WHO global conference on communicating science during health emergencies sparks enormous public interest

How can we communicate scientific uncertainty? Can the use of humor,
serious games and arts help us to make science more understandable? What
can we do to communicate scientific processes in a more transparent
way?

These and more questions were discussed at the WHO global
conference on communicating science during health emergencies, which
took place virtually from 7 to 25 June 2021. In a world marked by the
COVID-19 pandemic, everybody has become a science communicator – may it
be at work, the dinner table or on social media. The conference convened
professional and every-day science communicators from a broad range of
disciplines to identify the challenges they encountered during the
pandemic and find solutions to make science accessible and relevant to
all.

The public opening of the conference featured five renown
keynote speakers from academia and practice. Their presentations covered
topics as diverse as conveying uncertainty and statistics to the
public, using social media to promote protective measures and the
benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration to translate scientific
messages into easily understandable visuals. Over 3000 participants from
159 countries joined the opening and submitted close to 500 questions
to the speakers.

The public closing featured two invited keynote
speeches highlighting the potential of using social media and
storytelling techniques to mitigate the infodemic. The session also
presented three innovative science communication concepts using
illustrations, a children’s book and a Q&A format to reach diverse
target audiences. The examples had been selected through a global call
for good practice cases launched by WHO in April 2021. An expert panel
further reported back on the thematic discussions during the closed
sessions of the conference. These were held with 61 invited researchers,
media representatives, decision-makers and professionals working in
health, education, tourism and culture from 26 countries.

To date, the sessions’ opening and closing recordings
were viewed more than 20 000 times on YouTube. These numbers show an
enormous interest of the public in the topic of science communication
during the pandemic.

Lessons learnt from the expert discussions

Participants
identified key steps towards effective science translation: First, a
need to re-think existing scientific processes to ensure research is
being shared in a timely manner during health crises but still undergoes
quality control and scientific debate. This also includes a transparent
communication of scientific processes to help people understand what
science can and cannot do. While the public often expects science to
provide clear answers, scientific knowledge generation takes time, is
built on scientific debate and is in fact inherently linked to
uncertainty. Open communication of this uncertainty will prevent people
from losing trust in science when the constantly evolving evidence leads
to changing public health recommendations.

Second, the concerns,
beliefs and needs of target audiences need to be taken more into
consideration when communicating science. There is no one-size-fits all
solution. Instead of “pouring out” general information, a constant
dialogue with communities is required to ensure the scientific
information is relevant, understandable and credible to them. The
continuous dialogue with different stakeholder groups will also help to
build trust in science and encourage people to ask questions and voice
concerns.

Third, it takes innovation and creativity for effective
science translation. People consume information on different channels,
at different times of the day and in different formats. Science
communication should add to people’s lives in a meaningful and
action-oriented manner and meet them where they are in terms of
preferences, values and beliefs.

Next steps

WHO
is committed to translate the insights from the conference into action.
Not just to improve science translation and manage the infodemic during
the COVID-19 pandemic but also to be prepared for the next health
emergency. Follow-up activities of the conference will include:

  • Building
    a global, multidisciplinary network of science communicators. A
    continuous dialogue with researchers, media representatives,
    decision-makers and professionals working in health, education, culture
    and tourism will help to identify and address challenges in a concerted,
    collaborative manner;
  • Developing capacity building resources
    for science communicators to empower them to judge the quality and
    independence of scientific research and share this with their
    audiences.;
  • Strengthening scientific and health literacy to
    empower people to ask critical questions about the information they
    encounter on- and offline and make evidence-informed decisions;
  • Analyzing
    existing good practice examples of science communication to understand
    what works and what does not work, and develop more effective,
    innovative science communication concepts for the future.

The
enormous interest in the global conference confirmed WHO’s mandate to
play a key role in science communication and infodemic management during
health emergencies. The timely implementation of follow-up activities
will be crucial to support countries and the multidisciplinary science
communication community to build trust in science and make it accessible
and understandable to all.

The recordings of the opening and closing session as well as presentations are available here.

 

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