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From the bench to the BBC: Science communication during a pandemic

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Published: 24 Nov 2021

Science has never played a more central role in people’s lives than it has during the COVID-19 pandemic. The rapid progression of knowledge and the record-breaking speed of vaccine development showcased the importance and impact of science. It also highlighted the iterative processes of scientific advancement. For researchers of any discipline, science’s incremental progression is nothing new, but for the public who have witnessed this process in real-time over the past two years, there is the potential for uncertainty and confusion.

Experts from many different fields, some of whom have become household names, have been key to explaining to the public and the government how the SARS-CoV-2 virus is transmitted and advising on how to best protect ourselves from the disease it causes, COVID-19. High vaccination coverage and the resultant decrease in severe COVID-19 illness and death in the adult population in the UK is, in large part, due to effective communication from medical practitioners, scientists, and public health experts.

Social media is a convenient way for scientists to provide bite-sized information and gives non-scientists an insight into the successes and frustrations that come with the job. It brings science out of the ‘ivory tower’ and, when communicated effectively, has the potential to make it accessible and understandable to anyone that is interested. Of course, we cannot discuss social media without mentioning one of its biggest, and most dangerous, drawbacks – misinformation. Social media sites allow anyone to be a self-professed expert without the usual vetting applied to guests in mainstream media publications or broadcasts. Anonymous accounts sharing ridiculous conspiracy theories are easier to spot as misinformation, but there is a more insidious form of misinformation – social media users who make false claims about their medical or scientific qualifications. Sharing opinions about science under this guise can lead to misinterpretation or misrepresentation of data. This can have dangerous consequences, as people that receive their information mainly from social media sites are more likely to be exposed to misinformation and as a result are more likely to be resistant to vaccination.

The first media request I received was in early 2020, before the novel virus that had emerged in Wuhan, China had been named. I was asked to discuss an increase in cases of measles in UK universities. I was extremely nervous and felt grossly underqualified but that first interview taught me a lot. Since then, I have been involved with over 800 TV, radio or print media appearances – from BBC News to The Sacramento Bee (and everything in-between)!

A comment I have often received is that I ‘don’t sound like a scientist’. At first, I was quite offended by this, but I came to realise that when non-scientists say this it simply means they understood what I was saying. Scientists have been living through this pandemic too. Many of us have experienced loss, grief, poor mental health and job insecurity. To make an impression on the public, empathy from experts and leaders can be just as important as providing accurate information.

There are still issues with equality and representation in science (36% of COVID-19 experts in the media were women and only 1.8% of STEM academics in the UK are black). We need scientists from all backgrounds so the public can more easily identify with us. I no longer want to hear ‘you don’t sound like a scientist’, because I hope the perception of what a scientist is will change.

Asking academic scientists to be science communicators, with no training and little acknowledgement or recognition, is yet another addition to their ever-increasing list of duties. Having said that, I would encourage anyone interested in science communication to get involved. If experts do not provide answers to the publics’ questions, it provides room for misinformation to spread. I would like to share a few tips from what I have learned over the past couple of years in the hope that it may be useful for anyone interested in getting involved with science communication:

  1. Prepare, but not too much. Ask the producer, reporter, or event organiser what the topic is and if they have a list of possible questions. Check your information is correct and have a few facts and figures to hand. Preparation takes time, but make sure it does not take too much! I once spent two hours preparing for a live radio interview only for a listener to derail it by calling in and claiming 5G causes COVID-19. I will never get that time back.

  2. Explain without patronising. Science communication courses will often say ‘know your audience’, which is fine for presenting at a conference or judging a school science fair but if your audience is the general public, it is much harder to tailor how you discuss a subject. Someone may not have prior knowledge of a topic, but that does not mean they won’t understand it when fully explained without the jargon and acronyms. This takes practice and willing family and friends!

  3. Be yourself. Contrary to what some people may think, scientists are human! Your personality can be a useful tool in science communication: If people can relate to you they are more likely to listen to what you have to say. Media appearances can be stressful, especially live TV, but how often do we get the opportunity to discuss science with people who are interested?

  4. Avoid the comments section. As scientists we continuously look for feedback from reviewers of manuscripts, students, colleagues, and collaborators. If you need guidance on how something went, ask a friend or if you want an honest answer, ask the communications department at your university or institute if they can watch/read/listen to something and provide feedback. Do not look for feedback in the comments section and do not search your name on social media. If you do see something negative, do not engage, just get to know how the block button works!

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Published: 24 Nov 2021

About the author

Lindsay Broadbent

Dr Lindsay Broadbent is currently a Wellcome Trust ISSF research fellow in the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast. Dr Broadbent’s expertise is in respiratory virus-host interactions, focusing on RSV and more recently SARS-CoV-2. Dr Broadbent has been involved with science outreach and engagement for many years. During the COVID-19 pandemic she has been a regular contributor for national and international media with over 800 appearances to date. She believes that science communication is an important aspect of any scientific career. 

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