Understanding the science of communication

It was standing room only for the last session on Thursday covering Communication Challenges: Defining the Industry for Policymakers and the Public. Session Chair Richard Gallagher, editor & publisher of Scientist magazine, started with some provocative questions, asking: is the industry misunderstood and undervalued by the public and politicans? And are we telling the best stories in the right way?

Local senator Christine Kehoe gave the industry a glowing report card, describing biotech’s contribution to San Diego. Delegates will spend an enormous amount of money while they’re here (not all of it on food & drink), with the local industry comprising 700 companies employing around 40,000 people with an average salary of $80,000. So how to approach your local politician? Senator Kehoe reminds us that politicians are people too, start talking before there’s a crisis you want fixed and keep the lines of communication open. All common sense stuff for most of us.

Barry O’Leary discussed the rise of capital intensive investments into Ireland’s biotech industry, in the form of new facilities built by Pfizer, Merck, Lilly and J&J. Although biotech is perceived favourably by the Irish, there is still a need to communicate transparantly with the public over what is happening in their back yard. By the way, all the world’s botox comes from Ireland.

Perhaps it’s an informed public that will be the key to widespread public acceptance of biotech, as Seema Kumar suggests. It’s time for scientists to come out of their ivory towers where they’ve enjoyed splendid isolation talking to each other and start explaining themselves to the rest of us, instead of leaving that to the media who often get it wrong – so much being lost in translation, Kumar says. Scientists should be the face of science, it’s core communicators, she added.

Matt Nisbet will be known to many from his research and writing, and he has spent much of his time looking at why issues become controversial. Matt’s tips for biotech’s future are: Invest in science education – the world needs more citizen scientists who can make informed decisions. This could take the form of adding ‘science in society’ or similar to what is taught at school.

And for the industry and scientists: engage in public dialogue – people need to feel they are being listened to.

This was followed by robust feedback and opinions from the audience, as people shared their thoughts and experiences. Not everyone agreed, but at least we were talking to each other and even more importantly, listening as well.


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