The science community should recognize the influence that research has when it’s translated for everyone.
Guest contributor Thais Moraes
The conference comm4science – communicating science beyond the lab – in Heidelberg, on the 6th and 7th of May, put together many popular names involved in science communication both in and outside of Germany. They all highlighted the importance of communicating science. But they also recognized the many problems we face today concerning dialogue between scientists and the public. In my opinion, one critical point is to make scientists understand how essential it is to share their research with society.
The result of good communication
Dr. Katrin Schaller, a science writer at the Cancer Prevention division of DKFZ (The German Cancer Research Center), showed us how effectively communicated statements supported by scientific data can lead to big changes in our society.
In her talk, she spoke about the measures used in Germany, in particular by the DKFZ, to stop smoking in enclosed areas.
The Cancer Prevention division at the DKFZ is a World Health Organization collaborating centre for tobacco control. One of their tasks is to produce publications, based on scientific data, containing recommendations on tobacco prevention.
The resulting series of fact sheets, ‘From Science to Politics,’ aimed to attract attention and to convince society and policy makers in Germany of the importance of tobacco control. They were designed to mobilize the government in creating a new federal law for a smoke-free hospitality industry. The DKFZ chose to inform and engage people rather than going straight to the authorities. This measure leads to public support – a powerful tool when engaging with politicians.
With the active participation of society, and the help of politicians able and willing to transform it into a law, the smoking ban was implemented in September 2007. One-nil for research and science communication! It was obvious to see, as she spoke, the satisfaction Schaller had from her work.
What happens when we don’t communicate science effectively?
There are also bad examples, where a failure in science communication leads to big mistakes.
The introduction of the HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccine in the United States was one of those cases. Badly introduced and immediately thrust into political debate, HPV, which is typically sexually transmitted between humans and often leads to cancer, is a great example of the problems faced by scientists when there’s not enough good scientific communication. The story goes like this.
To avoid the competition of GSK, Merck had their drug – the HPV vaccine Gardasil – approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) through the agency’s fast-track review process. Shortly after, a massive campaign was launched to implement mandatory vaccination. A government agency’s recommendation of universal immunization for-11-to-12-year-old girls suddenly and unexpectedly led to severe resistance.
The parents ended up learning about the vaccine not from pediatricians, but from news coverage. The idea that the vaccination itself would stimulate sexual promiscuity spread. Today the rate of vaccinated adolescents in the US is critically low.
HBV (hepatitis B) is another sexually transmitted disease that can also lead to cancer. While only 35% of the adolescents in the USA took the HPV vaccine, the numbers for HBV vaccine coverage reached 90%. Dan M. Kahan, Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School, analyzed the HPV vaccine story. According to him, the disparity resides on the communication approach. How the public learned about the two vaccines made a huge difference in their acceptance rate. As Schaller discussed, there must be the will but also a science communication strategy. Without structure and preparation, relevant science just stays silent or generates misconceptions.
The weather in Heidelberg on the 6th and 7th of May was perfect for a long walk outside. But comm4sicence was full. Filled with young, dedicated people who understand the importance of delivering clear scientific information to the media, policymakers, and to society. It’s not an easy task and there are many problems ahead to solve. But it is an important part of our jobs as researchers, and can even be a full-time job for some of us. For me, it was exciting to see how the new generation of scientists are engaged and interested in building a more fruitful interaction between science and society.
Thaís Moraes is a research fellow currently at Heidelberg University in Germany, where she researches Zika virus. She is interested in how science can help us have healthier and happier lives.