The Boma

How - and why - do we talk about science?

April 05, 2022 International Livestock Research Institute Season 2 Episode 3
The Boma
How - and why - do we talk about science?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

If you're not a researcher, why should you care about science? Why does science communication matter to research?

In the second of a two-parter featuring ILRI Emeritus Fellow Susan MacMillan, Brenda Coromina and Elliot Carleton question what the difference is between science communication, and science advocacy, finding out how the International Livestock Research Institute's (ILRI) communications have changed over the years, and why. 

"We're not science for science's sake," says Susan of ILRI. "We have a mission. We have to go further than just the science."

They discuss how social media can be a positive force for science, and what science writing has in common with storytelling. It's not enough to simply put the information out in easy-to-understand terms. Science communication is a big responsibility, and can have a tremendous impact on the world. So whose voice should be heard - and who should be doing the storytelling? 

Brenda: Welcome back to The Boma. A podcast from the International Livestock Research Institute where we discuss how sustainable livestock is building better lives in the Global South. 

My name is Brenda Coromina.

Elliot: And I’m Elliot Carleton. 


Brenda: Today is part 2 of a 2-part series in which we’re going to be talking with one of our colleagues, Susan MacMillan. Last episode, we talked to Susan about the stigmatization of livestock. 


Elliot: To recap, Susan has worked at ILRI, which is the livestock branch of the CGIAR, for more than 30 years now. She is an expert in livestock-related matters, public awareness, and advocacy. But after years of working alongside scientists in livestock development, Susan has learned a thing or two about the science as well.


Brenda: That’s right, and more importantly, she’s learned how to communicate the science so that it has impact. 


Susan:We are at least at my institute, we're not science for science’s sake. And there are some people who do that, but we are what we call a mission-oriented science institute, which means we have a mission, which means that we are we must get the word out to those people who can use it. And that means we have to go further than just the science. We must communicate to it in a way that are different, what we call stakeholder audiences, which are all the people we want to influence and to inform that they have that information. That's a big job, but it's a very interesting job. 


Brenda: In this episode, we’re going to talk to Susan about her experience in science communications at ILRI, which has changed a lot over the years. And one of the things I absolutely love about her story is that before she got involved with science communication and advocacy, she was as English Language teacher in Kenya. 


Susan: I knew nothing. I had never taken a biology course in university. I don't think I ever dissected the frog. So what I did was I spent seven years reading molecular biology books in the bathtub at the dining table. Wherever I was, I did nothing but that. So was so I could so I could get introduced to the science that was going on at my institute and write about it. And I was terrified. There were very many bright, mostly men in those days, some women really bright, scientists from around the world who knew what they were talking about and needed somehow and translating it for interdisciplinary science community. But I knew nothing. 


Elliot: One thing we can take away from Susan’s story is that being a good science communicator and advocate has less to do with scientific expertise than it does with the passion you have for learning and storytelling.


Brenda: That’s true. But if I could push back a little bit, it’s not all storytelling. There’s also a science and methodology to science communication because you have to keep coming back to the evidence. In science writing and science advocacy—which are 2 different things.


Susan: And even so, I would write stories. Brenda And then one of the scientists would say, what in the world you're calling the white blood cells, the good cells. And these place blood cells are bad cells. What's the matter with you? It was just because I was trying to make things into stories. 


Susan:  they're both interesting. If you write the science stories, they're fascinating, and they really are. If you write Why It All Matters, you're writing for a larger audience and you may be able to make a bigger difference in fundraising, etc. But then you've lost the nitty gritty of the science stories,which I also love.


Brenda: So as you can see, writing about science has to do with reporting facts, numbers, and evidence. When you’re writing about why the science matters, you’re trying to generate support for a particular cause, or a policy based on science.  


Elliot: Exactly. And something I often find myself thinking about as a young science communicator, is who exactly is my target audience, and what do I want them to take away? Am I trying to make a piece of science accessible, or am I trying to rouse support using evidence? Those are the things that can inform how I write from the very start. And I’m guessing it’s probably pretty similar for you.  


