“We need resilient structures to support good science communication.”

Interviewed by Sébastien Hug, CEO & Consul General, swissnex India
Experts Speak: Mike Schäfer

7th Mar 2021

Mike Schäfer is a communication scientist and sociologist, and a professor of science communication at the Institute for Communication Studies and Media Research at the University of Zurich (IKMZ). He is also the director of the Competence Center for University and Science Research (CHESS), President of the AGORA Commission of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and member of the advisory board of the journals Public Understanding of Science, Environmental Communication and JCOM – Journal of Science Communication as well as several national and international specialist societies.

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

Back in March last year when the pandemic started to paralyse Switzerland and almost the entire globe, how did you experience it at the University of Zurich – in the first few days of the lockdown? At that point, what were your thoughts on how this might affect your area of research in science communication?

It is fair to say that was a busy time for us. Teaching-wise, we were at the middle of a semester at the university and we were teaching in person, of course. So we had to very quickly switch to remote teaching, while not being experienced with many of the facets. So that involved a lot of work, and we made a lot of experiences and a lot of things we can benefit from now, but were difficult at the time. We all had to reorganise our research teams, and our research. It was a busy time in many respects. And for me personally, of course, it was also a busy time. Because my research topic, science communication – the communication of science and around science related issues to the broader public – is at the core of what is happening right now when we have a  global pandemic, when we have a situation where a lot of science and new studies are coming out. Scientific findings are also demanded by the public and by decision-makers. Everybody needs to make decisions, essentially, based on a science that is ongoing and in many aspects still uncertain. So for me and my research topic, it was a very relevant development because many of the things that are currently going on affect what I am doing – and are analytically very interesting for me.

Effective science communication, as you say, seems to have never been as important as right now. So do you feel now, almost a year into the pandemic, that the science behind Covid-19 has been communicated well enough? And related to that, what are some of the key insights from your special edition of the Science Barometer Switzerland on that very topic?

I think the first question, if the science has been communicated well enough is very difficult to answer. Because there are great examples of communicators communicating the science behind Covid-19, both from science itself – individual scientists doing a great job, we have great scientists doing this in Switzerland. The Covid Task Force that has been established, that consists mostly of scientists who’re doing a good job. There are individual scientists like Marcel Salathé and others who are doing a good job. So are scientific organisations like the WHO, in many respects what they’ve been doing has been great. We have great online communicators, a number of people on YouTube and other channels doing great explanations and great science communication around the pandemic itself, around social distancing measures, and masks, and now of course, vaccination.

So, there’s a lot of very good stuff there on one hand. On the other hand, there is also what the WHO has called an ‘infodemic’. It is not just that there’s a lot out there, but there’s a lot of dis- and misinformation out there; partly by people who don’t know better, partly by people who try to further their own agenda and sow their own doubts about certain measures or about science as such. So its a very diverse field, and this diversity has been a challenge for many people. Because there’s so much information out there that it is difficult to find orientation and to actually figure out whom to trust and what to do.

And in terms of our Science Barometer, one aspect that immediately connects to what I just said about this diversity, is that what we have seen and what similar studies like the Science Barometer – the survey we have done in November 2020, figuring out how the Swiss informed themselves about the pandemic and whom they trust, where do they get the information from – similar studies have been done in Sweden and Italy and US and Germany and other countries. And what we all seem to find is that many people in this time of crisis, when they actually had an urgent need for information, they have turned to trustworthy sources – to sources that we probably like that they have turned to then, like scientists, but also to public service broadcasts for example in Switzerland, and quality print media. So many people, not all of them and we’ll get back to that, but many people have turned to media that provide quality journalism and do provide an orientation. And that is certainly a good thing.

So that is something that even we have been asking our participants of the survey – like what are the most reliable sources of information? And I think you mentioned it already, science communicators feel in our survey that sometimes contradictory scientific results – which are part of the scientific process and in fact advance sciences, but those different results from scientists are actually not a major challenge when it comes to communicating science effectively, and do not lead to an erosion of trust in science. In fact the very opposite is true – you said it already – scientists seem to have gained a lot of trust and, in a way, we consider the winners of this pandemic. As you said, your survey came to the same conclusion. What are the reasons for that? And do you expect that this is going to be a long term effect? So five years down the road, is it going to be equally as much trust in scientists and science than today?

I think it will normalise again, it will go down again. It is also not that unprecedented. I mean, there is what social psychologists and political scientists describe as the ‘rally-round-the-flag’ effect: that in situations of crisis, many people turn to trustworthy sources or established authorities. And this means when they turn to science, they turn to quality media, that is something we have seen very very pronounced.

