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Plan B for Science Communications

Yesterday I attended a workshop on "Mapping the Emerging Issues in the Public Representation of Bioscience & Health Issues". It was hosted by Tim Caulfield and the Health Law Institute and there were about 20 people present. In one day and a dozen presentations it wasn't meant to be a comprehensive take on health and bioscience communication but rather hit some highlights and some of the more problematic developments.

There was a lot of discussion about the explosion of unapproved stem cell treatments and how even legitimate stem cell research get over-hyped either by the media, via social media, or sometime with the original media release that gets the ball rolling. We heard about patients who needed the cash for the unproven (and therefore not covered by health insurance) treatments turning to crowdfunding as a way to pay the bills. GoFundMe is starting to look like some sort of medical organization as it has helped people raised nearly $5 billion (USd) in medical funding. Much like the clinics offering the treatments, crowdsourcing pitches tend to underestimate the risks and legitimacy of the treatments, and overstate the results. The funding platforms are doing pretty well thanks to these appeals by collecting fees base don the amount raised. For instance of the $15 million raised after the Humboldt Broncos crash, $500,000 goes to GoFundMe according to The Star.
Even where information on new treatments, biomedical breakthroughs, and new health issues has a legitimate source, reporters are hard pressed to find the time to do a deep dive into the science, and the public is often not knowledgeable enough to fully understand the science.

No one at the workshop expected to solve the problem in a day but there were lots of solutions discussed. Hard solutions like government regulation and stronger enforcement of truth in advertising laws. Universities and association putting in place stronger oversight of what is said in media releases or at least offering good guidelines such as those from the International Society for Stem Cell Research. The ISSCR includes 'Communications' in its general guidelines for Stem Cell Research and Clinical Translation.
There were soft solutions such as training for scientists so they are better able to give clear explanations about what they are working on. Some of us saw a need to organize sophisticated campaigns around certain issues. If anti-vaxxers, phony stem cell treatment providers, and slanted GMO groups can use all the latest tools and tactics, why not do the same with some of the science. No matter what the approach, everyone agreed that science in the public sphere needs some TLC.

I'd like to add another idea to the mix that comes from the communications perspective and not from a science-eye view of the problem.
First step is to try not to think of this as a science communications problem. Misinformation, exaggeration, and hype exists across the media and online spectrum. Political discourse is full of it (pun intended), and most sports reporting is only a few steps away from leading the cheering section.  Thanks to modern technology just about any subject no matter how important can be hijacked and given a new look and new spin. Science is not a homogeneous subject with a shared vocabulary, media is not consistent from country-to-country let alone across cities or outlets, and there is no such thing as a single audience. Declaring science communications as something out of the ordinary diverts away from basic communication tactics.

We need to pick our targets and our messages. Slow and steady can win the information race.

Consider an editorial calendar. Assignment editors know when certain announcements are due, when politicians are coming to town, when the sports playoffs are, or when a long weekend is coming and they need to stock up on feature stories ready to roll out.   This is the Victoria Day long weekend in Canada and for many Canadians the first chance to get away to the campground or RV park for a break.  How does that fit our science editorial calendar? Well a few well-framed stories on the science behind the Mountain Pine Beetle that is devastating the forests that people are visiting would work. With a long weekend often comes the need for blood donations because there are more accidents. Stories about the science behind blood transfusions and blood types would get traction. Look out for ticks when hiking - so read the stories prepared in advance of tick season.

Here in the West, May 24th is the time when it is generally considered safe to get the bedding plants into the garden, and of course we are into insect season as well. The number of science stories that could be done around gardening and why mosquitoes and wasps sting is only limited by time and location. 

June and July are active months for tornadoes in Canada. Mark it on the science editorial calendar and prepare the tornado science stories now.

The editorial calendar could also be used to make the most of existing content. YouTube videos, podcasts, and blogs have good, solid fact-based content. Tweets can be scheduled weeks or months in advance to point to the content at just the right time or for top-of-mind awareness. 

The discussion at the workshop this week focused a lot on single discoveries and big research that needed explaining. When those events happens, yes there is some explaining to do but we can lay the ground work with a year-round effort and a lot of planning. 

Time to start working on my calendar.

Plan B for Science Communications

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