Beatrice Opeolu, Cape Peninsula University of Technology; Blair Paulik, Maul Foster & Alongi, Inc., Thomas-Benjamin Seiler, RWTH Aachen University; and Annegaaike Leopold, Calidris Environment BV

“How important do you believe science and/or risk communication is for your research?,” we asked the 38 participants in our Risk Communication Training Course during the SETAC Africa 9th Biennial Conference, which was held from 6–8 May 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. 82.5% responded that they found it to be very important. We were off to a good start! As the last module of an inspiring, intensive and knowledge-packed training workshop on human and ecological risk assessment, we knew we wanted to make sure we involved everyone in active discussion and…even some theatre!

SETAC Cape Town Risk Communication Training Course group image

SETAC members who participated in the first SETAC Africa Risk Communication Training Course at SETAC Cape Town.

We started the course with the problem statement: Scientists and other STEM professionals have not historically prioritized communicating their work with non-scientist stakeholders or the general public. Scientists often minimize the thought and skill required to effectively reach the public, mistakenly assuming a simple, clear message will be easier to develop than a more complicated one. In fact, a simple message that communicates technical information accurately can be much more difficult to develop than a longer one that includes more information. This has led to a lack of public trust in scientists, public confusion about who is a scientific expert, public confusion about good sources of defensible scientific information, and a lack of defensible current science being incorporated into environmental protection policy. This problem was especially echoed by participants from South African regulatory bodies.

We broke the workshop up into small groups that discussed strategies for effectively communicating scientific risk, working toward solutions to problems, and other questions related to this topic. The questions were proposed by the participants in a collaborative exercise.

One group addressed the question: What do scientists need to do to effectively account for cultural and/or religious norms in science and risk communication messaging?

This group recognized that scientists should be open-minded, neutral and aim to steer away from the norms discussion. Scientists should be aware of cultural practices and attitudes of the community they are communicating their message to. They should also “identify’’ (for example through dress) with their stakeholders. Where possible, they should try to communicate in indigenous languages. The following valuable framework was developed by the group:

What? When? With whom
Prevailing knowledge During community meetings Stakeholders and communities
Problem formulation Before the research Schoolchildren
Grassroots knowledge After the research Elders
Long-term engagement perhaps Women’s groups
Civil servants

A second group dealt with the question of how scientists can effectively build trust when communicating with community stakeholders. What resources exist to help scientists build those skills or access those tools?  

It was determined that stakeholders must be identified (depending on what or who they are – local communities, government, fundraisers, companies) before appropriate strategies can be developed. Where possible, meetings should be held with the stakeholders to discuss and provide joint solutions, instead of only highlighting the problems. Scientists should work hard at explaining difficult concepts and simplifying findings in an understandable manner. As we learned from the course, this is far from easy and requires training on the part of the scientists. Connecting emotionally to the target audience was also considered essential by empathizing with and “feeling the pulse’’ of the audience. Shifting focus away from publications and using other media strategies (in local languages) should be considered, including social media and newspapers. Using non-conventional communication tools (for example through role play) should be considered to simplify messages.

A third group discussed how we can get effective communication plans built into the scope and budget for projects.

The first need that the group identified was for a communication plan to be developed. Companies or other potential funders should know that there is a financial benefit to good communication. It should also be made a requirement in regulations. The plan should be included in the project proposal and have a budget. The example of National Science and Engineering Research Canada (NSERC) requiring at least a paragraph on how you will communicate the results of your project was presented. It should also be emphasized that communication is a time-saver if included right from the start. The group suggested some sources of research funding including: NSERC, local municipalities who could fund workshops, oil and gas companies, The World Bank and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

SETAC Cape Town Risk Communication Training Course role play activity

The role playing activity shown in full swing!

And finally, the fourth group rounded off the day with a role play in which different topics and challenges were addressed. The activity revolved around prior discussions in groups leading up to and during the open discussion. The case was plastic pollution, including microplastics, in drinking water, and the necessity of a circular economy. The group enacted the different roles involved in this issue. They showed through an improv stand-up performance how difficult communication can be, given the different perspectives and interests of the presenters and target audience. Carina Verster represented the non-governmental organizations, who accused the government, played by Larry Kapustka, of not caring enough about the problem, and ultimately demanding the banning of plastics. Government approached academia for more details to make an informed decision. Academia was played by Isaac Kudu, who replied that they need more funding, which prompted government to think about raising taxes. The public (Thomas-Benjamin Seiler) took to the streets, highly concerned about everything they read on social media, while Gabriel Dedeke as industry countered this outcry with the job and money argument, and further warned about diminishing food security.

The session provided valuable information on the necessity of effective communication of our science to a variety of audiences. The role play suggested that more needs to be done to empower scientists to deliver on this responsibility.

Authors’ contact information: aleopold@calidrisenvironment.com, seiler@bio5.rwth-aachen.de, blair.paulik@gmail.com and OPEOLUB@cput.ac.za

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