In Switzerland, for example, the trust in science has gone up considerably. And in Germany, for example, the colleagues have a longer timeline and more intermediate steps on the timeline, they have actually shown that during the first lockdown actually, trust in science went up enormously, and then “normalised” and went down afterwards. But it is still higher than in pre-pandemic phases, and that has something to do for people’s need for orientation in this complicated situation that they have. That is not that unprecedented, that in a sense will also normalise in the long run. I don’t think it will stay that high in two years time if we have hopefully gotten better in dealing with the pandemic and the virus and more people have been vaccinated.

Still, it is an interesting question, in how far we are able to use science communication, potentially other measures to conserve as many of the positive aspects, that the pandemic also has had. At least in the field of science communication, to conserve them over the mid- and the long-term.

As you said, trust has increased in scientists, and people are listening more and more to scientists. That has also led to this debate in Switzerland on the role of scientists in the policy-making process itself. Some feel that scientists, when they are mandated by the government to advice them, should be totally free in sharing their concerns and even if that means to advocate publicly and very strongly for restrictive measures. Others are a bit more cautious and say that the role of scientists is a very passive one, basically to explain the science behind Covid-19 and advice the decision-makers but not actually taking an activist’s role in the policy-making process. In your own assessment, Professor Schäfer, to ask very bluntly, who will win in this debate in Switzerland? Will we see a shift in the science communication community where scientists will take an increasingly more vocal, may be more of activist role? And if so, is there a danger that they will actually lose credibility in the long-term?

To start with the overall question, I am not sure who will necessarily win the debate. But what we see, and what has been catalysed in the current pandemic, I think is a new generation of scientists, and that is something that studies that people have done before the pandemic also bear out – that younger scientists, or the new generation of scientists coming up, are more willing and motivated to communicate their science to non-scientific audiences. This is something, to an extent, that has always been done. You can go back to centuries far, to find public experiments around science and all that.

But in recent years, there is an increase of scientists willingness to communicate to the outside and in the situation that we are currently in, in the pandemic – there is also a public appetite of course, for scientists to step up and actually explain what we know about the pandemic, about its implications, about the effectiveness of certain measures that we can do to alleviate the pandemic and hopefully to fight it successfully with vaccinations. And this new generation that is coming up, and has a couple of role-models now, I think in every country, you have a couple of scientists who are leading the way in terms of Covid-19 communication, who right now are very outspoken or very vocal out there. That is coming, and that will be getting stronger.

Also, many of them have been empowered by the experiences they have had during the pandemic, and will stick to that, will try to consolidate that more public role that they have. I would bet that it would certainly happen, that development will continue, but you are right Sébastien. I mean, there is a downside to that. At least to my knowledge, the first being discussed very publicly when we were discussing about the ‘March for Science’ in the US – that originated in the US and then was done in many countries around the world with millions of participants where scientists – during the first stages of the Trump administration in the US. There was a mobilisation among scientists to publicly demonstrate the value of science, go to the streets, protest and demonstrate for science and also a little bit against the Trump administration in the US, and their cuts against science, in certain scientific fields like climate science. And there were a couple of commentators at that time already saying: well look, the downside certainly to this is, if you take a more political role, you are for right and for wrong – but you are perceived by some people at least as a partisan enterprise.

You may be perceived as a partisan enterprise, as a political enterprise, and your science is perceived as a political enterprise, that is also dangerous, particularly in countries with a stronger degree of societal polarisation like the US are, for example, where you have a considerable amount of people on the more conservative, republican side, who already suspect or among whom many have suspected that science is this kind of liberal undertaking that comes up with things like climate change, etc and whom they don’t really believe in all that much. And if science now takes a more political role the danger is that this perception of science as being a part of an enterprise on one side of a political spectrum will even deepen and increase. And that has to be monitored as well, because the credibility of science that largely rests on its neutrality and its sticking to facts, is highly important for the scientific enterprise and for its role in society. And if that is getting relativised, it can really be problematic.

Let’s talk a bit more about that. In our survey, respondents have said that politicisation and fake news, this polarisation is the biggest challenge for science communication. And this was actually especially true in the US, where science communicators seemed particularly concerned. That in itself of course isn’t a great surprise, but the question is, how can the science communication community overcome this challenge, and how can they fight against this polarisation and fake news effectively? Do you have any good strategies?

