Dr Simon Kolstoe serving as a model for Prof Richard Newsom’s cough droplet imaging experiment

Dr Simon Kolstoe looks at the effect the Covid-19 pandemic has had on how science is communicated

  • 29 March 2021
  • 7 min read
Perhaps one of the biggest positives to have come out of the last year of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a renewed trust in science. Only a couple of years ago prominent British politicians were stating that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, and yet under the spectre of a pandemic the same politicians are now very keen to rely on expert advice.

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

One of the main reasons why I enjoy this role in research ethics is because of the large range of studies that ethics committees have to grapple with. After a while, you become very good at evaluating research and working out what it is likely to discover (and what it probably will not discover). I was therefore very happy to be approached by The Conversation in May 2020 and asked to write an article predicting the path of Covid-19 vaccine research and development, talking a bit about the scientific and medical process that would be followed as vaccines were developed. A couple of weeks later The Conversation asked me for a second article addressing the topic of facemasks.

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.

Dr Simon Kolstoe, Senior Lecturer & University Ethics Advisor

This is indeed what happened following publication of my first facemask article due partly to being one of the first to raise the topic of social as well as medical benefits to mask wearing. Following a number of additional media quotes and interviews, The Conversation approached me again asking for an article on how to judge if facemasks work, which subsequently went semi-viral. This was picked up by a number of television channels especially due to the suggestion (although I certainly was not the first person to say this) of testing masks by trying to see if you can blow out a match or candle.

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.

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