SciComm Roundtable – Part 2 – The Role of Academics and Scientific Organizations in the Fight Against COVID-19

This is the second of a 3-part series that will close the first season of Papa PhD.

The world is still very much fighting and trying to understand the COVID-19 pandemic at the moment this episode is airing, so I am bringing you the interventions of my guests on a panel that took place in May, titled “Scientists and the News Cycle – What Role Can We Play?”

In this second part, I discuss with Mónica Feliú-Mójer, Ph.D., with Joana Lobo Antunes, and with Adriana Bankston about how to connect with your audience during the COVID-19 crisis, and about what their views are on how the scientific community as a whole can engage in this conversation, at the community level and at the government and policy level.

Part 3, coming up next week, will focus on the what is happening on the science policy side, and on how you, and the scientific community can be heard and contribute to the efforts that are already ongoing.

Episode transcript:

David Mendes: These last few weeks have seen the surfacing of a host of fake news, misinformed statements by government leaders, conspiracy theories, that have fostered movements of COVID skepticism and resistance to health and safety guidelines.

And, One of the obstacles, of course, one of the things, of course, is to make sure that the news, the right news, the true news are out there and have the spotlight, but there’s also the question of bringing the message to the public in a language and in a way that talks to them, right? And that will reach them intellectually and emotionally, and that will make  them act upon what they heard. Monica, the question is for you – based on your experience on the ground, and you’ve already alluded to it a little bit, because you said that the governor was making a statement that was totally not science-based. The question is how well has the scientific community been able to push back against misinformation that’s been surfacing about the coronavirus and COVID-19 and, given the problems you’ve identified and you’re dealing with in Puerto Rico, how can scientists develop and deploy culturally appropriate solutions in this context?

Mónica Feliú-Mójer: In Puerto Rico, the scientific community has been incredibly active and engaged in communicating the, the science and the implications and different sectors of society of COVID 19. We’re trying our best to address misinformation, but, you know, I can’t compete with the secretary of health – that’s the person you were thinking about – you know, his platform is way bigger than mine. And so, while we’re doing our best, I think in terms of the expressions and the comments he made, that the damage is done. That once misinformation is out there it’s hard to combat because people become familiar with it, and so it’s a tricky thing to do.

However, we’ve been very active. I will say I have been really encouraged by the visibility that scientists, in Puerto Rico – you know, that’s, my experience is predominantly in Puerto Rico – that scientists have, you know, I never thought I would hear a government official talk about PCRs, pretty much every day. You know, I’m talking about PCRs multiple times a day in the media, and so I think there are some encouraging signs and opportunities in terms of the visibility of scientists, in terms of – people want to hear from scientists. In Puerto Rico, I mentioned there is a lack of credibility in the government, and although we don’t really have surveys that tell us the population in Puerto Rico trust in science, this is where the trust stands – like in the United States, there are regular surveys that measure trust on scientists. We don’t have that in Puerto Rico. but from my experience, people trust scientists, they want to hear from them, they believe that scientists have their best interest in mind. I’ve certainly been seeing an increased interest from the media. And so one of the approaches that we’re taking with Ciencia Puerto Rico, that we’re a digital platform, and so we’re using all of the digital tools that we have at our disposal. We’re collaborating with print newspapers, we’re collaborating with TV, with am radio stations and Puerto Rico radio and TV and print –  newspapers are still heavily, read and watched, and listened by the population. And so we’re using different platforms to engage different types of the population. Our core approach has always been to make science, culturally relevant, so, you know, use messengers that look like people, sound like people, sound like their audience, so that people can see themselves reflected in the scientists, to see tha we’re just regular Puerto Ricans like them. But also to use the lingo, the popular culture for references, so that people, can really grasp how things are relevant  why the things that we’re telling, you know, why does wearing masks, why is that important? So, you know, I think when looking at other places and scientists trying to engage with their own communities, thinking about how do I meet people, where they are, how do I connect the science, the concepts, and the importance of those concepts that you’re trying to convey, how do you connect that with the reality of people, with the things that people care about, with their values, with their beliefs. How do I use that to engage them in a conversation? That’s going to be really important.

