26 May 2020

By Karien Joubert

On Tuesday 26 May, the PCST (Public Communication of Science and Technology) Network invited all its members, as well as registered attendees of the postponed PCST 2020 Conference, to participate in the first of a series of online webinars. Science communication and the Covid-19 crisis was the topic of the day, with several speakers refereeing to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences as a “wicked” problem. (Wicked problems are typically multi-faceted social problems that are hard to solve, for example inequality, political instability, disease, or food insecurity.)

The webinar brought together science communication researchers from across the globe presenting their current Covid-19-related research and views.

Professor Matt Nisbet discussed how differences in framing of pandemic responses are playing out in the USA, with particular focus on the tension between an innovation approach and an infrastructure approach.

Dr Marina Joubert focused on the moment when scientists become media stars during times of crisis, with South Africa’s Salim Abdool Karim as a case study. She emphasized the importance of credibility and accessibility for scientists to connect with the public, as well as harder-to-define elements such as warmth and emotion.

Professor Dominique Brossard discussed the importance of universities and local governments to work together in finding and communicating solutions with an emphasis on her experiences in Wisconsin, USA. She noted how pandemics are not merely hard science issues, but ultimately also deal with people; and thus social scientists have much to offer to the current international discussion.

Professor Massimiano Bucchi discussed two Italian surveys of public perceptions during Covid-19 and pointed out how traditional media generally tend to receive more attention during times of uncertainty.

Dr Anwesha Chakraborty explained the Covid-19 situation in India with reference to the mixing of modern and traditional health ideas in the country’s Covid-19 communication and the key actors in such communication. Interestingly, the Indian prime minister has also taken up the role of main public health communicator during this time, and despite lockdown and other measures, his popularity with the populace seems to have grown.

PhD candidate Barbara Gormley presented some ideas from her doctoral research on pandemics, focusing on the differences between the current situation with Covid-19 and the 2009 swine-flu pandemic, with a focus on activities on twitter.

The need for international collaboration and inter-disciplinary involvement in confronting “the wicked problem” was a hallmark of the discussion. It is not simply a problem for single scientists or even select groups, but rather one that requires input from all disciplines and sectors of society.

Watch a recording of the webinar.

After some uncertainty about the details of the next PCST conference, Prof Brian Trench announced that the conference will now be re-branded as “PCST 2020 + 1”. It will take place at the end of May 2021 in Aberdeen, Scotland. A call for additional proposals will go out in due course.