Scientists and Communication in times of Covid-19

We are living in unprecedented times in every aspect of life.. One couldn’t imagine a world where simple acts of going to get groceries or dining out or going to work would be viewed as either brave or foolish acts…

Another unforeseen but pleasant change has been the domination of scientific developments and scientists hogging the headlines in every form of media. This was unthinkable before the pandemic except for the occasional Space missions or announcement of the yearly Nobel Prizes. In fact, one of the laments of the scientific community has been that science news doesn’t get featured prominently by media. Lo & behold! How the pandemic has turned the tide!

The consequences of this are manifold. Scientists who are used to working in areas of their expertise, on their own timelines, and at their own pace have been thrust into the limelight. Decades of R&D that leads to development of drugs and vaccines is expected at warp speed. And rightly so, the ‘tools’ for the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 are being developed at break-neck speed.

Everyone is eager to know when they could go back to ‘normal’ lives and are anxiously waiting for every titbit about the progress in R&D. Unfortunately, those in the scientific enterprise know that research involves many failures as one is chasing unknowns. One needs to constantly revise the hypothesis, the experiments and the methods. Importantly, the interpretations may change when you do the studies with larger sample size or on different models. However, these are not ideas that can be communicated easily to the public that wants answers in an easy ‘yes or no’. Scientists are used to working on ‘may be’ and ‘depends on the context’….. It takes decades of work to reach definitive conclusions.

Hence, the challenge is to whet the appetite for real-time information and updates on the progress in the fight against SARS-CoV-2 while retaining authenticity and accuracy of the information. This is difficult to straddle, and has been a major impediment in communication. This is further complicated by the ‘WhatsApp Universities’ and the quest for catchy headlines.

While there is no magic bullet, the only way is more communication and setting the expectations right by the scientific community. This requires scientists and science communicators to engage in more meaningful dialogue with the society. It is encouraging to see new modes of communication being embraced by the community in sharing the authentic information and busting the myths. May be this is the ‘coming of age’ moment for science communication!

Further, society needs to support science and technology not only during the pandemic but beyond too. It is this continued investment in S&T that we harness today. It is what we do, how we do and the lessons we learn today, that will help us tide over the current and future pandemics.

Dr Geetha Vani Rayasam