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Science communication in the COVID era

Science Communication Institute > Interest > Science communication in the COVID era

One year into the global COVID pandemic, how is science communication holding up? It’s a mixed bag.

First, with regard to research itself and the communication that has happened between those directly involved in the vaccine-discovery process, science gets an A+, not only for sharing critical data (like genome sequences) at an accelerated pace, but also for being able to roll out vaccine R&D at a record-setting pace. Much credit here is also due to the regulatory environment, which worked in parallel with researchers to start the approval and manufacturing processes before research was complete (these steps normally work in sequence and take years rather than months). This parallel processing won’t be happening anytime soon for other research that isn’t pandemic-related in nature, though, so don’t get used to it!

The record of research publishing during the pandemic has also been mostly successful. Researchers and publishers in 2020 shared their COVID-related research with few barriers (save for the intellectual-property related data), which accelerated the discovery timeline. Much has been written about the potential for this kind of sharing to speed up the discovery process across the board—not just with COVID but with all science. It’s true there has been increased awareness about this potential, and even some new developments that have occurred (such as, for instance, drawing more researchers into the peer review process, and increasing scrutiny of preprints; see our September presentation to UNESCO for more details). However, 2020 also saw an “infodemic” (in the words of the WHO director) of bad research getting published. Going forward, it’s going to be important to figure out how we can open the gates to more rapid science sharing while at the same time ensuring that what’s entering the scientific discourse is quality and not junk that lacks reliability and integrity.

On the public outreach side, governments, agencies and institutions worldwide have done a remarkable job developing and deploying effective science messaging. Noncompliance has had nothing to do with a failure of this messaging, but rather with the success of anti-science messaging that has found a receptive audience. It will take time to understand the dynamics of this conflict and figure out ways to combat it going forward. What we know from the science of science of communication is that influencers play a huge role, more important than the message itself. People trust messengers, and if it’s their trusted radio personality, pastor, or social media star who is saying that we need to wear masks, this message will resonate more than if the CDC puts a poster on every telephone pole in America. Doubling down doesn’t work and can even be counter productive. Instead, reaching people where they are is a much more effective way to communicate science.

Finally, with regard to public policy, success here has been a mixed bag. Countries and states with anti-science leadership have fared worse than countries and states with pro-science leadership. But even in pro-science regions, public patience with lockdowns and other restrictions has worn thin. Looking back, of course, national mask mandates and testing coordination would have helped greatly in 2020, and may still help going forward in 2021. However, the enforceability of these mandates remains poor in rural regions. Knowing this, we may need to think more in terms of creating and communicating policies that are less of the one-size-fits-all variety. Policies that are unworkable or that at times can seem tone deaf to the hardship people are experiencing has increased public resentment and skepticism, which feeds more anti-science rhetoric and then makes compliance with more workable policies less effective. Just as with any other policy education and outreach effort, we need to reach people where they are.

Overall, the good news for science during 2020 is that it has likely increased in stature. Public trust in science has always been strong but this trust also hasn’t improved much over the last 40 years or so. Maybe the events of 2020 will help push the needle. The bad news for science is that 2020 showed how misinformation is a pox on society that is going to be very hard to cure. Without agreement on what constitutes truth, it will be all but impossible to find common ground on every other science-related (and non-science) issue of our time. But for now, the fact that scientists are on the cusp of rescuing the world from COVID is a net positive for the future of science and science communication. It will take years to see if we can build on this achievement, but certainly the seeds for success have been planted.