David Mendes: Yeah. And it’s really important – it must be quite challenging – actually adjusting the messaging to different publics and different cultures.

This brings me to a question which is: adjusting the vocabulary, the messenger, like you were saying. What you just said elicits in me a question, which is, this counterweight or this balance between packaging the messaging well for different publics, having the right messengers, – and that’s a very interesting point – a person that looks like them, I hadn’t thought of that before. And then, there’s the other thing that I kind of alluded to before, which is bringing up the scientific literacy of the population at large. And the question is – and I kind of want to ask the question to Joanna and Monica – are these two separate issues and what role can the scientific community play in either one? Because I feel that they are, but I really like to have your opinion.

Joana Lobo Antunes: I was still stuck with what Monica said, because, well, the work that we have been doing in the past few years, it’s been much of that. And I was discussing science communication in Portugal with other colleagues just last week, and we talked about that, there’s the value of proximity. You cannot change mentalities. If people feel that the scientists are over there and I am over here, you know, people want to listen to scientists, but then there’s this problem that scientists are kind of… they speak weird, they don’t speak the same they don’t use the same words as we do. So as science communicator, one of the things that we have been working on is on making them use this different set of words so that people can relate to them. And also one of the most important things is that you never, ever wear a lab coat. You wear your street clothes when you go talk to people. You don’t take your lab coat because that immediately creates a distance. And that’s the stereotype, you know? So coming back to your question, I really wanted to add this because this is really important to do effective science communication – working on proximity. And that’s the the clothes you wear, the words you use, the language you use, the way you frame your science. So you really need to reset those tools, and that makes all the difference between people actually hearing you or just saying I’m doing this because they said so, or I really understood what he said. It’s not, I’m not just trusting my life because he or she is a scientist, but because I understood, it spoke to me, and I can relate to that. And this is very important, not the authority argument, but the empathy argument. This is super important. And the work you are doing in Puerto Rico, using Spanish… many times when I, when I give classes to scientists to help them engage better language, it’s completely different if I can do the course in Portuguese or I have to do it in English, because I have foreigners, because people are doing their PhDs over here. And it’s completely different. All the body language changes and the way you contextualize our science if you’re talking your mother language, or you’re talking in English, it’s completely different.

And it’s, it’s very interesting to see that happening. So I really think the work you’re doing in Puerto Rico is super important and using the language.

David Mendes: You make a really good point. And I can only imagine, because Monica was talking about running a, an iron man every day and I’m sure that this groundwork must be very, very taxing and eventually very rewarding. But right now, It must be tiring for sure.

Mónica Feliú-Mójer: Oh, yes.

David Mendes: But the question was changing, adapting the messaging versus bringing up the scientific literacy.

Joana Lobo Antunes: That’s a huge challenge because, of course, there’s the question of the language and the empathy, but you have to be very clear on this word means this and not something else. So we have to find an equilibrium, you know, so sometimes, when I’m coaching a scientist on how he, or she can talk about that to the, to the general  audience, I say: can we say that in a different way? And they say, “no, I really need to use this word.” And I say “okay, you use that word, but you explain what it means, because otherwise people will not get it”, because there are so many words that we use – I’m talking general words now, like “risk”. People listen to risk and they think of danger.

When scientists talk about risk, we are talking about probabilities. So sometimes just framing it differently is if we talk about theories, people think it’s just an idea. And many times theories are proven, like the theory of evolution. So we have to remember sometimes the words we use have different meanings for the people that are listening to us, but other times we really need to use those words. Like, if I’m talking about mitochondria I have to use the word mitochondria, but then I have to explain what the mitochondria is. And then I can continue using it. And sometimes, I can continue to say mitochondria, comma, the organelle inside the cell that gives me energy, you know?

So yeah, it’s challenging.

