6 November 2018

Day two of #SCICOM100 was all about science and politics, science and culture, and the evaluation of science communication and engagement efforts. We heard from researchers and practitioners about the theory and practice of reaching policymakers with useful research, before starting a discussion around the changing role of science as a cultural authority. Much of the day was taken up with stories of how to evaluate your science communication or engagement efforts, before concluding with a lively session about storytelling, hip hop and dance as vehicles for engaging meaningfully with diverse communities. South African palaeosciences took a front seat, with presentations from several communicators and researchers working at Maropeng and the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences.

“Changing beliefs around GMO risks is not easy, but we’re taking on the challenge. A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step” – Dr Liezel Gouws, Biosafety South Africa

Politics, policy and the authority of science

Professor Dietram Sheufele started the day with an insightful review of the state of media and communication in the 21st century. He said that growing polarisation in political ideology coupled with opinion-driven news shaped for individual preferences has created a sort of perfect storm, seemingly designed to push people away from objective science media and news based on facts.

“To protect our identities and our belief systems, we’re adjusting the facts to fit our beliefs, instead of adjusting our beliefs to fit the facts” – Prof Dietram Sheufele, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Other presenters in the first session talked about practical ways to reach policy-makers, and how to influence not just policy formation but policy implementation as well. This was followed by Professor Martin Bauer (London School of Economics), who shared his ideas about how scientists’ authority in certain cultures differs, and how society’s perception of that authority has fluctuated over the last 100 years.

Reflecting on SA science communication gone right

After lunch, we heard from organisations like Biosafety South Africa, the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), and Maropeng Visitor Centre about ways that they are measuring the impact of science communication efforts around South Africa. This marks a shift towards more meaningful impact assessment in local science communication practice, and away from rose-tinted assessments of years past.

Ismael Rafols of Universitat Politecnica de Valencia reviewed the dangers and challenges of universal indicators for science and innovation that he had come across in his work on Open Science, before Dr Eric Jensen and Prof Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan talked participants through their evaluation plan for the highly successful MOOC, Extinctions: Past and Present. While their evaluation showed that the online course elicited small changes in attitudes, almost all course participants had a previous interest in science and in nature, demonstrating the common science communicator’s problem of preaching to the converted.

“Communicating science to the well-educated, well-off elite who already hold favourable opinions of science is a common issue in science engagement that we don’t speak about enough. We run the risk of reinforcing social divides” – Prof Eric Jensen, University of Warwick

Science through stories, music and dance

Storytelling is an important pillar of good science communication, as Marina Joubert said when introducing the final session of the day: sharing science through music, writing, and dance.

Mike Bruton (author of Great South African Inventions) is a born storyteller who has dedicated his life and career telling the story of research and scientists in South Africa. Using the South African science story of the coelacanth, he kept his audience rapt narrating how books and radio broadcasts enthralled the world with the discovery of the fish everyone thought was extinct.

Through many examples of good science storytelling, he showed the effects of the information value chain: information and knowledge leads to wisdom, which begets a changed mindset and behaviour, which influences others to change their own mindsets as well.

Rob Inglis (Jive Media Africa) sees the high number of adolescent youths in South Africa who do not work and are not pursuing any form of education as an opportunity rather than a challenge. The Hip Hop Health initiative involves South African youth in the process of science communication, by performing the art of spoken word. Participants do their own research on a health topic in order to write dope lyrics and spit some rhymes on water-borne pathogens or HIV/AIDS.

“Hip hop can disrupt power relationships and get learners and scientists on the same level. Trust and collaboration brings researchers and communities together to build bridges between science and society” – Robert Inglis, Jive Media Africa

After the mediums of writing and music, came the human body and its ability to tell a story through dance. This is one of the initiatives by Palaeontological Trust (PAST) to tell the story of the origins of the human race. CEO Andrea Leenen and researcher Rob Blumenschine talked about and showed footage of the “Walking Tall” initiative which dramatises Homo sapiens’ evolutionary journey in the Cradle of Humankind in Africa.

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. All images: SCPSPhoto. All text: ScienceLink. All video: ScienceLink/Sibusiso Biyela.