That is the 100 million dollar, or 100 million rupee question, if you’re in Bangalore! It is a difficult question, obviously everyone is struggling with it. I think we need more resilient ecosystems for science communication – this is something that I understand on different levels, on the macro, meso and micro level if you’d want to I can explain very briefly.

On the macro level of society, it would be good if we have resilient structures that support good science communication. And I, for example, very strongly think of science journalism – it has been the societal player that has traditionally provided orientation around science related issues and in many countries right now, science journalism is in crisis. The business models don’t work anymore in media houses in general. So many media houses actually have to cut staff. This hits specialised journalism, like science journalism the hardest, so that the professional situation of science journalism in many countries has gotten worse, with fewer people that have to cater to more channels, to more PR on their table, that have working conditions that are deteriorating over time and that is a problem. We need to strengthen science journalism or find a functioning equivalent or alternative, I am not really sure what that could be – but we need structures of orientation, that provide this orientation on the level of societies. And in Switzerland, for example, it can be public service broadcasting, to take its role in that respect seriously and to actually be the provider of orientation.

In the meso level, just quickly, we have to give organisations, for example like universities or research institutes, we have to give them orientation so that they ideally play a responsible role in science communication, which many of them do. There’s a lot of excellent science communication coming out of universities and research institutions. But sometimes, they are also interested in reputation and image-building for themselves and for the good of the organisation – that can be detrimental of course, to the collective good of science communication. So that has to be monitored.

And on the micro level, people themselves formally known as the audience, who are active now and who go to social media and configure their own media repertoirs and media diets, etc, they have to be made resilient. They have to have a certain media literacy, online literacy or scientific literacy. They have to know how to ideally delineate good from bad information, they have to be able to recognise and deal with misinformation also. There are actually people working on that- they’re trying to “inoculate” people against misinformation by providing them with information – about how misinformation or conspiracy theories, how they usually work and what argumentative strategies they employ. If you give people this kind of information and enable them to recognise these strategies, you can actually show that this helps in making people more resilient against these strategies of misinformers and conspiracy theories. So I think on all of these levels, things have to be done, and almost none of them are easy to do. But that’s the way we have to go as there is no real alternative if we don’t.

I think this crisis of science journalism that you mentioned in the beginning is also reflected in our survey, where science journalists were actually not seen as a particularly reliable source. And even among science journalists themselves, they don’t really fully trust their colleagues and as one Swiss journalist has said – there is a lack of scientific expertise in the media houses and that may be leads to this kind of perception. The consequence of the lack of funding which you’ve referred to. When it comes to sources of proprietary information actually, those who are considered the least reliable in the science communication community are local authorities and the private industries or pharma companies. So they seemed to be the least trusted sources of information. What would you recommend to them for their science communication outreach? How could they gain a better standing in the science communication community? How could they gain more trust in that community, if this is at all possible? What are your thoughts on that?

I think the first question would probably be, why should people trust them more. If you talk about pharma companies, there is a perfectly good rationale to be made to say – well, look in the current situation where there is a lot of money to be made with Covid-19 vaccines, why shouldn’t people be a little cautious about the announcements and the interests of pharma companies in this field? There is at least an argument to be made that a certain healthy caution is an appropriate one. The more general point is that when it comes to trusting science, what social psychologists have come up with is this model of what they call epistemic trust and the foundations of epistemic trust. What they have shown quite nicely is that epistemic trust, trust in science, scientific findings, etc rests on three pillars essentially. One is expertise, one is benevolence and one is integrity.

Expertise is the scientific expertise, like do you know how science is done and do you know your job if you were a scientist no matter if you were at a university or a pharma company – and that is something that obviously should be there, and if people think that you are an expert in this field then that’s one pillar of the trust they may have in you.

The second one is benevolence. And benevolence is an orientation towards a common good. And that is something that leads for example a lack of benevolence or an overabundance of benevolence that leads to differences in people trusting scientists. What has been shown over and over in Switzerland and also for other countries, is that people trust scientists at universities more than they trust scientists in companies. And that has to do with a legit lack of benevolence – I mean scientists and companies are of course working towards corporate goals too. Which is perfectly fine, because that is what the corporation is set up for.  The corporation is not set up for the common good. And therefore people are more wary of trusting it unconditionally, and I can understand that.