David Mendes: Monica, do you have an idea of how things are going in terms of, education, basic education, you know, from kindergarten, in Puerto Rico in terms of scientific literacy. I know there’s a lot of accent that has been put on STEAM and in STEM. How are things in Puerto Rico going in that sense? What’s the next generation going to look like when something like COVID hits thirty years from now?

Mónica Feliú-Mójer: I don’t know. One thing I wanted to add to what Joana was saying is, when you’re communicating, your audience is always, you always have to center your audience. It’s never about you as a communicator  – it’s always about your audience. So you always have to begin from a place of respect and empathy for that audience.

So when you’re thinking about what are the words that I’m going to choose, you shouldn’t think about what is it that I want to say. It’s “why does this matter to my audience? How do I frame it? How do I present it in a way that they’re going to be able, to understand it, to use that information?” You know, you, you can have different objectives, but it’s really, really important to start from a place of respect. You should never underestimate the intelligence of your audience, but you should never overestimate how much they know about a subject. And that is true for scientists, too. I’m a neurobiologist by training and if I have a physicist who starts talking to me as if they were talking to a colleague, I’m not going to get it, I don’t understand the language, I don’t understand the jargon. And so, that’s something that I wanted to mention. In terms of, of literacy and education in Puerto Rico. I mean, we’re not really fair and great I don’t, I don’t remember the numbers from the top of my head, but in terms of proficiency levels in science and mathematics, which is, what’s usually measured, we’re we’re not doing great. And, you know, one of the areas which Ciencia Puerto Rico has been focusing on has been, how do we improve, scientific education, how do we improve scientific literacy by bringing the process of science to the classrooms? We partner scientists with teachers to do this and so, there are a lot of deficiencies in that sense in Puerto Rico, but that is something that we are trying to address through some of our programs.

David Mendes: Yeah, and a bit like Joana, I have great admiration for any projects like that, in countries where, maybe, the race is starting from a little bit back compared to other places and, you know, kudos for being on the ground and trying to get the children to learn, to be a more informed citizens and then, eventually, to be more able to be skeptic about wrongful information, et cetera, when the time comes. Now, Monica mentioned something before, which is the trust, that it’s important form the scientific community to establish trust in the public. And there may be – and if you go on the streets, you may find – people who are very skeptical, who find, again, these are people that speak a strange language and that I do not trust. And, I was going to ask Adriana what her ideas would be in terms of, what you’ve seen that works for the scientific community to gain the trust of the public and maybe, also of the governing bodies? What can scientists do to gain this trust and start addressing the community from a place of not only respect and empathy, but trust also?

Adriana Bankston: So, as I mentioned before, I think the definition of being a scientist has changed and based times in terms of, you’re not just the scientific expert, but you’re just somebody who can translate that outside of your institution to the public and to policy makers, to inform them of the importance of the research that happens in institutions, but also it’s sort of a dual system in that you are sort of the expert who is informing the policymakers. And, at the same time they obviously have the ability to make decisions based on what the constituents are saying. So, I think the way to gain credibility, obviously with policy makers specifically, would be to, have evidence based research, but also think about personal stories – a lot of times that resonates better with them. And I think the advocacy that they have sort of goes both ways. So the empathy and what you were saying in terms of, we have to understand sort of what policy makers deal with on a daily basis and where this advocacy will fit in, but, at the same time, they have to be empathetic to the constituents who are coming to them with these issues right? And I think, for universities specifically, you know, they support in terms of funding and bills, and supplements that will obviously have gone into the COVID research.  So it’s really important to think about, as we said, the empathy and sort of the dual nature of this.

David Mendes: Mm. just before going to, Adriana, a section that has more to do with what you do, there’s a one or two other questions that I’d like to throw on the table. I had thought this one for Joana, still to do with the role of scientists. Joana, in your opinion, should all researchers be science communicators? And on the flip side, should all science communicators be researchers? What you have to say about this question?

