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Quality Science Communication on COVID-19 Requires Context and Relevance

A screenshot from the ESOF conference
A virtual panel of experts discussed the challenges of communicating about COVID-19 during the Euroscience Open Forum.

Researchers, journalists, publishers and organizations face multiple challenges as they communicate new and rapidly changing COVID-19 science, according to an expert panel organized by AAAS for a Sept. 4 late-breaking session at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF).

Sudip Parikh, AAAS CEO and executive publisher of the Science family of journals, remarked that upholding high-quality standards for scientific publication is an important responsibility to both the scientific community and public audiences.

“At AAAS, we’re also working on the communication [about scientific research] to be clear, accurate and understandable,” Parikh said. “One of the most important things we can do is provide clarity and context on what the research is finding. We do that through a variety of services for scientists and journalists … and we work to build trust with policymakers and other public audiences.”

Joining Parikh on the virtual panel were Katja Becker, president of the German Research Foundation (DFG); Dominique Brossard, professor and chair of the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Helen Branswell, senior reporter on infectious diseases at STAT. The panel was moderated by Rick Weiss, director of SciLine, a service based at AAAS that connects journalists with scientists to inform news coverage of topics such as COVID-19.

Speakers discussed risks that should be considered—and pitfalls to avoid—as emerging and incomplete information on COVID-19 is being constantly conveyed through a variety of channels, including news media, social media and other sources. COVID-19 information has relevance locally, nationally and/or globally, panelists said, and researchers should recognize that new updates are understood and interpreted by members of the public and policymakers through social and political filters and contexts.

“Understanding human behavior is way more complicated than other life sciences,” Brossard said during her remarks. “When you have an issue that becomes heavily politicized [such as responses to COVID-19], we have to face the fact that we have challenges that go beyond the science. We learned from two decades of social science research that acknowledging uncertainty is one of the key aspects of risk communication.”

Becker emphasized the importance of viewing COVID-19 across disciplines and working to encourage research collaboration, an aspect she said DFG, the largest research funding organization in Germany, has committed significant amount of resources to address.

“We need interdisciplinary research and an international exchange of research findings,” said Becker. “In recent months, new forms of nationalism have unfortunately arisen,” she said, as research efforts in countries around the globe race to develop therapeutics and vaccines to counter COVID-19. “Therefore, it becomes all the more important to set research funding priorities that encourage cooperation instead of competition.”

Branswell recounted the challenges of reporting the latest news in COVID-19 every day and how her work has changed since 2003 when she first started covering infectious disease during a SARS outbreak in Toronto.

“I would never have predicted that the U.S. would have mounted one of the worst responses in the world,” said Branswell, whose first story on the emerging disease that would became known as COVID-19 was published on Jan. 4.

“The CDC has been sidelined and largely silenced, and its credibility has been challenged,” Branswell added, who has written extensively about the U.S. government’s response to the pandemic.

Branswell provided insight on how she and editors at STAT make determinations on what stories to cover and when to pass over emerging information or popular narratives that lack sufficient evidence. “It feels like almost every day we’re hit with a tsunami of new preprints, news and studies,” she said. “It’s extraordinarily difficult for journalists to keep up, even for the few who are very experienced in covering infectious disease.”

For example, Branswell said some “terrible preprints” on COVID-19 never made it to peer-reviewed publication “and should not have entered into public discourse.”

When asked whether she felt competitive or cooperative with other journalists covering COVID-19, Branswell expressed comradery with infectious disease reporters that she has known for many years and considers friends, naming Science reporters Martin Enserink, Kai Kupferschmidt and Jon Cohen as exemplars in the field.

The ESOF conference, which is held every other year in a European city, features sessions on topical areas of interest to scientists and policymakers. AAAS has long participated in the biannual event, which took place Sept. 2-6 in Trieste, Italy, for in-person, socially distanced attendees. Others participated online due to travel restrictions and concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a ESOF session on Sept. 3, Jessica Wyndham, director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, joined a panel of speakers remotely to discuss how to make a global network on responsible research and innovation useful, sustainable and effective.

The desire by participants to both rise to the occasion and learn from the current moment was palpable throughout the conference offerings.

“These are challenging times—a moment of challenge but also of opportunity,” Parikh said during his talk. “How can we take what we know and are learning during this pandemic to make science more profoundly useful to society?”




Tiffany Lohwater


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