I guess someone has to get the slot immediately after lunch. But science communication is such an interesting, dynamic, challenging field… and the story of how science communication evolved and matured still goes on… I’ll give you a glimpse of past highlights, current events and future challenges.
Science communication around the world has impacted on what happened here, but South Africa’s story also has its unique milestones, key players and challenges. In the 1980s science communication really began taking off in many countries and this new movement was supported by policy changes in research funding structures. More or less at the same time – 21 years ago - I left Stellenbosch with a few degrees in science as well as a postgraduate diploma in science journalism. My first job was at the FRD (later the NRF) in Pretoria. Inspired by everything I found out about science communication in Europe, I hoped to replicate some of that here. I soon discovered that science communication in South Africa was still very, very new … Despite a few sympathetic voices, it was hard to find real support. Researchers were mostly dismayed at the thought of money that could be used for research being spent on communication. Many researchers were hostile to the media and not willing to “waste time” on public outreach. For many years the NRF would support research into science communication and science and society issues, but not the activities themselves.
Science communication gained significant momentum when democracy arrived in SA. For the first time high level policy papers spoke of science and technology for society that serves all the people of the country and allow all people to have a say. We started debating ethical and moral implications of emerging technologies and looking for ways to make science more relevant, transparent and accountable, how it could help people to make informed decisions. People became more interested in new ways of nurturing a culture of science, often inspired by observing science theatre, science festivals and a variety of other events abroad. In 2003 the NRF established a business unit with the specific mandate promote public science awareness (NB challenges of attracting more students and building capacity in science careers ---- to address “pipeline” challenges). South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement – also to implement DST initiatives
Soon after its establishment SAASTA was given the task to set up a specific programme to promote public awareness and debate around biotechnology and for the first time, South Africa had the capacity and resources to participate at a meaningful level in big international public science events, such as 50 th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in 2003.
The Public Understanding of Biotechnology Programme could produce exhibitions, media advertorials, etc and participated in events around the country that year.
Because it was a worldwide initiative, there were opportunities to learn from best practice examples in other countries and we were able to employ novel approaches to science communication, such as science cartoons and science theatre.
The fact that biotechnology was an emerging field of science with polarised views and activists on both sides of the spectrum, forced the programme to deal with the issues of how to generate objective information and encourage informed debate.
During 2005 SAASTA coordinated South Africa’s participation in the centennial celebration of Einstein’s miraculous year in 1905. As a business unit of the NRF, SAASTA was able to implement calls for proposals to science communication role players around the country and people could compete for grants to produce a wide variety of science communication products – articles in mass media, educator workshops, exhibitions, popular posters, activities for young people and even science theatre.
There has been many similar events since then …. For example this year the International Year of Astronomy.
The astronomy community in South Africa have always been very supportive of science communication and pioneered many outreach activities. Astronomers – professional and amateur alike – are mostly passionate about sharing their science with as many people as possible and are often the ones who put in long hours at science festivals, science weeks and science centres.
Science communication in South Africa has benefited from international expertise and input, but also the development of a strong local network. In 2002 South Africa hosted a major international science conference – attended by more than 450 people from more than 40 countries. Since then, SAASTA has hosted African science conferences more or less every two years.
Many smaller events, arranged and funded by foreign and local organisations, has also helped to stimulate interest and build capacity – such as this public science engagement workshop organised by the Wellcome Trust at their Africa Centre in northern KzaZulu-Natal late last year.
It is also important to recognise the value of role models … and especially what Mark Shuttleworth has done – with his space flight and the work of the Shuttleworth Foundation since then.
There has always been a few icons of science communication … and it has always fascinated me how most of the really world class scientists somehow have time to communicate their work and are usually great science communication enthusiasts.
A network of science centres have developed around the country – some of them modest, others more modern and ambitious. They provide a stable and visible platform for many of the science communication initiatives of government, and some of them attract impressive numbers of visitors across all age and socioeconomic levels.
South Africa’s national science festival – SASOL Scifest, later SciFest Africa, has been going for more than 10 years and attracts tens of thousands of visitors to Grahamstown around March/April every year. The organisers have been key catalysts to get international support for science communication in SA, and these initiatives often go far beyond the dates of the festival. In recent years they have taken SciFest to the road to other parts of the country.
This was also the 10 th year of Government’s National Science and Technology Week …
National initiatives such as an official science week provide valuable platforms for universities and others to organise public science events. Here a physics professor from University of Pretoria is using fruits of various sizes in his talk about the physics forces at work in the science of underwear.
The Department of S&T has also declared annual science focus months in African Origins, Astronomy, Biosciences and Antarctica – and SAASTA has to implement awareness strategies accordingly. These focus months are based on the recognition of these four areas of science because of South Africa’s unique geographic advantage to do world class work in these fields.
These platforms months also encourage creativity in science communication and once again the medium of cartoons have proved popular to bring science issues close to people in an accessible and fun way.
Radio is widely recognised as a key channel for bringing science into people homes and lives … and many training and capacity building efforts have been focused on improving the quality and quantity of science content on local radio. Following a visit by Dr Chris Smith of the “Naked Scientist” radio phenomenon in the UK, he is now a weekly feature on two big local community radio stations with a phone-in programme … It is hugely enjoyable and popular … I just wish we could have our own naked scientists …
There’s a lot of work to be done in arguably more serious and controversial fields of science …. It is important that science communication must keep up with advances in science itself … and be prepared for the communication challenges of new fields – for example nanotechnology – especially once local research and/or applications begin to take off.
Because of these vast differences between science and mass media, many scientists shy away from media coverage and prefer to run away when a journalist calls. With a bit of media savvy, however, you can turn that call into an opportunity.
Science Communication: Opportunities and Challenges Marina Joubert, Southern Science Stellenbosch, 14 September 2009