Brenda: Oh for sure. 


Susan: another tip for anyone young going into this, I asked the same question of five people because by the fifth person I would start to get a handle on what the answer was but I couldn't just ask one person because it was too difficult.


Brenda: Now, the very nature of science communication at ILRI has changed a lot over the years, and Susan has seen first-hand how and why those changes came about. Unsurprisingly, funding was at the center of why. 


Susan: in the early 1990s. The funding levels lowered drastically for CGI, ah, including my institute. And when they lower we realized we had not been doing a good job in promoting and advocating and making people understand why it all matters and, and getting them interested in the science stories. We just presume they should be quite arrogant of us. 

 And now we understand that our job is to start where our readers are and to bring them into the story, but not to just assume that they're going to be interested in our work. I mean, after all, I've learned that there are many things in the world to be interested in, whether it's trees or goats or cities or women's empowerment or children's nutrition, just a thousand things to care about. Why should they read our stories? That's our job, is to make them want to read them. 

Elliot: So, it sounds like funding was an important catalyst—at least at ILRI—for moving towards the science advocacy-role that you and I are more used to, Brenda.


Brenda: That’s definitely part of it. Though Susan makes a point that the act of communicating science itself is an act of advocacy too. So at the end of day, science communication and science advocacy share similar qualities.  


Susan: if you're going to write about science, you're going to be advocating for one thing or you're going to be advocating for evidence. The evidence tells us this. This is not true with a capital T is true for the small team, but it is what we know now. The best evidence says for family, and you're advocating for that. And in these days of much misinformation

It's very important to advocate for what the evidence does suggest so that we tack towards truths as we go


Brenda: Now, the other push towards advocacy-related work in science communication at ILRI came from a need to counter false narratives.  That’s a cautionary tale because communicating science is a big responsibility too. Sometimes, the wrong conclusions can be drawn from good science, and then promoted, which can harm vulnerable populations.


Elliot: And that actually reminds me of the Livestock’s Long Shadow report from the FAO, which we talked about in the last episode. Because of the negative press it received, which went around the world, justifying the importance of livestock development and research became a lot more difficult. 


Susan: when I say it went round the world, went round the developed world, it went to the Guardian, it went to the Das Spiegel's, it went to the Washington Post, it it went to the Northern it's called it the Northern Big Media Houses and got picked up there. It was not picked up in all of these other countries where livestock are the lifeblood of people's livelihoods. So so those organs, those media houses, those people who are in the more industrialized countries have a much larger voice in policymaking in people informing people's perspectives on the world than people do in what we call the South


Elliot: I find all of this really interesting because at the end of day, organizations like ILRI are primarily science organizations doing applied science. But when the popular narrative surrounding that science is misinformed, it can become difficult to get support to continue doing that work.


Brenda: Which is why science advocacy goes hand-in-hand with science communication. 


Susan: because of this negative press in the north, we'll call it the North, the industrialized countries of the world we had to move to advocacy to say, hey, wait a minute. Did you know that people who eat only sorghum with a bit of salt? Five days out of seven might need to have an egg for their children or a bit of goat meat or the milk? Mostly its milk is so important in the tradition of these families. We have to move to advocacy in order to counter a very strong contingent of people, whether it's from animal welfare groups or vegan groups or vegetarian groups or greenhouse gas emission people who are very concerned with that and are environmentalists or people who think that livestock degrade lands All of that came together in the last 15 years as a very strong counter to our argument that you must be more nuanced. And remember that first of all, every single livestock species is completely different in its greenhouse gas emissions and its land use, etc. And all of these livestock livelihoods are enormously important. You might even call them the driver of these smallholder households around the world. 

 We had to do we had to be much more intentional about how we communicated that science to help those people with those livelihoods survive and do better. And knowing that has made us, I think, better communicators 


Elliot:  On a slightly different note, something that I often struggle with when it comes to science writing, is how I can make what, to me is really cool science, sound interesting to a wider range of people. 


Brenda: I completely agree. And I still sometimes find myself struggling to figure out what is essential information, and what I can leave out to make something easier to understand. I suppose it’s a question of how much detail can we sacrifice to remain accessible, but still accurate. 


