5 November 2018

The inaugural #SCICOM100 conference opened in fine style, with insight and debate into social media in science communication, lessons and challenges in using indigenous languages, and a demonstration of how engaged research works on the ground in South Africa. Dr Peter Weingart, SA Chair in Science Communication at Stellenbosch University, opened the conference by saying that the time for systematic and rigorous science communication research in SA has arrived.

Dr Beverley Damonse from the NRF laid out the past, present and future context of science communication policy in SA, before Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala (President of African Gong) set the tone for the day with honest words about what still needs to be done in African science communication. She also spelled out a new approach that makes science communication about the people as much as about the science (see video).

“As science communicators, we need to stop thinking of the public as empty vessels that we need to fill.” – Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala, African Gong

Responsible research, from Europe to South Africa

The day started with a session on the Nucleus Project, an international effort to promote responsible research and innovation (RRI) both globally and in South Africa. Dr Anne Dijkstra from the University of Twente introduced the global Nucleus Project, and shared their work in South Africa which reviewed the current state of RRI in the country. Locally, the Nucleus Project is implemented by the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, via communications manager Penny Haworth. Haworth explained how they have embedded the concept of engaged researchers into SAIAB’s strategy and governance frameworks.

South African researchers don’t know the term ‘Responsible Research & Innovation’ (RRI), so we prefer to call it ’engaged research.’” – Penny Haworth, SAIAB

Haworth and Prof Janice Limson (SA Chair in Biotechnology Innovation and Engagement and Director of the Rhodes University Biotechnology Innovation Centre) both talked about the value of bringing communities into their research work. Limson’s students use community engagement as a way to test prototypes and understand the needs of the communities they are trying to uplift.

Language is power

SA science communicators and educators are waking up to the need for science to be communicated in people’s own language. But how does this translate into practice, and what are the challenges and benefits for audiences and practitioners?

Derek Fish of the UniZulu Science Centre set out to answer some of these questions, and found that pupils seem to be more comfortable with science materials presented in their mother tongue. This was especially noticeable in rural schools, who performed very poorly in his initial surveys.

“We’ve designed matric learning materials in isiZulu as well as English, thinking the Department of Basic Education would be happy. They were not, but we distributed them anyway.” – Derek Fish, UniZulu Science Centre

Continuing the theme of science education, Lauren Fouche presented her research into simplifying the language of the science syllabus. Using the principles of good science communication such as avoiding jargon, using the active voice in writing, and always thinking about the reader when creating these materials made the material easier for teachers and learners to read and understand.

Michael Ellis from the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) shared the agency’s success in placing science journalism trainees in community radio stations, where a large portion of the population can access popular science stories in their own language.

These new science communication efforts blaze a new trail for reaching audiences in their own language, but also present a new set of unique challenges for science communicators and their audiences.

Social media, for better or worse

While Twitter has redefined how information is shared in the 21st century, it has also allowed a few influential alternative information advocates to spread their message. George Claassen called this a “Twitter virus”, while Francois van Schalkwyk mapped it using some data analysis – and it ended up looking like an actual virus.

Van Schalkwyk presented a sophisticated analysis of anti-vaccination sentiment on social media platforms such as Twitter. He demonstrated that anti-vaxxers use credible scientific sources to push their agenda and try to overwhelm the vaccination conversation by sheer volume of tweets.

Sticking with anti-science sentiment on social media, Anton Binneman (Stakeholder Manager for the Square Kilometre Array), and the rest of the SKA SA team were surprised to see the negative sentiments that came from the “Save the Karoo” Facebook group, who claimed to want to “protect the Karoo” from the MeerKAT and SKA radio telescope projects.

Binneman used social media analysis to understand the communities on the ground and on social media, and shaped the SKA’s communication efforts based on these insights. They found anti-science and anti-government sentiments influenced by people who knew the technical science of radio astronomy and were willing to use it in an misguided attempt to protect the Karoo.

“Social media hasn’t just swallowed journalism. It has swallowed everything.” – George Claassen, Centre for Science and Technology Mass Communication, Stellenbosch University

Claassen called for celebrity scientists on Twitter to counter alternative science by “warrior mother” celebrities like Jenny McCarthy. He talked about the role that ordinary scientists can play on Twitter to help “clean the dirty mirror reflecting science.” Finally, he suggested that scientists should open Twitter accounts, take control of the information being told about their discovery, and put themselves in front of their own story.

SA’s first science communication conference, #SCICOM100 is about conversations around topics relevant to science communication research and practice in South Africa. Join the conversation on Twitter or Facebook, and keep an eye on ww0.sun.ac.za/scicom for daily recaps.