Covid-19: a lesson about scientific communication

The main goal of scientific communication is to promote awareness of scientific research, inspire new generations and make scientific studies available for the general public.

The importance of science communication has become increasingly evident when the distance between the scientific world and the general public became clear. For years scientists only attended conferences and had the chance to discuss their work in technical words with their peers, making science inaccessible to people with a limited scientific background. This, together with scandals like the thalidomide one in late 50s-early 60s and the supposed correlation between vaccines and autism, undermined the trust of the general public for scientific research.

The clearer the importance of science communication was, the more scientists have started to involve themselves in organising public outreach activities, podcasts, blogs, science fairs, etc. Some journals like Nature and Science started publishing lay summaries in a Research Highlights section dedicated to making its contents easily accessible to anyone and events like Pint of Science have become increasingly popular (1).

However, science communication mainly relies on the willingness of scientists to make time in their already very busy schedule for outreach activities. Among experiments to make, meetings to attend, lessons to prepare and publications to write, they need to self-teach how to engage the public, prepare activities and participate in outreach events, given that

most of science undergraduate programmes do not offer any taught courses on the topic.

How important science communication is?

Some specific events like the Covid-19 pandemic have clearly shown that science is tightly intertwined with economy and politics, more than some would think at the beginning.

The rising of a pandemic in a super-connected world has posed for additional problems due to the information overload accessible by anyone. Millions of people have been exposed to extremely specific and technical topics in peer-reviewed scientific articles along with fiction theories, without the tools of understanding whom to give credit to.

For this reason, conspiracy theories giving credit to non-scientific ideas have been shared within days by millions of people. Only in the UK, a few days ago The Guardian reported that the “Downing Street’s anti-fake news unit” is working on 10 fake news being reported on social media such as Twitter and Facebook every day (2).

To give a few examples, a message was going viral in social media with a list of suggestions on how to prevent the infection, such as drink warm water at least every 15 minutes suggesting that the virus will not survive at 26-27C. Or a few people tweeted that onions in the room would provide enough protection from the Coronavirus and other germs.

Even though it may seem harmless, disinformation is affecting people at all levels, from individuals to communities and countries. Some people in Italy followed doubtful DIY recipes for hand sanitiser or used strong chemicals to clean the house or disinfect face masks and led to a +65% calls to the Italian Poison Control Centre in some areas (3). Or the reported death of a man in Arizona who took chloroquine phosphate after Trump suggested it as an approved Covid-19 treatment (4). Or again hundreds of deaths reported in Iran due to the consumption of industrial-grade methanol and ethanol again in an attempt to fight Covid-19 (5).

We witnessed how entire countries reacted to the pandemic, how reluctantly some governments implemented the lockdown and how they underestimated the crisis. Trump for example publicly compared it to the common flu on several occasions, openly against the WHO’s advice (described as ‘false’) (6), postponing and dismissing the regulations necessary to protect the population. Whilst Bolsonaro dismissed the virus threat as “media fantasy and trick” and criticising the actions taken by other countries (7).

Of course, these misleading statements, together with many more, have been affecting the response of the general public towards the crisis, in a moment in which a clear and firm guidance is crucial to saving time and lives.

During this crisis, I have been collaborating with the International Association of Italian Researchers (AIRIcerca) in my spare time. One of the Association’s projects consists of photos of associates with a specific suggestion or bits of scientific information to share with family and friends (mine says the spot-on: “Share on your social media only official info from the WHO or the National Health Department, don’t share fake news!”).

Another project consists of writing lay summaries in Italian of peer-reviewed articles on Covid-19, focussing on new findings, new techniques, and promising therapeutic targets. The aim is to make the content accessible to anyone, from the general public to doctors and nurses that may need to receive information quickly and easily in a very challenging situation.

We all hope that we will be able to resume our everyday life, meet family and friends as soon as possible. However, we should not forget a few lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic and maybe one of them is how important science communication is. I reckon institutions should give more support and resources to scientists to help them invest their time in it and science should have a more active role in policy making. This would allow scientists not only to be able to share their research more effectively to the general public, but also to contribute to informed decision-making worldwide.