Communicating Science in a Pandemic
This is, of course, good news for academics, whether scientists or from other evidence based subject areas. Clearly those working in biomedical-related disciplines have been able to rapidly alter their research plans to address the immediate medical challenges of Covid-19, but increasingly those in more distantly related fields such as environmental science, psychology and the social sciences are finding new and relevant research questions due to the seismic shift that has altered all of our lives. This disruption has been accompanied by some of the largest amounts of public funding ever to be dedicated to a single issue, with a subsequent mushrooming of innovation and publication.
As a Senior Lecturer in Evidence Based Healthcare I have found myself busier than ever due to adapting to online teaching of healthcare professionals, and also my role chairing the Public Health England (PHE) Research Ethics and Governance Group. Since January 2020 this has involved dropping everything at a moment’s notice to rapidly review and approve research studies whose results have subsequently been widely cited as evidence for various national decisions. This has been managed by a part-time secondment from the University that will likely continue once the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) replaces PHE in April 2021 with a continued focus on ending this pandemic.
Dr Simon Kolstoe serving as a model for Prof Richard Newsom’s cough droplet imaging experiment
For those who may not be familiar with The Conversation, it is a news outlet with articles written exclusively by academics. Although there can sometimes be quite strong editorial direction, in general the factual, informed and open access content means that articles are re-published widely. This means that a single article in The Conversation can lead to a wide reader base and multiple other media opportunities.
Sharing some of this knowledge with others, in a way that helps them understand and also make sense of this troubling situation, is satisfying especially as in normal times science can often be so difficult to explain.
Writing for the media is very different to writing an academic article. The academic writing style can be pictured as a triangle, with the argument getting deeper as the paper progresses until the most important conclusions come at the end. When writing for a non-specialist audience the reverse structure is used. As there is a substantial drop-off in reader numbers following every sentence of a popular article, the main content needs to be in the very first paragraph, with the rest of the article expanding on that initial idea – much like an upside down triangle. However, while only twenty or so people read academic articles, as of March 2021 I have had over 1.3 million reads of articles in The Conversation.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a worrying time for us all, especially as we often feel so powerless. However, as academics, some of us are in a privileged position thanks to opportunities for education and access to knowledge. During the pandemic this position has been increasingly useful, especially for those of us with a background in biomedical research and who perhaps feel a little bit more familiar with the mechanism of viral infection, along with the type of science that is needed to get us out of this mess. Sharing some of this knowledge with others, in a way that helps them understand and also make sense of this troubling situation, is satisfying especially as in normal times science can often be so difficult to explain. It also, perhaps in a small way, plays an important role in convincing politicians that expert commentary may well have a use after all.