And the third one is integrity, and integrity is the honesty of people open and upfront about their intentions, and about what they are doing. That again is connected to benevolence, because if you are trying to further your own goals but don’t talk about them, then of course, it results in a lack of integrity. So if you can strengthen these dimensions then you can strengthen trust into yourself or your organisation. But essentially the argument I made about the corporations holds even if you broaden this for other societal institutions like universities or like scientists themselves. I mean, we don’t want people trusting them a 100%. We need a critical distance to some extent so that people are actually still wary, and are still looking critically towards what scientists are doing, what corporations are doing. Because that is simply how democracies work and also how it should be probably. We shouldn’t take everything that we are presented with for granted.

Trust to a large extent also depends on the quality of the science. With the pandemic and even before, we have experienced an unprecedented amount of scientific articles and a wide spread of dissemination of results before they were even peer-reviewed. Especially scientists and journalists, according to our survey, feel this as an issue that may impact the quality standards of research done on Covid. Also, when we look at science journalists they seem to be a little overwhelmed by the infodemic that they’ve seen since the very beginning. From the science communication perspective, what is the better strategy – communicating as much and as fast as possible? Or should science communication follow a more cautious path?

I think there is no one size fits all answer, I think that depends on who you are talking to for once. If you are talking to a very knowledgable audience – that has a scientific education, a scientific literacy, that is able to deal with more complex information about science and that also knows how science works and that scientific findings always come with a degree of uncertainty, that they are always produced in a certain way – if you are talking to such an audience, you can provide them with more detailed information, more complex information in a quick way, and you have to here it less because you know that the audience is actually able to take it up and interpret it appropriately and cautiously.

And if you are talking to other people, you have to probably be more cautious, more hedged and more couched in how you do it. So there is not really one way to do it that is the best way possible.  In Switzerland, for example, based on our Science Barometer survey, we did this study where we tried to figure out are there different audiences of science communication – different audiences in terms of how they see science and where they get their information about science from.  And we have different audience groups that we identified there. One for example is the “sciencephiles”, essentially science fans who are very interested and very knowledgable about science and who are trusted a lot and consume a a lot of information about science from a lot of different media, etc. They are the first group I mentioned them, you can provide with a lot of complex information, and they are able to eat it up and deal with it.

On the other hand, we have a group of passive supporters who are actually the largest part of the Swiss population who are generally positive towards science but not very interested, don’t actively search for information about science. For them, you can’t just normally bombard them with scientific facts and expect that they are interested. That is a bit different during the pandemic – because during the pandemic we all are affected, we all are interested in getting information about it. So this group is also more interested in this kind of information now, but with them you have to communicate it differently. You have to explain while you are communicating that  ‘Look, this is a preliminary finding, this is from pre-print and has not been peer-reviewed, and that the degree of uncertainty that we have here is larger, so we have to take it with more caution’. So you have to do it differently depending on who you talk to. There is not one way you can communicate science to everybody and expect it to work in the same way.

We are slowly coming to an end but we have one more question we have for you. In our survey, there is a strong  consensus in the science communication community about the need for more insights from the social sciences, especially now as it relates to the pandemic. Would you agree with this? And if so, to put it a bit more controversial, what are social scientists doing wrong? Is science communication easier for the exact sciences with hard data than for the social sciences?

I think the social sciences can certainly contribute a lot to the debate. In essence, part of what you do in epidemiology for example, is using social scientific methods to figure out what people agree with – social distancing measures for example or people willing to vaccinate themselves, etc. I think these questions, questions that go beyond the immediate description of the virus, of the dissemination rates of all the different metrics that we all have come to know now that we have more than a year of the pandemic behind us.

Beyond that, there is the question of how do societies deal with that. How does the public take this up? How do people support it? Right now, the big question is how far are people willing to vaccinate themselves, and who are the people willing, and who are the people who are not? And among the people who are not willing to have a vaccination, what are their reasons and can they be convinced otherwise, etc. These are all questions that are social science questions, questions for sociologists, communication scholars, psychologists, etc. So they have a lot to contribute here.

If you look at the debate about Covid-19 in different countries over time you can also see that it has gotten better in a sense – that the small range of scientists that were speaking about the Covid-19 pandemic in the early stages of public debate that were mostly virologists and epidemiologists and medical experts, that has broadened a little bit. And by now we have more of these social aspects in the debate – that is a good thing and we need that. I do think that there has always been health communication and risk communication, the psychology of crisis and all of that. For many social scientists, the questions that we have to ask ourselves now on the Covid-19 pandemic have been more novel and more new, at least for virologists and epidemiologists, so their response has been quicker I think. Sometimes I also think that the results from social scientists are probably a bit more difficult to communicate because results are less clear and because the methods that are being used require a little more explanation.