Timing is everything

By Shaun Hendy 17/02/2014

Today, I will be reflecting on the importance of good science communication at the University of Waikato’s International Symposium on “Transforming Engagement on Controversial Science and Technology”. There is a lot to say, and a lot that has been said, about science communication. In this post, however, I want to reflect on an aspect of science communication that is often overlooked. 

Sir Peter Gluckman, in his role as the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, wrote last year about scientists, the media and society. In his essay, he warns scientists of the dangers of becoming advocates for a particular cause, instead arguing that scientists need to act as knowledge brokers for society. Sir Peter’s article is well worth reading, but I think it neglects an important aspect of science communication – namely, that of first response.

Scientists as first responders

Both the 2011 and 2013 winners of the Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize have distinguished themselves by their willingness to step forward during a crisis.

On 4 September 2010, Dr Mark Quigley from the University of Canterbury was woken at 4.35am by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake … and in its aftermath became the spokesperson for the New Zealand science community. Mark was not chosen for this role by the Royal Society of New Zealand or the Ministry of Civil Defence. Rather, in the midst this crisis, he stepped up – reacting quickly, calmly and knowledgeably to the unfolding events. Over the coming months, Mark’s face became familiar to many of us, as he explained the science behind what Canterbury was experiencing and the subsequent risks it faced.

Mark was in the right place at the right time to act, and he was prepared. He had been blogging about his research at DrQuigs.com for a number of years prior to the 2010-11 earthquake sequence. When the first earthquake struck, his blog provided a fast, reliable communication platform for getting his science out. After the quakes, the readership of his blog sky-rocketed as the public turned to it for information on unfamiliar phenomena like liquefaction and the risks of aftershocks.

When the 22 February 2011 earthquake struck, it was noticeable how much better the geoscience community was prepared. Mark’s efforts after the September quake had set an important example for the science community of the need for an effective first response. After a major disaster, we have learned that the public and the media have an immediate need for scientific information and analysis to help them understand what is happening and to allow them to make good decisions.

This is something that can only come from well-prepared, articulate scientists, who can think on their feet and who are comfortable using modern social media. Such a response is not something that a corporate communications team or a national academy can provide.

Fonterra gets the bot

If Mark showed us the value of good science communication in a crisis, Fonterra’s recent contamination scare illustrated the costs when science is communicated poorly. In August 2013, New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries ordered a recall of products containing whey protein from several batches produced by Fonterra in 2012, due to the possibility of contamination by Clostridium botulinum. This quickly became international news, as some of the products affected by the recall included infant formula sold around the world.

This was a major crisis for New Zealand that saw our dollar plummet by US$0.03 in just a few days. As the story unfolded, as with the Canterbury earthquakes, the New Zealand public once again expected timely information and analysis from the science community.

Yet little was forthcoming (in part, perhaps, because one of our major research organisations was involved commercially). In the absence of expert comment, the vacuum was filled by speculation (e.g. Vet links botulism to farms not pipes) and misunderstandings (e.g. Fonterra Fallout: Romano quits). As president of the NZ Association of Scientists at the time, I had to field a query from the media as to why the scientific community had gone quiet.

One of the few scientists who did step up was Dr Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist at the University of Auckland. [An honourable mention should also go to Prof John Brooks of AUT (see one of his blog posts here).] Like Mark Quigley, Siouxsie is an active blogger, but unlike Mark, her expertise did not directly align with the science behind unfolding crisis. Dismayed by the lack of expert comment, Siouxsie blogged to debunk misinformation and explain the science behind the tests that had been used to detect the contamination.

Sacred cows

The need for the science community to respond to the public need for facts in a crisis undermines one of the ‘sacred cows’ of science communication: that scientists should only speak to the media on areas of their expertise. The problem with this is that real-world crises inevitably stretch the limit of any one scientist’s expertise. Climate change, for instance, is such a complex issue that no one scientist has the in-depth knowledge to cover every angle.

In the past, we had the luxury of specialist science reporters who were able to talk to a range of scientists to deal with this complexity. Today, few journalists have the time, expertise or network of scientific contacts to do this well. While the Science Media Centre plays an important role in connecting media with scientists, the onus now falls much more on these scientists to provide context for their science. This will often require stepping outside the bounds of their expertise.

And when stories develop rapidly, it is even more important to be prepared to push the boundaries of expertise. This is not an easy thing to do, especially in a short time frame, so it is not surprising that scientists are often reluctant to do it. Yet the public need scientific information in such crises, and any scientist who steps up will almost certainly be better than none.

Being prepared

Last October, the report of an external inquiry into the contamination scare (commissioned by Fonterra’s Board) was critical of Fonterra’s external communications and recommended that the organisation adopt greater openness and transparency in its crisis communication. One of the inquiry’s key recommendations was that Fonterra:

“Establish a network of external experts ready to advise in a crisis on key food safety risks (e.g. chemical, microbiological, biological), complementing internal expertise.”

This is good advice not just for Fonterra, but for New Zealand’s entire science community. We must ensure that there are more than just a handful of scientists who are prepared to inform the public in a crisis. These scientists must be comfortable with the new forms of media, including social media like blogging and Twitter. They must understand the pressures that the traditional media face in dealing with complex scientific issues on short deadlines.

And above all, they need to be given proper credit for their work. Science communication takes considerable effort, but despite its obvious importance to society, it often receives little academic recognition. Rewarding individual scientists like Mark and Siouxsie for their efforts after the fact is all very well, but if we want to be ready for the next crisis, we need to ensure that we prepare as a community.

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