An Opportunity for Science

In times of the Covid-19 pandemic, science is taking center stage, and no political decision is made without an expert assessment. Communication scientist Mike S. Schäfer explains whether this crisis is an opportunity for science, whether it will change the way we deal with other global challenges such as climate change, and why there is a risk of establishing a two-tier society in terms of scientific knowledge.

Cornelia Varwig | April 2020
Mike S. Schäfer steht vor einer Wand mit Infografiken
Valérie Chételat

The expertise of scientists, especially virologists and epidemiologists, is in greater demand than ever during the Covid-19 pandemic. Do you think that science in general will gain greater importance and recognition in society due to this crisis – also in the long term?

The current crisis shows very clearly that certain situations require the expertise of the scientific community. There are a number of scientists who are going public and doing it very well. They are repeatedly pointing out that they have specific expertise, which – as is the case in all scientific disciplines – comes with certain conditions and uncertainties. At the same time, they are making it clear that their expertise does not relieve politicians of their obligation to make their own decisions. It can only be hoped that the memory of this acute and very precarious situation will have a positive impact on how science is perceived.

What can scientists and science communicators themselves do to maintain the trust they have gained?

To maintain this level of trust, it is important to keep reminding ourselves what the key expertise of science is: producing knowledge that is as unbiased, comprehensible, and resilient as possible, in keeping with certain rules that science has imposed upon itself. Even when scientists take a public stand, they have to make the limits of their own knowledge transparent and stress, for example, if something is difficult to predict. That can be difficult. Science communicators usually work at research institutes and universities that have an interest in being themselves presented favorably to the public. To foster trust in science as a whole, it would be helpful if these organizations would place greater emphasis on finding the truth and on evidence-based knowledge than on the particular interests of the individual institution.

Porträt Mike S. Schäfer

Mike S. Schäfer is a Professor of Science Communication and Director of the Center for Higher Education and Science Studies (CHESS) at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He is also President of the AGORA committee of the Swiss National Science Foundation for the promotion of scientific research. His main research and teaching topics include media and online communications on climate change and artificial intelligence. His most recent publications include the handbooks “Forschungsfeld Wissenschaftskommunikation” (Research on Science Communications) (2016) and “Forschungsfeld Hochschulkommunikation” (Research on University Communications) (2018). 

Scientific assessments have rarely had such direct, rapid impact on political action and on the actions of individuals as in this pandemic. Are there lessons to be learned from the current situation – for example, how to deal with climate change?

Positive impetus, irrespective of science, could come from the current test runs of virtual solutions for meetings and schools. These experiences could improve our carbon footprint later on and help contain climate change to a certain extent. Apart from that, it is impressive how politicians in many countries have managed to reduce societal activity to a minimum during this crisis in such a short time. But this achievement is not easily transferable. Granted, climate change is also a global societal problem with considerable ramifications that cause people to die. But many people already have relatively well-established preconceptions about it and do not perceive the danger as that pressing. That makes it harder to move people to action. Plus, introducing permanent changes in society, such as altering mobility patterns or reducing meat consumption, is much more difficult.

On the one hand, scientists are being listened to more than ever, and on the other, conspiracy theories about how the new coronavirus has developed and spread are soaring. What would you say, who has the upper hand right now in this “information battle”?

There are a number of conspiracy theories, which serve to instrumentalize Covid-19 for political purposes; these are primarily spread by right-wing populists. But it’s difficult to say who has the upper hand because the public are highly divided when it comes to these conspiracy theories. In some circles, they certainly carry a lot of weight and impact people’s actions. Nevertheless, we are currently seeing that many people are turning to established media to satisfy their demand for information, especially public service broadcasters and major newspapers. It’s good that in this situation many people are turning to credible sources of information.

One of the most important means of containing the coronavirus pandemic will be vaccination. Social media are already reporting that the pandemic is likely to silence the anti-vaccine community. How realistic does this seem to you?

I doubt it will be silenced. But I can see the current situation having a positive effect.  After all, there are variations in the extent of opposition we see among members of the anti-vaccination movement and other people who don’t agree with the scientific mainstream. For some, even a successful Covid-19 vaccine, when it becomes available, won’t change their negative attitude toward immunization. But opponents who are not as skeptical might agree, based on the current situation, that there are evidence-based measures that can be used to successfully fight diseases. And perhaps this will give them cause to consider what it could mean for immunization in general, for instance, the measles vaccination. 

We are risking that a certain share of the population will not be shown scientific content at all.

One of your recent studies focuses on how to communicate scientifically based facts in a credible, sustainable, and target group-oriented manner. Which recommendations do you have for successful science communication?

There are a number of steps that can be taken. First off, science needs to not focus solely on outreach, i.e. communicating with society, but also on “inreach”, communicating with the science community itself to create the willingness and skills to address the public. There’s been progress in recent years, but there is still room for improvement – both in the number of scientists and in their communication skills. We should think about integrating the acquisition of these skills into scientists’ training. One of the most important questions in communication is: What do I intend to achieve and among which target group? Surprisingly, this simple question is often not even asked. Frequently, people attempt to explain things and convey knowledge to everybody at the same time. And that may not always work too well. 

What about activities that go beyond the scientific community?

In addition to scientists, we need skilled and critical experts to convey information. These are mostly science journalists. Given the current crisis in the media and especially in science journalism, we must ensure that it can work well in the long term, which means being economically stable and independent of science. With new media such as YouTube, Facebook, or TikTok, the question is: Are there enough science communicators on these platforms who we think are doing a good job, and if not, how can we change this? 

Last but not least, we must challenge the role of online platforms in general. A major part of all communication in today’s society is facilitated by platforms like Google and Facebook. The information that reaches people depends on the curation of content according to algorithms. Those don’t focus on content quality, but on maximizing attention, resulting in a conflict of goals – at least if our goal is informed citizens who can make competent decisions on science-related topics. So we will need to offer incentives or create regulation to make online platforms change their recommendation algorithms to better fulfil this role. If we don’t, we are risking that a certain share of the population will not be shown scientific content at all. Then we will end up in a two-tier society in terms of scientific knowledge, so to speak – and that’s something we should prevent from happening.