“We cannot pretend that science is a perfectly neutral process anymore.”

Interviewed by Lionel Pousaz, Independent Science Journalist & Writer
Experts Speak: Daniel Saraga

18th Feb 2021

Daniel Saraga is a Swiss science journalist and communicator. A former physicist, he has worked for several news outlets before leading communications at the Swiss National Science Foundation. He recently created his independent PR agency and works for several European scientific institutions. He regularly collaborates with the expert COVID task force that advises the Swiss government during the pandemic.

Cover Image Credits: Unsplash/ United Nations Covid-19 Response

In Switzerland, the COVID task force is the most public-facing group of experts dealing with the pandemic. Can you explain your role?

The task force publishes many reports. Each of these documents assesses a specific aspect of the COVID pandemic. It can be anything, from epidemiology to virology, vaccines, ethics, or economic impact. These briefs are quite technical and written in English. My job is to summarize them and to make them accessible in French. After which, they are translated into German and Italian. In Switzerland, it is important to cover our three main languages. I also support the task force with Twitter and do other translation work, like the speeches to be given at press conferences, for instance.

As a freelancer, did you see an increase in the demand for science communication with the pandemic?

Because of COVID, everyone seems to agree that we need more science communication. Many institutions have said they want to reinforce it as a priority. Of course, it is still difficult to sort words and facts. Was there a real global increase in science communication expenses? I don’t know. But at least it seems to be in the air right now. Moreover, the pandemic has made many academics aware that scientific or technical solutions are not enough. For example, Tracing apps, as good as they are, do not suffice. You need to convince people to use them. This is almost marketing, in a way, and it is becoming part of the game in science communication.

Marketing sounds like a controversial term, especially in science.

I think it is more honest to call it that way. Let’s imagine you have a technological solution for a global problem. We can think of a vaccine, a device to suck up the CO2 from the air, lithium batteries, electric cars… These solutions, which usually come from research, have to be transferred to society. They need to reach wide acceptance from people. The same goes for our COVID tracing app. First, you need to explain the concept, the security, the privacy setting. That is communication. But it is not enough to explain, because what you have is more than just a concept, it is a product. If you want to convince governments, NGOs, or the people to use it, you need marketing.

If I get you right, explaining and convincing are two different things?

They are. When we talk about science communication, we often have in mind the image of the expert who knows, and the people who don’t. Consequently, if people don’t follow the expert’s advice, that is because they did not understand properly. So we try to provide more, better explanations. This conception is a bit naive. Sometimes, people understand perfectly well, and yet they disagree for many other reasons. We have seen that a lot during this pandemic. It is also true with politicians and decision-makers. Imagine you are a scientist and you have to convince a group of politicians. You have to understand how to reach them, what make them tick. Throwing some explanation at them will probably not work. This is a whole different game than what we usually consider science communication. Of course, COVID has made it even more complicated. With the pandemic, every single scientific statement can have a huge political impact. It is a very intricated problem, different from any other science communication issue I had to face before. The closest example is certainly climate change, both in terms of complexity and policy implications.

In a practical day to day perspective, how did the pandemic change the job of science communication?

One of the main evolutions is the extended use of social media. I experience it first-hand since I follow a lot of discussions on Twitter. It is extremely fast, much faster than the usual publications route, or even preprints. You have many discussions going on about whether this study is valid or flawed. Scientists take sides and criticize each other, sometimes quite harshly. It definitely sets a new tone.

Many of these heated experts’ arguments happen in the public eye. That too is a big change.

Yes. When there is still no consensus on certain technical questions, such as the mortality rate of COVID, people can see it live. For my part, I know that scientists rarely reach a consensus on day one. There is nothing new or surprising for people who know about scientific processes. When a government asks scientists for a safety assessment of 5G, AI, robotic, or whatever, experts will go through many arguments and processes before they can speak in a single and united voice. But with the pandemic, this whole process has become very visible. It shatters people’s ideas of science. Disagreements among scientists can leave the public with a feeling of inconsistency and confusion. For many people, if researchers disagree, it means they don’t know anything. I don’t think you can avoid that by holding the debate behind closed doors. Anyways, a large number of scientists would refuse to hide their discussions.

How do you think these open debates will change the public perception of science in the longer run?

Many scientists have left their ivory tower, where they were supposed to look at the truth from higher up. Now they are in the arena. They take part in the messy debates, some of them leverage the media to attack their peers With the pandemic, science is losing its innocence. Because of that, it will be much harder to keep on pretending that science is perfectly neutral. The problem is that it is precisely what the public was always told, that science itself is a neutral, purely fact-based process. People gradually realize it is not the case. Some react with disbelief or end up thinking that scientific analyses are themselves politically biased. That said, there might also be a positive spin about it. The neutrality of science has has always been a myth. If we acknowledge this reality, we might end up with a healthier base for future collaboration between scientists and the rest of society. Scientists deserve to remain seen as extremely competent people, but I don’t think we should do as if they always deliver a perfectly impartial truth.

This sounds like a difficult, if not painful, process.

It is very unpleasant for researchers. Right now, I can only imagine how I would feel if I were a scientist on Twitter confronted by constant abuses of the anti-science crowd. Loosing time explaining again and again, spending mental energy debating with people who do not agree on the very basis of the discussion… I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

Anti-science movements have indeed become quite visible during the pandemic. What do you think about it?

Science has become much more influential during the pandemic. Since it has gained political power, the arising of a counter-power should not come as a big surprise. In Swiss media and political circles, we commonly hear that the Federal Council gives too much weight to its COVID Task Force. Some groups are deliberately trying to weaken the public’s confidence in science. We have already seen some of that before, with climate change. Some people undermine climate science only because they don’t like the idea of having to limit their CO2 emissions. Similarly, some will hold scientists responsible for the negative impact the pandemic had on their life such as lockdowns and masks.

Do you mean that denial is being driven by these concrete frustrations?

Yes. If you don’t want higher taxes on gas, just accuse scientists of lies about climate change. In our post-truth, super-polarized world, it is even easier. This is one of the reasons why so many people don’t believe in climate change. People don’t reject science because they believe there was a miscalculation somewhere in a study! Denial is just the easiest way to avoid something you don’t want. The flipside is, the more impact science has on society and the higher the risk that people get annoyed or offended.

That said, there is also a part of the population that seems to look more favorably at the role of science during the pandemic.

The public has learned a lot about science during the pandemic. A big part of the population seems to trust scientists. Yet, researchers managed to cook up a vaccine in nine months. Actually not one, but three vaccines – and at least two of them work fine. When you give it some thoughts, it is like getting a human on the Moon. It should be the triumph of science! But right now, I don’t really see that happening. Do you?