Joana Lobo Antunes: Well, what I think, I think all scientists should be trained in science communication because it’s good not only for them to be trained in communicating their work for other people, because they will have to, but also because it makes them better scientists.

We have data to support that, that when scientists are training to being better communicators, they also become better scientists. On the other side, not all scientists should be obliged to do the same type of science communication activities. I think all of them should do some kind of activities, but each of them has to find their space.

Some of them will be good at giving talks. Other will be good at writing. Some will be good with dealing with children. Some will be good with teenagers. Some will be good with hands on. There are so many things you can do in science communication. The possibilities are never ending. So in that regard, I think all scientists should. If you need to have a scientific background to be a science communicator, well, we’ve been discussing this for ages, everywhere. What I think, what I feel from my experience, it helps if you have a scientific background, because you have been yourself, personally, through the process of building knowledge, of creating knowledge, of the writing of the papers, of writing, grants and the frustration of the everyday work of a scientist. Because many times we say science is Woohoo!, but science, many times is Argh!, you know? So dealing with that, you know what you are actually communicating and that’s something I feel lacks in some people that haven’t gone through the process. That being said, I know a lot of incredibly talented science communicators that don’t have PhDs, so it’s not mandatory. It’s not mandatory. You need a mixture of qualities, from what I’ve been looking in the world around me, is a mixture of qualities: you have to be sharp and you have to be enthusiastic, and you have to be organized. And if you have a scientific background, it helps. That’s what I feel.

David Mendes: Yeah. An  d in my interactions with people I have interviewed, one thing, for sure, that I feel that is clear and aligns with what you’re saying is that when you have a scientific background and you’re interviewing a researcher, There’s an understanding of a lot of things that are happening behind the curtains that, because you were there, that you know, for sure.

Joana Lobo Antunes: Yeah. I’d like to add that when I started doing science communication in research institute, it helped bringing researchers on my side because when I was presented, people said: “She’s here, she wants to do some reporting on your lab” and they’re like, “Who are you?” And I said, “I have a PhD”, and they’re like, “okay, you’re one of us.” So it creates empathy with scientists. So it helps in that regard,  it’s easier to create empathy with scientists, which is also important, not just creating empathy with the other side of the audience, because we need to bring in many, many scientists with us.

David Mendes: No for sure. And, but I’m sure that there’s a lot of, and there are a lot of very good, research journalists who work mainly on science and who have accrued a host of knowledge from years of years of working in the domain who are very good science communicators, for sure. But I agree. It helps.  Now another question and maybe I’ll throw this on the table for anyone who wants to answer is: around you, have you felt that scientists feel a moral responsibility to intervene and to dispel fake news and the erroneous information around them? And you, yourselves – you don’t go in an elevator with anyone these days, but, you know, in the past, in an elevator conversation, you hear someone saying something that’s not quite right. Do you think scientists that, you know, and yourself feel this need to set things right, in terms of scientific information in the wild, let’s say?

Joana Lobo Antunes: I can answer, I would love to hear Adriana and Monica’s views on this. Well, yes and no – it depends. Because I’ve had a couple of dinner parties ruined because of this, because sometimes anti-vaxxers or homeopaths want to pick a fight because they know I’m from science and they’re like, “Let’s discuss!” and then it doesn’t create a very good environment. If you’re discussing how bogus it is, what they, whatever it is, they are discussing. So up to a point, socially, it can be problematic. And there’s another thing why we need the proximity and the empathy, because the anti-vaxxers and the fake news in general, they juggle with people’s emotions and with people’s basic fears and everybody, and not everybody knows everything. And it’s really hard to make people change their minds. It’s easier to help them build a good idea on something, but it’s super hard to change their minds. So. yeah. Yes and no.

David Mendes: Does anyone else want to weigh in?

Mónica Feliú-Mójer: Adriana, do you want to go?

