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Reframing Trust in Science for Multilateral Policy: Insights from the Science Journalists Forum

Nick Ishmael-Perkins, Senior Consultant for the ISC, recently led a session focusing on trust in science at the Science Journalism Forum. Joined by leading science journalism editors, they discuss the role of science journalism to promote trustworthiness.

The Centre of Science Futures, a new think tank from the International Science Council (ISC), released its latest working paper (“The Contextualization Deficit: Reframing Trust in Science for Multilateral Policy”) at the 2023 edition of the Science Journalism Forum (SJF), during the ISC-led session “Reframing Trust in Science: What Are the Lessons for Science Journalism?”.

Nick Ishmael-Perkins, Senior Consultant for the ISC and report lead author, was joined by leading science journalism editors, Mia Malan, Chief Editor of the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism in South Africa and Subhra Priyadarshini, Chief Editor of Nature India,  to discuss the need for a more sophisticated approach to how science is communicated and how we understand “trust in science,”- posing the question, “What role does this approach suggest for science journalism?”.

One key issue identified in the paper and highlighted by Ishmael-Perkins in his introduction is that trust is often polled as an aggregate as if it were a quantifiable metric. Science, too, is often regarded as a monolithic entity, overlooking its inherent diversity. Another shortcoming pointed out in the report is how information systems communicate to the “general public”, as if audiences were a singular, homogenous entity, thus neglecting the vast array of audiences and communities.

Indeed, as the paper notes the prevailing discourse framing the science-policy-society engagement follows a linear model aimed at bolstering public trust in messages grounded in scientific consensus. When public compliance falls short, it is attributed to a supposed “deficit of appreciation” by the public. However, this approach has not proven sufficient, and the consequences are evident in the disappointing progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the proliferation of misinformation.

Contextualization and diversity

The COVID-19 pandemic is a high-profile illustration of science-policy failures and resistance by both the public and policy leaders, exposing systemic and structural issues in translating knowledge within the policy interface. Ishmael-Perkins then reminded participants of a success story: India’s effective polio eradication strategy, achieved through several key shifts in the science-policy-society interface. Notably, India successfully managed to recognize the heterogeneity in how people perceive and understand trust in science. As the paper emphasizes, context is critical in understanding the level of trust, and there are multiple factors at play beyond trust in science per se.

To address the current “contextualization deficit,” the paper suggests several strategies, which Ishmael-Perkins tailored to science journalism specifically for the discussion. Mia Malan, Editor-in-Chief of the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism in South Africa, offered a unique perspective. In a country with 11 official languages and a wide array of perceptions of science, South Africa has faced significant challenges, including the national AIDS tragedy stemming from misinformed policy decisions influenced by historical prejudices. In such context, Malan emphasized that consistency and adaptation to local audiences are the currency of trustworthiness – a lesson reinforced by the experiences of science journalists during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only must journalists tailor and facilitate dialogue with audiences, using channels that people use to access information, but the newsroom itself needs to reflect the diversity of the audiences they inform and serve.

The Contextualization Deficit: Reframing Trust in Science for Multilateral Policy

DOI: 10.24948/2023.10 ‘The Contextualization Deficit: Reframing Trust in Science for Multilateral Policy’. The Centre for Science Futures, Paris., 2023

Humanizing science

Subhra Priyadarshini, Chief Editor of Nature India, joined the conversation, noting the power of empathy to promote trust – especially on topics of life and death, such as health or disasters. Journalists must invest time and energy to build a bridge with their audiences, establishing a real connection at the individual or community levels. The common sense behind trust in science is that it must be earned, “should it be any different for journalism?” she notes.

Priyadarshini emphasized another important issue from the report by highlighting the uncertainty and vulnerability of science that ought to be communicated in good faith. Along with evidence-based information, the humanization of science is the key ingredient to achieving trustworthiness.

Another significant challenge is that, commonly, science is seen as the domain of specialists, even as it is entangled in complex jargon, which is typically in the English language. Fake news provides a simpler option, and to curb misinformation, there is a growing need for more accessible and simplified scientific communication in various languages. However, Ishmael-Perkins warned that information management or communication technology will not provide easy solutions to the challenges of trust. The question of responsibility arises: who should make science more trustworthy and accessible? This burden largely falls on scientists, but as Priyadarshini notes, they often lack the time and training for effective public engagement. This is where science activists come into play, acting as intermediaries between scientists and the publics they are meant to be serving. Priyadarshini observed that we find ourselves at a critical juncture in history, with the opportunity to break down the barriers that hinder science and science communicators.

Training journalists for science communication

 Nick Ishmael-Perkins reacted to the exciting cases brought forward by diving into the four areas of public engagement as described in the paper. It is not enough for science journalists to publish their articles, he notes, but they need to reflect on the role they play in maintaining accountability within the science-policy interface. This necessitates framing the issue in a broader context, including recognizing the political context. However, as underlined by the participants and the panel, journalists are not equipped to play this role, particularly in an era of stressed business models. As Malan points out, de-jargoning takes a significant amount of time – a shocking 15 to 20 hours are spent editing a 1,500-word article, with half of that time focused on de-jargoning. A lot of skills go into breaking down concepts, contextualizing, and explaining through analogy – especially when all these tasks need to be performed more rapidly during crises, such as a pandemic. This requires partnerships to be genuinely efficient – notably through training workshops of journalists by scientists – training which Bhekisisa’s journalists now undertake monthly.

Priyadarshini concludes the exchange, emphasizing that science communication remains a “green field” – with the science bureau being amongst the newest additions to newsrooms, where they do exist, and that competition to get stories out is high. Science must battle for front page space with political and economic news – science stories need to be mainstreamed into one of the “hydra heads” of news. And this requires thinking of the political and economic dimensions of the stories.

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The information, opinions and recommendations presented in this article are those of the individual contributor/s, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of the International Science Council.

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