COVID-19: How some scientists became media stars
Marina Joubert, a senior science communication researcher at Stellenbosch University, said the coronavirus pandemic has made epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist Professor Salim Abdool Karim a household name in the past year.
She told University World News that COVID-19 has shown how people want to engage with science and that they are hungry for new information, especially during a crisis.
“Of course, on the other hand, we have also seen how fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories threaten the relationship and the building of trust between science and society,” she said.
“I believe that we have also seen many examples of effective science communication during the pandemic – scientists who communicate with empathy and who emphasise when they don’t have all the answers [yet],” added Joubert.
In an article, titled “From top scientist to science media star during COVID-19 – South Africa’s Salim Abdool Karim”, published in the South African Journal of Science (SAJS) on 29 July 2020, Joubert writes that, around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned several leading scientists into highly visible media stars.
These include the likes of the American Anthony Fauci; Italy’s Roberto Burioni; Swede Anders Tegnell, German Christian Drosten and Mexico’s Hugo Lopez-Gatell.
Becoming a science celebrity
“In South Africa, we witnessed a remarkable surge in the public prominence of Professor Salim Abdool Karim following his appointment, in mid-April 2020, to lead a ministerial advisory committee … on combating COVID-19,” said Joubert.
“Data from Pear Africa, a South African media monitoring company, show that Abdool Karim featured in 545 print, broadcast and online media items during April 2020, compared with 20 in April 2019,” she said.
Joubert wrote that, to become visible in academic circles, researchers must publish highly cited work in scholarly journals.
In contrast, visibility in the public sphere depends on a visible media profile which amplifies scientists’ views and stimulates public interest, to the point that some become influential thought leaders and even iconic celebrities.
“A signal of public visibility that approaches celebrity status is when the media starts to take an interest in a scientist’s personal life,” she wrote.
“Furthermore, public visibility in the media is sustained by controversy. Both these factors are illustrated in the case of Abdool Karim,” she said.
She added that, around 2000, Karim was one of the scientists who spoke out when the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, questioned the science of HIV/Aids.
In her article, she quotes Karim describing this period as a turning point: “I could not stay quiet. I knew that we had to convey the scientific viewpoint in a way that people could understand – clearly and succinctly,” he had said.
“If we did not challenge Mbeki’s views, how would people be able to make sound judgments? We had to fight back with the help of the media.”
But there was a heavy price to pay. Those who publicly disagreed with the government’s Aids denialism were branded as enemies of the state.
Karim was chastised for his views during the 2000 International Aids Conference in Durban when Mbeki’s late former health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, accused him and colleague Hoosen Coovadia of being ‘disloyal’ and ‘traitors’.
Twenty years later, Karim has come full circle and has been thrust into the spotlight.
Facing the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African government under President Cyril Ramaphosa turned to scientists for advice on how to handle the crisis, with Karim taking the lead.
The contrast with his previous experience is clear: “The [health] minister [Zweli Mkhize] has been contacting us, he wants to involve us, he is seeking the opposite of what Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang wanted,” he said.
Transforming research into policy
While Karim certainly bucks the trend, another contribution by a group of academics, also published in the SAJS, on 29 January 2021, notes that policy-makers are a vital group with whom scientific research should be communicated, especially when the reason for many research projects is linked to relevance for socio-political and economic management.
To this end, they argue in a commentary titled “Opening the floor for discussion: A perspective on how scholars perceive attitudes to science in policy-making in South Africa”, that science communication has a vital role in transforming research into policy, and a core element of this process is understanding the target group, namely policy-makers.
The authors are Molly Czachur, Melvi Todd, Tainã Gonçalves Loureiro, James M Azam, Siphokazi Nyeleka, Amanda Alblas and Sarah Davies.
“Science and policy influence each other deeply, so researchers and policy-makers should improve their understanding of each other and of the processes involved in both fields in order to better collaborate,” the authors of the article wrote.
In December 2019, the six researchers and a research manager from Stellenbosch University, South Africa, gathered to discuss their understanding of policy-makers.
The discussion was part of a science communication masterclass hosted by the South African Research Chair in Science Communication and Econnect Communication, Australia, that country’s longest established science communication agency.
The purpose of the group discussion was to develop a science communication strategy that would enhance the sharing of scientific research outputs with policy-makers in South Africa.
They explored five questions to help record their perception of policy-makers: Who do we think the policy-makers are? How do we think that policy-makers perceive research? What concerns do we believe that policy-makers have about research? What information do we think policy-makers are interested in? What forms of communication do we think policy-makers prefer?
Researcher Molly Czachur told University World News that the findings reveal that ‘think’ research is perceived as inaccessible, complex, expensive, long and not scalable.
“We hope that, by presenting this article, we will capture the attention of policy-makers and researchers alike,” she said.
“By collecting thoughts from both parties, we can understand what the perceptions are on both sides, and better connect the two.”
Connecting policy-makers and researchers
The commentary talks about several factors that could hinder effective communication between policy-makers and researchers.
“A major gap we identified in our discussion was that researchers’ perception of policy-makers may well not represent the opinions and perspectives of policy-makers themselves,” it said.
“Science communication is not a one-way transfer of knowledge, but may take many different directions, and policy-makers will have their own contributions and experiences to share about researchers.”
Therefore, they argue, policy-makers should be included in any future discussions to identify how they can connect better with researchers.
It would also be useful to outline exactly what researchers need from policy-makers in order to ensure their research outputs are relevant and accessible, to define reciprocally who researchers are, and how researchers could be communicated with more effectively.
Future research needs to untangle the interactions between researcher perceptions of how policies are formulated and changed in practice, while the formation of a more effective dialogue between policy-makers and scientists should be addressed urgently to enhance mutual understanding.
“We recommend that an annual, formal interaction between researchers and government officials be facilitated through a ‘Science meets parliament’ or similar initiative. Similar events in Australia, Canada and the European Union have encouraged better translation of science into policy,” the scientists argue.
But, closer to home, surely the success of a skilled orator who speaks simply, yet eloquently, as does Abdool Karim, ought to be held as the benchmark for science – indeed – for all communicators?