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Enrique Sueiro, Ph.D. in Biomedical Communication, University of Navarra, Spain

Communicating science, in two words

Wed, 03 Mar 2010 12:24:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

According to Woody Allen in Disassembling Harry, the two most beautiful words are no longer "I love you", but "it's benign". In Biomedical Communication there are two others worth considering and, from time to time, pronouncing: "I don't know". In the science closest to the pain and suffering of so many people, it is stimulating to recognize how much we know and how much we do not know. And of all that we know, how cautiously we must communicate it.

These questions were raised in a course at the Menéndez Pelayo International University (UIMP) organized by the research center Biomedica en network (CIBER) of Neurodegenerative Diseases. As is well known, CIBERs are consortia that bring together elite scientific teams funded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation.

A discussion like the one in Santander may arise from March 10 to 12 at the V congress on Social Communication of Science, organized by the Pamplona Planetarium. In case they help, I propose some ideas that, logically, require more nuances than can be sketched in a few lines.

Prioritize Education. It is the most efficient -and complicated- to design, implement and maintain over time, regardless of partisanship. I suggest promoting initiatives such as the subject Ciencias para el mundo contemporáneo at high school diploma and an effort by all to know and use Spanish language better, especially lexicon and syntax. Of course, other languages may also be essential (English) or highly recommended.

Knowing how to communicate knowledge. Improving the specialist's skills makes him/her a good transformer of high voltage into domestic energy, for the sake of comparison, and allows him/her to simplify the complex well. It is necessary to increase both the scientific knowledge of the communicator and the communicative skills of the scientist.

Moderate the information avalanche. In the face of saturation, selective criteria. To this end, a consensus can be reached on what is news and how to present it. An example is guideline of the projection of the Johns Hopkins Cancer Center in Baltimore. Even though it is a leading institution, it holds very few press conferences.

Democratizing scientific culture. I am convinced of the effectiveness of ideas such as those of James Fishkin at the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University. In short, he considers that citizens are not well informed about relevant public issues, of which they have prejudices and only slight references. To mitigate this deficiency he proposes Deliberative Polling: he selects a group of people, offers them information and starts a discussion with experts. In a weekend many citizens change their minds.

Providing context. Science, communication, politics and money are interlinked fields. Ignoring this reality makes it difficult to understand some situations in science that can be clearly improved. The need for an appropriate context is crucial in the world of flash, 140 characters and the gene of the week. Such a framework makes it easier to celebrate findings with enthusiasm and, at the same time, to ponder the tentativeness of the conclusions.

Reconciling data and emotions. What is important in life is not usually measured by exact sciences. One way of finding this balance is to permanently contact with associations and patients to gauge their perception. This is experienced, among others, by the CIBERs that organize social forums.

Bringing scientists and journalists together. Although some colleagues disagree and give me pause for thought, I am still in favor of researchers knowing how the media works and journalists going through the labs. Nicky Old, Head of Press at Oxford University, has experienced the effectiveness of opening doors and minds, especially on controversial issues at research biomedical.

Reading between the lines and between the numbers. A scientifically literate public is able to read between the lines and sometimes without them. This is illustrated by the document The Public's Perception of Medical and Cancer Research, from the U.S. National Cancer Institute high school , in which patients criticize the fact that only the successes are report . For the same reason, it is also advisable to read between the numbers so as not to be fooled by the well-known triad of "lies, big lies and statistics".

Writing this article is much easier than practicing its content. Even so, it is worthwhile to promote the scientific research and inject creativity in the way it is communicated, with appropriate doses of rigor and clarity. When this pairing goes hand in hand, two words emerge, like the ones I heard at the closing of the UIMP course. A lady in the audience intervened to say to the researchers something that moved and stimulated me: "Thank you very much... on behalf of humanity".