Why Kenya scientists must talk to us in the language we understand

Scientific findings in peer-reviewed journals alienate a large portion of the public, who are non-experts. [iStockphoto]

The decision by the current administration to lift the ban on the cultivation and importation of genetically modified crops (GMOs) has created a raging debate on the safety of GMOs, both on social media and leading media houses.

Though at times devoid of facts, these conversations on the safety of GMOs by Kenyans on Twitter are commendable and are a strong indicator that the public is taking a keen interest in key scientific developments.

Kenyan scientists must move outside their comfort zones and actively participate in these public conversations. Primarily credited to the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting public debate on facts and myths surrounding the virus's origin and safety of different vaccines, this will be the norm.

Moving forward, publishing scientific findings in peer-reviewed journals will not be enough as it alienates a large portion of the public, who are non-experts, especially on politically charged topics. Science communication is now a three-way street.
We must convince experts and non-experts alike of the accuracy of our findings on public media platforms like Twitter.

We must develop efficient, non-condescending ways to communicate science to ordinary people, lest we lose the debate to politicians and non-expert bloggers.

The 21st century is the digital post-expert era, where all perspectives and viewpoints get equal airtime irrespective of the accuracy or validity of the information. Anyone can blog, comment, host a podcast, or tweet to contribute towards any scientific debate leading to the dilution of expert views.

In this era of influencers and tribal herds, anyone with a following can hijack the public on emotive topics and build a narrative, albeit inaccurate, which presents multiple hurdles to science communication.

Scientists are increasingly being isolated due to the growing polarisation of politically charged issues such as climate change, the safety of GM crops, and the efficacy of vaccines.

As a community, we must accept these challenges and adopt new strategies to communicate science effectively while rebuilding public trust and confidence. How do we move beyond reporting scientific findings to join the ongoing conversation in a way that appreciates the volume of digital information accessible to the public? For example, social media platforms such as Twitter provide an environment for engaging the public on scientific issues.

We must start by creating relatable conversations without 'dumping it down' to catch our audience's attention. Kenyans are sceptical of most discussions around politically emotive and divisive topics like climate change, Covid-19 vaccine efficacy, and GMO safety.

This is partly due to the failure of scientists to capture the public's attention through relatable discussions of our research findings. We are losing the plot by discussing our science with fellow scientists, leaving non-experts to rely on interpretations from politicians, opinion leaders, and bloggers.

Our universities must also take the lead and bridge the gap between bench scientists and the public. Universities, though primary avenues for research and the generation of new knowledge, must also be a platform for dialogue between the scientific community and members of the public.

For example, the Training Centre in Communication based at University of Nairobi, Chiromo Campus, is recognised for spearheading training in science communication in the region.

Local university leaders must borrow a leaf from the efforts of the visionary Joy Owango and develop such critical centres within their institutions to advance scientific communication.

Finally, we should pay attention to the roles of our talented science journalists who braved misinformation to provide accurate and factual reports during the Covid-19 pandemic.

 In this post-expert digital era, science communication is only possible with the services of qualified journalists or science bloggers.

Therefore, we must realise that the implications of our efforts in research laboratories and air-conditioned offices transcend scientific journals by bringing Wanjiku on board through effective communication.

It matters that the public understands and debates scientific findings from the point of knowledge. For example, the Serallini publication, which has become the cornerstone of anti-GM sentiments, showed that the GM maize diet increased cancer risks in mice.

Yet, a critical review of the study showed its flaws. For example, the scientists used a limited number of Sprague-Dawley mice prone to spontaneous tumour development that led to its retraction. While anti-GM activists in Kenya promoted this publication despite its flaws, the voice of local scientists, for a long time, was missing on this issue.

Local scientists must guide, influence, and actively engage the public through scientific communication to end misinformation and catchy inaccurate headlines. Otherwise, we risk the wrath of pushing science and scientists further into isolation.

The Standard
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