Science communication: an essential component of development strategies

© UNESCO / L. Rukingamubiri
David Dickson, Editor and founding director, SciDev.Net

The moral and social responsibility of scientists is the subject of a workshop at UNESCO on 14-15 March, organized with the French branch of the Pugwash Movement. Founded in 1957 by Polish physicist Joseph Rotblat and British philosopher and social critic Bertrand Russell, Pugwash is an international organization of scientists and public figures dedicated to global security and arms control.

Over 100 participants are attending the workshop. They’re tasked with identifying specific areas where Pugwash could really make a difference and advance international cooperation. The workshop will also be aiming to reinforce the partnership between the Pugwash Movement and UNESCO, in particular its World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) of which the Pugwash President, Jayantha Dhanapal from Sri Lanka, is ex-officio member.

One particularly important area is communicating science responsibly, writes David Dickson, Editor and Founding Director of SciDev.net, who contributed the following article.

The biggest single factor determining any country’s potential for achieving sustainable social and economic growth – and particularly, in the case of developing countries, of attaining the Millennium Development Goals – is its ability to access and apply the fruits of modern science and technology in a responsible manner.

Achieving this goal is more complex than it sounds. There are many political and economic obstacles to accessing science and technology, ranging from high costs to a lack of absorptive capacity.

Achieving this access in a responsible manner, for example ensuring that it reduces rather than increase the gap between rich and poor, presents its own problems, particularly where much scientific knowledge comes wrapped as privately-owned intellectual property. And even where access is achieved, using science and technology effectively to meet local needs in a way that is appropriate to local conditions remains a challenge, particularly when supply is dominated by commercial considerations.

But the statement usefully distils one concept. In a world where almost every social need – from food security through good health to productive employment -- increasingly depends on some form of science-based technology, helping developing countries to develop their own capacity to use science and technology is essential. The statement also highlights the importance of effective science communication in ensuring that this happens. For communication is crucial to bridging the gap between the production of new knowledge that can meet such needs, and the application of that knowledge to either practice or policy.

Fortunately, the importance of science communication as an essential component of any development strategy is slowly making its way up the agenda, in developed and developing countries alike.

Scientists are recognising the need not only to communicate more freely among themselves – hence the growth of the open access movement – but also to communicate the significance of their work to both policy-makers and to the general public, particularly when it has important social implications, whether for good or, potentially, for ill.

Take the case of nanotechnology. The scientific community has been quick to spread the message about the importance of this new technology, for example in its applications to filtering dangerous chemicals out of water supplies.

But, drawing on its earlier experience over genetically-modified organisms, it has also been aware of the need to stimulate an informed public discussion about the potential dangers of this technology, such as the potential health consequences of the absorption of nanoparticles into the human body.

The importance of such debates, and the role of science journalists and other communication professionals in ensuring that they take place in an informed way, is growing particularly strongly in the developing world,

Reflecting this, an increasing number of aid agencies and charitable foundations, for example, now sponsor projects and programmes in this field, including the aid agencies of Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The contributions of the projects supported by such agencies – which include my own organisation SciDev.Net – to achieving explicit development goals is difficult to measure. More easily quantifiable achievements, such as lower child mortality rates or increased food production, have many contributing factors, of which science is only one.

But the increasing attention that politicians and other policy-makers in the developing world have been paying to science over the past decade is closely correlated to the rise of interest in 'science communication for development' initiatives that have been drawing attention to the need for increased action on this front.

Communication initiatives have helped to foster recognition, in both political circles and the wider community, that good policy decisions must draw on robust scientific evidence in fields ranging from food security to climate change. The more solid the reasoning behind such decisions, the more likely they are to achieve their desired objective.

Robust scientific evidence is also essential in public debates about the potential down-sides of new technologies. Take, for example, the question of genetically modified crops, where much of the value of this debate has been undermined by excessive claims by both supporters and critics, and a more evidence-based discussion would have led to a more effective outcome.

What remains important is that science should inform, rather than determine, policy decisions. This means ensuring that all stakeholders have access to relevant scientific information, in a form they can easily understand. In other words, they need access to well-communicated science.

Good science communication is not a public relations exercise. Its purpose is not – or shouldn't be – to boost the profile and self-interest of those who do, or pay for, the research.

Rather, it should put scientific knowledge into the hands of those who can use it in a responsible fashion. (which includes, in areas such as the control of nuclear weapons or GM crops, those given the task of regulating new, potentially dangerous, technologies).

Seen from this angle, science and communication form an important alliance, particularly in the context of development aid. Putting this alliance into effect is not easy, particularly those parts of the world where scientists and journalists tend to distrust each other. But doing so is essential if the goals of sustainable development are to be achieved in the developed and developing worlds alike.

David Dickson, Editor and founding director, SciDev.Net

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