[OPINION] World Science Day: Bridging Science and Society

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By Aliya Ahmad Nabil

Every 10 November, the world celebrates World Science Day. To be precise, the designated full name of World Science Day is World Science Day for Peace and Development. Peace and development are two elements that are intrinsically linked to the sustainability of humankind. Without peace, there is little room for human development and without development, the world remains stagnant – exacerbating the challenges of life on Earth. Over the years, science has proven to be a force for change. Whether or not it facilitates peace and development is an active decision that people, especially those at the top of society, must make. The 2020 theme of World Science Day exemplifies the optimal use of science with the line “Science for and with Society”. 

The scientific method uses experimentation and evidence to draw inferences and to a certain extent, conclusions. The important point to note is that stances in science are never concrete and disproof is as welcome as proof. A scientific decision-making process is guided by the best available evidence as it comes in, and therefore provides optimal solutions at any given time.  In uncertain situations such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, evidence-based policy should be at the heart of decision-making processes. Having scientific evidence to justify a decision is the additional check and balance policy needs. For this check and balance to work, society needs to scientifically literate. Not all nations have the resources to establish themselves as research powerhouses but nurturing a scientific way of thinking among government and society is possible. 

Despite the lack of R&D infrastructure in some parts of the world, all countries have their own pool of scientific talent. These people are the asset of any nation – intellectually curious individuals who have scientific expertise which often takes years to build up. To not utilise this expertise in forming future-proof and effective policy, is a clear misstep. To ignore these voices of expertise is simply conscientious stupidity. These voices must be welcomed, called upon and valued by those in power. Politicians should actively seek and consider the opinions of scientists, working hand in hand to address national challenges.

Besides policymakers making the effort to reach out to scientists, scientists need to be trained to communicate effectively. Ironically, the complicated terms that scientists come up with, are meant to simplify – to describe seemingly complex concepts using a single world. Despite ease of use in academic bubbles, these monstrous terms have backfired when it comes to communication. Scientists need to be retrained to be able to explain these concepts in lay terms. Despite scientists being the most trusted profession among society (Source: ipsos.com), the jargon-y language that scientists often use causes people to disengage and even feel suspicious of scientists. In numerous pseudoscience conspiracy theory videos and articles, this kind of language been misused to elicit a false academic tone. The problem is not just the use of these terms, but the fact that no one qualified has bothered to explain them in the first place, subjecting the term to being hacked by conspiracy theorists.

Last but certainly not least, society must be scientifically literate, be open to new information but also have the tools to critically analyse evidence. This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be equipped with advanced software that can statistically test hypotheses but rather the natural inclination to ask oneself “what does this mean?” and “does this make sense?”. This comes with an education system that encourages questions and discovery rather than memorisation of facts. Science needs to be taught not just in an awe-inspiring way but with a lens of practicality. Understanding how a vaccine works, for example, requires a basic understanding of how the immune system functions. The desire to even understand such a concept requires communicators to answer the question “what does this mean for me?”.  “What can science do for me?”, “how can it make my life better?” and “how does it work?” are all questions that scientists must be able to answer in simple terms. 

Effective communication of scientific concepts need not only be done through formal education. Community outreach programmes that communicate science in the local language, and welcome questions from the public should also be a priority. With the eventual roll-out of a COVID-19, such efforts will prove to be essential to vaccine uptake and a safer nation. As science and technology play growing roles in our lives and governments allocate billions (some of this taxpayer’s money) to this sector, it is only right that we equip people with the ability to understand how science works and what it can do for them.   

*Aliya Ahmad Nabil is a contributing writer and programme executive of the Mahathir Science Award Foundation.

**All previous posts about COVID-19 here: https://sciencemediacentremalaysia.com/tag/covid-19/

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