The Art of Science Communication

One of the key features of the broader maHp is to “explore (and evaluate) ways to generate and communicate knowledge”. In an effort to build skills within the team and start some of the conversations around how and why researchers should be engaged in research communication, we – Thea de Gruchy, Goitse Manthata, and Ntokozo Yingwana – signed up for the ‘Science Communication: trends, challenges and innovations‘ course. This online course, which we participated in between September and December 2016, is offered by the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) at Stellenbosch University (SU), and provides an introduction into the field of science/research communication, both practically and theoretically.

In the rest of the post, we each take a chance to reflect on our experiences of the course. Whilst short, each reflection is a starting point from which further conversations about communicating knowledge, specifically the knowledge we produce, will be built.

Ntokozo Yingwana
Much of my work under maHp  entails research communication, up-take and engagement, which is why I found this online course quite interesting and useful.

As the name implies – “science communication” refers to the communication of scientific information to public audiences, with the aim of making that knowledge relevant, accessible and meaningful to people who are not science experts (Burns et al. 2003). The course explored the theory, good practice and challenges of science communication and public engagement, specifically within the African context (Dickson 2012).  

I must admit though, in the beginning I was rather skeptical about the course and the effectiveness of learning it online. As students we had to create profiles on the platform in order to be able to access the course learning material, submit assignments, and engage on the forum. Twitter was also used to share ideas and resources (using the hash-tag #scicomsun), and we were encouraged to engage with each other’s’ tweets and forum posts.  

I particularly enjoyed the fourth week of the course as it introduced us to various innovative ways of effectively communicating scientific knowledge, such as the use of music videos, animation, games and even cartoons:  

According to Samantha Weber (and co-authors), “[i]f effectively deployed, video podcasts can improve scientific communication to general audiences by making information more accessible to auditory learners and improving engagement levels” (2011: 232).

This made me think about how digital-stories could also be used to communicate our own maHp research. Having employed digital-storytelling for media advocacy purposes in the past, I am eager to explore how this medium could be used to communicate scientific knowledge on migration and health.

Thea de Gruchy
This course was a great introduction and opportunity to start thinking about, and unpacking, some of the questions and ideas that animate concerns around research communication. The course was very practically orientated and included sessions on the ‘practical skills’ needed to undertake science communication; analysing and understanding with which ‘platforms and roleplays’ the researcher should engage; and looking at ‘creative approaches’ to the field.

To my mind, however, the fact that the course was University-based necessitated a critical discussion about the ethical considerations and implications of communicating research – something that was missing from this course. A good example of this is an idea that permeated the course, about the need for researchers to choose with which publics they want to share their research. I agree with the course convenors that research needs to be shared, and, moreover, that identifying particular publics and tailoring the way that the research is shared to their needs is important.

However, to my mind, what was lacking, and necessary, was a discussion about the very act of choosing with which publics we, as researchers, want to engage. Through this act of choosing, not only do we continue to control the production and sharing of knowledge, but researchers inevitably, unless their research directly impacts poorer communities, choose to share their findings with middle and upper class publics – which, in South Africa, means a small portion of the population – contributing to a greater knowledge inequality between publics and communities.

Whilst I certainly don’t have any answers or solutions, I do think that this course missed a very real opportunity to engage with this and other ethical dilemmas and start a conversation about how to address them.

Goitse Manthata
The science and communication course is a critical course for researchers. The course sheds light on the importance of communicating science clearly and effectively to people who may not have an interest in the sciences or who don’t have access to such information. For the first course assignment we were tasked with preparing a presentation on what we thought science  communication is?, who are the key role players of science and communication?, what are the benefits of science and communication? and what could go wrong? These were the start of many questions to brew in my mind regarding not only the subject matter, but, also on what inclusive and accessible methods I would use to communicate my research to an extensive population base. In this way I was engaged by the course.

In parallel with reading course material and working on the assignments, I often found myself asking myself how can I apply these techniques to my research. As I took the course in the first year of my PhD, it made me cognisant of the different approaches which could be applied to communicate important findings from research which impact on the lives and well-being of populations who do not readily have access to such information.

The course also stretched my imagination and skill set by requesting us to make amateur videos on the research we were working on. Though the production of the video was long, tedious and strenuous, every step of it illustrated the thorough thought process needed in achieving science communication.

Please see below my video:

As part of our work for maHp, we each have blogs where we try, with varying degrees of success, to grapple with our own work and our responsibility to communicate and share it with an audience outside of the academy. If you’re interested in finding our more, or continuing the conversation, you can find our blogs on the ‘Field Notes‘ page:

About Goitse Manthata

Goitse Manthata is a doctoral candidate and researcher with the African Centre for Migration and Society. Prior to joining the Centre, she worked with Doctors Without Boarders on a Stop Stockouts Project as a Data Manager from January 2015 – December 2015. Before her work with Doctors Without Boarders, she worked with the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI) on a Sex Workers Project as a Research Assistant from October 2011 – December 2014.

In 2013 she graduated with a Master’s Degree in Demography and Population studies from Wits University. Shaped by her work experience and qualifications, her research interests are in urban health with a specific focus on HIV and TB prevalence.

Her proposed PhD topic titled ‘Health and Well-being at the Urban Periphery: a case study of Durban Deep (Johannesburg)’ explores three main themes which are: (1) urban health in the city of Johannesburg, (2) the urban periphery and living conditions in informal settlements, and (3) livelihood strategies among the urban poor living in peripheral informal settings. In line with exploring these themes, the role that government plays is central to her research, in particular the role of local government.