Covid 19: Why keeping in touch is key

The role of science communication in the COVID-19 pandemic...
03 January 2021


A picture of someone talking, drawn on a blackboard


Information is an important fuel for the response to COVID-19...

Information is an important fuel for the response to COVID-19. Science journalists have become key workers in the vital task of keeping information flowing, particularly in areas where science and politics overlap. The pandemic has shown us that talking, explaining, listening and learning are important skills in the collective effort to beat the virus.

COVID-19 is not a visible threat, like a bushfire or flood, and, as individuals, very few people have the personal resources to deal with it alone. Communication makes COVID-19 visible: it gives it a place in our imaginations, and provides a vocabulary with which to express our fears, support others, and seek and offer help. In 2020, science communicators of many kinds have been sharing potentially life-saving scientific information with the public, and facilitating wide collaboration and swift knowledge exchange on the research front.

Science relies on this sharing of information. It was one of the founding principles of science: the early pioneers  agreed that it was important to share ideas, show experiments to other people, and to watch and read about what other thinkers were doing, in order to learn, check for mistakes, see connections and make plans. As science grew, this watching, showing and sharing happened on a wider scale, through books and journals. Science publishing grew to a multi-billion dollar global industry during the twentieth century, and continues to grow as paper declines and online media take over the job. When travel stops and people are isolated, this industry and its workforce become all the more important to support research and enable collaboration.

Much of the work of communication is done by scientists themselves, who write up their research, and read, check and apply the work of other scientists. There is also a wide range of other professionals involved, and the job market is growing. Editors and writers prepare the research for different readerships, both within science and in the wider world. Sorting, organising and archiving scientific research is another important job, making scientific knowledge and ideas easier to find when it is needed, such as when research groups in different countries learn from each other with a few taps at the keyboard.

Specialist journalists bring disparate communities together, for example for keeping science-based industries up to date, for scrutinising regulations for the safe and ethical use of science, and for bringing new developments into use, in the consumer markets and in public services. Networks of information-flow can be instantly repurposed in an emergency: in 2020, the contacts among pharmaceutical companies, medical researchers, policy specialists, sociologists, regulators, logistics experts and health-care providers lit up as plans were devised to develop, manufacture and share out the vaccines. Communication enables communities to respond together, and organise exactly the kinds of concerted actions that are needed to mitigate against the spread of infectious disease. When everyone is in the discussion together, and in touch every step of the way, these processes of putting science into action can be accomplished swiftly, and for the good of everyone.

In times of crisis, within science and in the wider community, communication professionals are on high alert. The job is not to be only a beacon from the establishment or the elite, but also to listen to the quieter voices, and share their ideas, concerns and hopes. Contributions from a range of opinions and contexts can be valued and sometimes challenged, but the important central message is: albeit virtually, let’s keep in touch.

Science communicators can help the world to hear the worries and needs of the less powerful citizens, the less wealthy countries and the most vulnerable sufferers, and turn a light on inequity.  While we worry about the routines of our comfortable suburbs and the prospects for our next holiday, we also know that it would be much worse to be enduring COVID-19 in a refugee camp, or a war zone, or with no running water or no doctors. By telling us these stories too, science journalists remind us of our global responsibility. It is worth noting that while the World Health Organisation has recorded 1.8 million deaths globally from coronavirus in 2020, it also records around 700,000 deaths from HIV, and 1.4 million deaths from TB, year after year, and mostly in the global South.

Reporting on the pandemic, whether through layers of PPE or under shell-fire, has been a dangerous job in 2020, especially in the less developed or politically less-stable nations. In December 2020, the International Journalists Network newsletter, having gathered data from organisations that monitor the rights and safety of journalists, reported that between May and November 2020 the death toll from COVID-19 rose by a factor of five in the global population, whereas among journalists reporting on the pandemic, the death toll rose by a factor of seven.

Academics in science communication have also had a busy year, as advisors, practitioners, observers and researchers, capturing the lessons of the pandemic, and recovering the lessons of the past. After all, COVID-19 may be a novel virus, but the world has faced, and continues to face, many large-scale challenges that demand a productive engagement of politics, research and technology with nature: food security, climate change, plastic pollution and antibiotic resistance are just a few of the precedents that are teaching us how to live in our complex, volatile and vulnerable world. In August 2020 the journal Foreign Policy lamented the death in 2015 of the sociologist Ulrich Beck, whose theory of the uncertainties of everyday life in an advanced technological society is an important tool for understanding how to cope with these challenges, coronavirus included. Yet Beck did not live to see coronavirus: in his time, the nuclear accident at the Chernobyl power plant, and its global fallout, was the event that brought into focus the intricate connectedness of a fragile world.

Ulrich Beck is one of the scholars whose work is studied by science communication students at the Institute of Continuing Education at the University of Cambridge. ICE is committed to the enterprise of taking seriously the challenges of integrating science, people and politics in contemporary life. Our courses provide insights from across the disciplines into the complex challenges of science communication, and support career development for professionals (and aspiring professionals) in science, policy, communication and public engagement. Tutors include scholars and practitioners with international reputations, including the Naked Scientists’ founder Dr Chris Smith.

We also have more specialist short courses in skills such as science writing, and have recently added an online course in science journalism in and for developing nations. These  opportunities are here for you in Cambridge (and/or its virtual counterpart), and you can find out more from the  links below.


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