Can we close the gap?

A person works inside a laboratory.

How we can start communicating Science effectively…

We all know that scientific discoveries and their practical applications, be it in the fields of medicine, economics, technology etc. promote industrial and social development and that research, innovation and new technologies to a large extent can influence and determine economic, social, political and even ethical dimensions of modern societies. This presupposes that scientific advances and findings have to be communicated to the grand public in both an accurate and understandable way ensuring that the information reaches the people. But since years there rules an unsatisfactory relationship between science, media (referring to printed press, internet, TV and radio) and the grand public.

The complexity of science and research can and should be simplified so that it is understandable and accessible to the grand public. In this process however, the content should not be changed or superficialised. Too often there is a too shallow and one-sided coverage of content instead of critical analysis. Correlation is often (willingly) mistaken with causation. This deficit is often concealed with complicated terms, muddled up stories and incomprehensible graphs and figures. This nuisance can be attributed to the fact that publishers often follow different interests and morph information according to them. Often scientific studies mentioned or published in popular press aren’t even cited in academic journals. According to me broadcasters and journalists thereby do not meet their educational mandate. This is also reinforced by the social media where information is spread uncontrolled.

But is this mischief really that concerning? Yes, it is! Taking a deeper look into the field of medical research, miscommunication of observational data is probably the leading contributor to health-care confusion. In Germany, despite being viewed a highly developed country a huge proportion (54%) of the inhabitants do not have sufficient health competence. Health competence, also referred to as health literacy, is the sum of all cognitive and social skills which determine the motivation and ability of individuals to gain access to, understand and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health. This simply means the ability of people to make the right decisions concerning their health, be it in prevention, in a healing process or in coping with degenerative diseases. The access and the type (quality, understandability etc.) of information present – be it in the internet, on TV or the radio – is decisive in the peoples understanding. An example for fake science news that can have a direct negative impact is in the field of oncology – “specialists” publish unrealistic promises of therapy possibilities.

Scientific contents have to be objectively represented and should at the same time mediate the relevance and importance of the research. People should have the possibility to form their own opinion and should be inspired to think critically and to act. The right application of media in the conveying of scientific research has the potential to make long-term and sustainable changes in society; people can be made aware of problems, solutions and advances in science as well as prevention methods. In this process we should not shy away from unaccustomed and creative formats.

But not only journalists and broadcasters should be made responsible for this mischief. Researchers themselves should interact more openly with the grand public and should be able to present and explain their findings. They for example should increase their public presence by making direct statements or by attending interviews and public panel discussions. This also presupposes a closer communication between scientists, that they have to network and have to become more present in social media, similar to politicians, to reach a greater public. Researchers also have the responsibility to convey their information accurately to journalists and to engage directly with them when information was misinterpreted. Communicating science is complex task and a skill that has to be acquired. Communication courses should therefore be an integral part of scientific degree programmes.

I plead for the responsible and professional handling of information and data. This is the obligation of everyone working in research. We have to start honing skills to make science accessible to all – an interdisciplinary approach is very important in this process. Researchers, journalists, broadcasters, computer scientists, publishers, graphic designers and politicians have to start working together on presentation and publishing concepts of scientific research data. This also requires rules and regulations in the communication of scientific information as incorrect or incomplete information can have drastic implications. On the other hand, strengthening scientific understanding in a society can have positive impacts in many sectors of society.