personal decision-making

One of the reasons I find the book to be an interesting example of public health science communication is that it manages to find a good balance between communicating scientific studies, findings and facts and at the same show how these can be used for decision-making – or in some cases are super difficult to drawn conclusions from and thus challenging to make decision upon. By sharing her own reflections and ultimate decisions with the reader, Emily Oster exemplifies that scientific findings and statistics take on a new meaning when they are to be applied to an individual person. Indirectly, it also illustrates how difficult it can be to make general recommendations when science doesn’t give clearcut answers (which is very often the case in public health research). Granted, at times you do become a bit tired of hearing about Penelope (Emily Oster’s daughter), but at the same time the book really wouldn’t have the same communicative value without it. Putting a human face and a name on science just makes it more relevant to read – at least when you are targeting a wider audience. And as mentioned it illustrates what happens to science when it moves from the laboratory, the statistical programme, the conference presentation etc. and meets real people.

Other reviews

“Expecting Better” was reviewed by Zoe Williams im the Guardian. I find her review of the book to be spot on, so instead of making more comments on the book, I’ll let you read her reflections, praise and critic.


The challenges of communicating Tuberculosis research and risks to decision-makers

Over the past year I have on a number of occasions been so fortunate to work for the World Health Organization’s Regional office for Europe (WHO/EURO) on various communication tasks related to Tuberculosis (TB).

TBincidenceEurope2011

Although we in Europe tend to worry mostly about non-communicable diseases and many perceive infectious diseases as something we have pretty much under control, Tuberculosis is actually a big problem in many countries of the region. Especially the incidence of Multi-Drug Resistant TB (MDR-TB) and Extensively Drug Resistant TB (XDR-TB) is worrying – to me actually a bit frightening. Incidences of MDR-TB and XDR-TB in Europe are the highest in the world, and do not only present a problem to the countries mostly affected (se figure) but in a globalized world with lots of mobility also a growing problem in the rest of the region. And as the name implies, treating (and thus controlling) the disease is becoming increasingly difficult as our current range of medicine is no longer proving effective.

Tuberculosis as a Public Health Risk Communication example

TuberculosisSo why bring up this issue on a blog focused on Public Health Science Communication? The answer is simple: Because it is a good example of the complexity and challenges of communicating public health science to divers audiences. Next week I will as mentioned earlier be giving a short lecture on public health risk communication to a group of public health students at University of Copenhagen, and I have been asked to try to integrate some ‘practical experiences’ with risk communication. My plan is to use tuberculosis as an example. Unfortunately, I can’t bring many solutions to the challenges, but my aim is to draw attention to some real life, practical obstacles to convert scientific public health knowledge to action.

The big challenge: Reaching decision makers!

In my assignments for WHO I have not worked specifically with risk communication, but having attended several meetings and contributed to a number of WHO reports I have gained an insight into the many challenges in TB control, the people involved and been struck by TB experts’ difficulties in communicating what science deems necessary to control the disease, including the risks of not acting or acting incorrectly, to the people responsible for making key decisions and allocating resources to it.

As with any other disease the findings and outcomes of TB-related research has to reach many different audiences: TB-patients, relatives of TB-patients, the general public, the media, health care workers, nurses, medical doctors, laboratory technicians, health care planners, policy makers, politicians etc. What is necessary and relevant to communicate differs of course depending on who you are trying to reach and the mechanisms to reach them are naturally also different.

I will in this blog post not reflect too much on communicating risks to patients and relatives to TB patients nor the general public, but draw attention to the challenges which TB experts face in communicating scientific findings, risks and arguments to public health decision-makers – ranging from senior doctors, hospital managers to politicians. This is an area I feel is often overlooked when talking about public health science and risk communication and definitely a challenge for TB-control in Europe. There are many books, courses, guidelines etc. on how to reach individuals and the general public, but it is at least my impression that literature and discussion on how to reach decision-makers is much more limited or at least difficult to find.

Some examples

For almost all the TB-related meetings organized by WHO, which I have attended the problem of getting messages and identified risks through to the decision-makers has been brought up. Just a few examples:

  • Laboratory and biomolecular specialists know what is needed in terms of laboratory tests, which are the most efficient (also in term of costs) and how for example testing TB strains for their susceptibility to different drugs is essential in controlling TB and the risks that arise from not doing so. They know what resources are needed in terms of staff, training and maintenance of equipment. Their problem: Explaining the highly complicated (even to me) techniques, their use of very technical language and abbreviations, their lack of communication training in general and risk communication specifically, their lack of direct access to communicate to and with decision makers. The result: under-prioritization of the laboratory needs in TB programmes and/or half solutions without proper maintenance of machines, continued training of staff etc. All contributing to increased risk of spreading TB – especially X/MDR-TB.
  • Researchers in TB, Heads of national TB programmes, international advisory organisations etc. know and have evidence for the importance of moving towards out-patient care of TB patients rather than relying on placing them in hospitals for the duration of their treatment (which can be move than 12 months). Not only for the sake of the individual patient but also for the public in general. Their problem: Communicating this knowledge convincingly to policy-makers and senior doctors is difficult in an Eastern European context where the old ways of the Soviet times, where hospital treatment was the preferred option, are still present. There seems to be a lack of opportunities or ideas on how to communicate with decision-makers and a fear that advocating for fewer hospital beds and more outpatient care will only lead to fewer resources for TB. In addition, they are in many countries up against stigma towards TB patients and the fact that TB often affects people with low social status (migrants and prisoners) and therefore not very attractive for politicians to spend time on. Form how I see it the experts lacks skills in communicating their knowledge effectively, partly due to lack of understanding of the incentives of decision-makers to go into this area. The result: Reluctance to speak up. Non-effective communication and status-quo for TB-patients’ treatment and care which again only risks to fuel the epidemic.
  • Researchers in TB, Heads of national TB programmes, international advisory organizations etc. know the importance of involving civil society in TB control and especially in explaining risk, risk preventive strategies etc. Their problem: difficulties in getting messages and knowledge across to civil society organization (if they exist), and find a common language to communicate in. Trouble gaining political support for the establishment of civil society organization and, if these already exist, lack of success in coordinating messages and missions. The result: Missed opportunities of being a joint voice that together can work to convince decision-makers to react to the risks of a more widely spread TB epidemic and have them make the right decisions. Waisted resources due to uncoordinated efforts

Acknowledging the role of science communication

The above examples are just a few of the communication related problems I have encountered and they may to some extend be specific to the European Region. The trouble is that they are in my experience actually often not articulated as communication problems, but rather as problems of securing funding, getting political support, engaging civil society, old-fashioned doctors etc. But from my perspective a lot of this really has to do with a lack of ability to communicate public health research, including public health risks to decision-makers.

So how do we deal with this? Well first of all, I guess it is a matter of acknowledging that communication is essential to convert scientific knowledge to actual action – also in TB control. It’s difficult to pursued decision-makers of the importance of paying attention to the TB situation and react accordingly, but there is a need to look into how it can be improved. Improved science and risk communication does in no way solve the problem on its own, but I do believe that a better understanding of how TB risks can be communicated, and an understanding of the position and incentives of the audiences (in this case decision-makers) can contribute a great deal. The experts need to been given some training and insights into science communication, so that can contribute to the discussions themselves – it is not enough to just hire a bunch of communication people to take care of it. Science communication theories and research have a lot to offer. The link just has to made and prioritized already from future experts enter into the academic training in universities etc.


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.