Adriana Bankston: Sure. So from sort of the university perspective, and also from my perspective, because I’m a former bench scientist who’s transitioned into policy, so I sort of have both of these. I do think that it’s important as you guys have already said to, to teach scientists how to communicate and be credible in society and thinking about, I think. I don’t about… well, fake news specifically, obviously we’re trained to find reputable sources and, you know, tell people “ok, go here don’t go to this website”. I think we’re trained in that. But in terms of kind of making that credible to the public, I heard this one thing – I took this class with science communication a couple of years ago from ASBMB, and they said that the public is more likely to trust when their friend says something as when a scientist says something, because they already know – “I trust this person.” And so we need to create, I think, that level of,. sort of closeness or credibility to say that you’re, you know, you’re just talking to them like another person you’re not like – I mean, this has been reiterated multiple times – that you’re not just high on your pedestal – “I’m the scientist, I’m talking to you and you don’t know”. You’re saying there are ways to connect and find sort of what the common ground is with the public, right? In that sense. And I think there is a community engagement here too, especially coming again from the university community, in terms of scientists getting out there more, talking to people, like I can have beer with a scientist, that sort of thing. With COVID, also, there have been students from campuses doing a lot of things in the community. And, so I think, yeah, it’s still important to continue this engagement with outside groups, as well.

Mónica Feliú-Mójer: Yeah, I will add there is a really fantastic article that Liz Neeley from the Story Collider wrote for the Atlantic. It’s titled “How to Talk About the Coronavirus” and in it, Liz is an incredible science communication researcher and practitioner, and she offers four tips to help people, particularly scientists, engage with others around the coronavirus.

But I think her advice is relevant when you’re correcting misinformation or you’re addressing misinformation. I think scientists from my experience, it drives scientists insane to see misinformation because, you know, we’re data driven or facts driven. It’s, it’s the way that we are trained. And so, because of that, we approach the world in that fact-based manner. And we often forget not everyone approaches the world with those same values. So it’s very important that we remember that. You know, while you might prioritize facts, the reality is that facts alone don’t make a difference for most people. For scientists, they may, but for most people it doesn’t make a difference.

So if you’re trying to correct or address misinformation, just throwing facts at people – not gonna work. Saying to someone you’re wrong, I’m right – not going to work, not a great way to start a conversation. And so from Liz’s, article, I think one of the pieces of advice, or two of the pieces of advice that really resonate with me and with what we’re talking about is you have to pick your battles. Sometimes you will be in a position to address misinformation with whoever it is that you’re engaging with. And so, if you are in that position, sure, do that. But say that, you know, you’re talking to someone – to use Joanna’s example – if you’re talking to an anti-vaxxer who’s already dug their heels and say like, “It doesn’t matter what you say. I don’t believe you. These are my beliefs on vaccines”, then maybe that’s a battle you shouldn’t fight. And so I think it’s important to understand that it’s not always our place to address misinformation and you might not always be the right messenger to do so. And the other thing is, you know, starting where you are, you know, start with what you have, and do what you can –  start with you are.

And so, as Joana was mentioning, if you’re amongst a group of friends, talk to them as a friend, talk to them as somebody that they might trust. You know, like when I talk to my family, and I have like chats, WhatsApp chats with friends and family that are constantly sending me videos and posts and whatever it is about coronavirus and, you know, some of them contain misinformation.

And so what I’ve done is I know that they trust me, I know that they love me. And so from that place of trust and love, I talk to them and I say, you know, I know that you might be sharing this because you care about me and you’re worried about this issue. I wanted to let you know, there are, you know, there’s some things in that video, for example, that are wrong.

Here are the things that are wrong. Here are the things that are right, instead, or here are the steps that you can take if you’re concerned about this particular thing. And so I would encourage people to go and read that article. Because I think it offers really great advice that applies beyond this pandemic.

David Mendes: I will share it with whenever I post and I take care of the video, for sure. And I’m going to read it, because I think it’s really an interesting, it makes interesting points from what you’re saying.

Links: The Atlantic Article, How to Talk About the Coronavirus, by  Liz Neely –; ScicomPT website; The Story Collider.

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