Misinformation and the politicization of science have been some of the most significant barriers to vanquishing COVID-19.
Despite the scientific advancements throughout this pandemic, the social challenges of delivering evidence-based solutions continue to impede public health efforts and have ultimately resulted in preventable illness. Expert voices often have been drowned out by misinformed, albeit effective communicators who have spurred a backlash against face masks, an embrace of unproven treatments like ivermectin and conspiracies surrounding vaccinations.
The pandemic has highlighted the need to rethink how science is taught and communicated. Social media outlets and select news platforms have shown that many people are susceptible to alternative views on facts. While we are on the cusp of a post-pandemic world, we need to question whether we will be able to mitigate challenges arising from miscommunication to be better prepared for the next global emergency.
As aspiring leaders in their fields, students pursuing higher education in the sciences often find themselves equipped with specialized knowledge but are rarely adequately prepared to disseminate these learnings. For life science students pursuing an undergraduate degree, core courses such as chemistry and biology are often mandatory while communications training is often underemphasized. As a result, students graduate to become subject experts but are unequipped to effectively translate their knowledge into information that is easily absorbed by the wider community.
Furthermore, science communication training can help students develop transferable skills that can improve employability. Currently, there is an excess of science graduates who abandon the field or are unable to gain relevant careers. As a result, students who end up pursuing non-traditional career pathways may find themselves working in the commercialization of science, management, or other areas where communication is a key asset. For this reason, it is important that STEM students gain both scientific expertise and training on communication skills that will allow them to demonstrate this expertise.
“Misinformation and the politicization of science have been huge barriers to vanquishing COVID-19.”
Science communication is one method of putting theory into practical use, but there are other ways to disseminate knowledge. For many, this tends to take the form of experimental research studies leading to formal publication. However, such opportunities are limited, often resulting in research positions being highly competitive at the undergraduate level. For those who pursue research interests in their graduate studies, they will find science communication to be a foundation to the dissemination of their works. Science communication is necessary for all careers in science, from teaching to publishing journal articles, and formal instruction on communication will foster students at all levels and interests.
Canada is fortunate as a great number of individuals can access higher education. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 62 per cent of adults aged 25 to 34 have finished a postsecondary degree in 2018, ranking second only to South Korea among OECD nations. As so many members of the population embark on completing a tertiary degree, it is vital that their efforts transform them into effective communicators. And due to the prevalence of misinformation in times of global crisis, there is a strong need for evidence-based influencers within the community.
Therefore, communication training must play a greater role in the science curriculum in higher education. Students should be asked to study and practice effective methods of science communication as part of their postsecondary experience. This training could take a number of forms. For example, learners may be required to take a communications course as part of their graduation requirement. Additionally, science courses can incorporate communication deliverables, such as writing op-eds, presentations to public audiences or opportunities to teach a small lecture, that are often part of the core syllabus of courses in the arts and humanities.
For students, science communication training would amplify career prospects and ensure that graduates are well prepared to apply their knowledge. And our communities would benefit from vocal experts with strong communication training to help keep us well-informed. By incorporating science communication as a core subject for postsecondary students, everybody wins.