2020 Changed the way we understand and consume science – for the better

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Up until last year, terms like ‘bacteria’ and ‘viruses’ were used interchangeably to describe invisible germs that caused disease. But with the arrival of 2020, suddenly everyone – including my mailman and housemaid – came to realize that these ‘germs’ have their own names and identities, and ‘coronavirus’ soon became the most searched word on the internet. (Google Trends)

Now more than ever, the need for and value of science communication has become abundantly clear. With the pandemic throwing up more questions than answers, everyday people who had little to no interest in science and healthcare have come to appreciate the role these disciplines play in our wellbeing and survival. And this in turn has led to the need for timely, credible and accurate scientific information.

This year, three trends stood out in our understanding of science and its communication:

1. Greater appreciation for the scientific process

Several global health organizations came under fire earlier this year for their “ever changing hypotheses” about COVID-19 and the precautionary measures issued to reduce risk. The reason for this constant change? As the pandemic continued to evolve, knowledge about the virus grew alongside, causing researchers and organizations to update and sometimes even revise their stance altogether.

This back-and-forth process may seem confusing to the general public, but it is precisely the nature of scientific learning and discovery. Nearly 10 months into the pandemic, there is now more understanding of the research process and timelines required for drug and vaccine research. There is also a growing push to fund more research that can address the needs of today’s world and that of the post-pandemic future.

2. Credible information trumps unbacked claims

Early on in the pandemic, speculation ran rife about the virus, and misinformation spread like another virus.

Regardless of literacy levels, people were quick to believe everything they read and heard in newspapers, TV commercials and social media forwards. Before we knew it, there was growing belief in questionable (and often absurd) claims promising to reduce COVID-19 risk.

In the last few months however, something changed. Science communication on the pandemic became more timely and transparent – among researchers, governments and the public. We now have access to a steady stream of open data through expedited publications, online repositories, and research resources that are widely and freely available for consumption. According to the World Economic Forum, hundreds of SARS-COV-2 genomes are now made available to design and evaluate diagnostic tests; epidemiological data to guide COVID-19 surveillance and public health decision-making; and user-friendly tools to visualize and track cases in real-time. We have also seen an increase in op-eds, blogs and podcasts by scientists and researchers, who would previously shy away from the frontlines of communicating science.

3. The understanding that science is everything, and everyone

Science communication is no longer limited to researchers and students in white lab coats. This year has brought together academics, healthcare professionals, climate specialists, policymakers, business leaders, journalists, religious institutions and the private sector to each play their part in addressing pressing and allied issues relating to COVID-19. In doing so, we have heard diverse perspectives from people who have spoken of and communicated science in their own unique way. This has engendered increased discussion on healthcare, sanitation, personal hygiene, and the need for greater investment in research and development (R&D).

recent survey conducted in 80 countries by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) with over 1100 scientists, policymakers and members of the public revealed that people now believe medical and scientific expertise will be more integrated in policy advice following the COVID-19 crisis. This right here is news worth celebrating.

I am reminded of something I read in June this year that stuck with me:

“Going forward, we need to be mindful that what science is understood to be and what it is used for can come down to something as simple as how it is communicated. If we want to have the best science woven into evidence-based decision-making in government, policy, industry, business and among the broader public, the scientific community must train researchers to be excellent communicators of their work and of the contribution it makes to society.” – Mandë Holford Associate Professor of Chemical Biology, Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY) and Ruth Morgan, Professor of Crime and Forensic Sciences, UCL.

Yes, it may be a while before we see the last of COVID-19, but there is no disputing that the viral outbreak has led to better understanding of science and healthcare in people of all geographies and socio-economic classes. Here’s hoping these trends are here to stay, and that 2021 challenges us to continue learning and unlearning in the world of science.