Science communication in Africa: Scientists need to step up.

When I embarked on my journey in science communication, my initial plan was to have a news site that primarily featured life science research by African scientists. My hope was to demystify the life sciences for the African public, as well as shine a spotlight on the advances we are continuously making. To the general public, life science, especially in the form of biotechnology has a sense of otherness. It is largely inaccessible, yet it undoubtedly affects everyone. From the vaccines and drugs we use, to the food products we consume.

Scientific misinformation, which is not unique to Africa, leads to harmful practices such as people not vaccinating their babies, and not completing their antibiotic courses. It is therefore important for scientists to share their work with the public in manners that are easily understandable. This of course is not always possible when it comes to personal research projects, as some of us work in research spaces where our work is proprietary. But I believe that we are in a unique position as scientists to make science in a broader context, easier to understand, and more accessible.

A lot, if not most of the life sciences research that is carried out on the African continent is funded by taxpayer’s money, which in a way makes scientists accountable to the public. Billions of dollars per year go into research, yet most citizens do not know what research is being carried out. As a matter of principle, it is important that people know what their money is being spent on.

A UNESCO survey was carried out in 2012 to determine whether a science-specific African news service was required as a source for journalists on the continent. The survey revealed that journalists have trouble accessing African science news due to poor communication from press offices at research institutes and universities. They also cited local scientists as generally being inaccessible, and distrusting of journalists. As a result, journalists source African news from international science news services such as EurekaAlert! and SciDev.Net. The scant African news, which is reported on these sites is primarily funded by, and driven by international research agencies. This gives the unfortunate impression that African science is not working to solve local problems.

In the absence of a dedicated African science news service, local scientists have a critical role in informally bridging the knowledge gap. Part of what makes a successful scientist is to be an effective communicator. However, this should not be limited to peer-to-peer communication, but it should extend to translating what we do, to society at large. Currently, most people still get their science news from traditional media such as television and newspapers. However, the Internet has the potential to be an influential medium in science communication. We need to formulate ways in which we are engaging but simultaneously driving home important messages. The Internet has the advantage of providing a two-way means of communication. When concepts are lost in translation it is easier to catch on, and correct misunderstandings. It is also a way for scientists to be challenged in how well they understand their fields of expertise. Like Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.

Online science communication can be fun, and there are various options based on one’s personal preferences and outreach goals: YouTube, podcasts, blogs, LinkedIn, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter. These mediums are complementary to each other, and content is easily shared between them. They also have the added advantage of not being limited by geography. Credibility is key when engaging on social media, especially with pseudo-scientists invested in spreading misinformation. A link to one’s affiliated academic institution helps, as does the connections one has. Networking by interacting with influential scientists on social media can help in building one’s reputation. Every connection is valuable, especially on more open platforms like Twitter.

Michelle Mukonyora

6 June 2016