Susan: I would say it's never okay to knowingly sacrifice accuracy to make the story told better. You can. You can. And we do on an hourly basis sacrifice nuance because the science stories are heavily nuanced. It's this but that. Oh, but yes, but this. But that constantly. And the science story and the normal reader is not going to be patient enough to work through all of that So what you really have to do is to, yes, put it into an acid bath so that you've got the bare bones of the story. Which is a we're hoping our human story that does relate. And then when you have that and you've reduced it to such to those elements with some of the science now in there, but not so much you must make sure that your that you're accountable to what the actual science said. 

 What did E.B. White said in his wonderful book about how to write better? He said throw the reader a lifeline. Most readers are in the river and they're in trouble. They're in deep trouble. They're lost. Always make sure that you're clear for the reader. That is your main job. But I would never sacrifice knowing my sacrifice accuracy for that.


Elliot: One question I always try to come back to when I’m writing a story is whether I’m honouring the evidence. Even if the ultimate results are maybe not what I want them to be.  


Susan: If you report the truth where the evidence takes you, it will not always lead to what you want. That's just a fact. In science. I've just reported on tonight and a little newsletter. I do that farms are a lot smaller. The smallholder farms in Africa are a lot smaller than people thought. And livestock may not be the way out of poverty for all of them because they are too small to to be viable. I did not want to report that. I want to promote livestock, but it is my job to promote that.


Brenda: Now, I don’t know about you, Elliot, but I graduated college recently with a foreign service degree. Not a lot of science there. For me, until a few months ago, science had a place in the world, but it had little to do with social media or comms. I’ve always associated social media with misinformation.


Elliot: I definitely see what you mean. But as an economics major who was always most interested in the intersection between economics and environmental issues—which both have their own presence on things like Twitter and Instagram—I did start to see some of the crossroads between science and social media.


Susan: I find it has been highly effective in getting the word out about different subjects. Yes, there's a lot of misinformation, but there's always been a lot of misinformation in the 1800s there was a lot of gossip over the farm fence. That was totally misinformed. I don't I think we are maybe we are too critical of ourselves now that we have all of these social media platforms about how much damage it's doing because it's doing an awful lot of good as well.


So pick who you follow on social media carefully and yes, it can be addictive, so turn your phones off and you're in my in my world it's my computer because I don't use the phone for that so much, but turn them off and engage with people in real time, of course. But I do believe that it has it is an asset and that scientists are foolish not to use it.


Elliot: One thing that I have come to really appreciate about social media is how it can break down the barriers between science and the average person. In a way, I feel like it brings us closer to the science through things like #AcademicTwitter. And I think it can actually be a really useful channel for science communication.


Brenda: That’s a really good point, and that engagement with science and experts is exactly the sort of thing we’re trying to generate through the ILRI and BomaPodcast twitter accounts. 


Susan:  One of the things it has done is to and many people say this, but it has democratized vised science. So in my social media engagements, I am talking to people who are far superior to me and who I would never at a conference for example, go to lunch with. But because I'm reporting on something that they're interested in, they're reporting on something that I'm reporting on. We connect in social media in a very democratic way. Now, that can be true for an 18 year old starting out in science communications to an 80 year old who's at the end of his life and then a sterling life and a tenured professor, blah, blah, blah, blah. All of that is possible now. And that was not possible before.


Brenda: The ability to use social media for science communication is relatively new, and while things like Twitter or Facebook can be hubs of misinformation, they’re also great opportunities if we’re able to overpower those false narratives with a strong social media presence.   

Elliot: But unfortunately, that’s much easier said than done. It’s really hard to compete against these social media algorithms that generate clicks by deliberately spreading sensationalist and inaccurate views. So it actually takes a lot of courage to take on misinformation on social media.

Brenda: That’s a good point as well.

Elliot: But if we think outside of misinformation campaigns on the internet, what do you think are the greatest challenges faced in science communication today? Especially when it comes to helping people in the Global North better understand the importance of livestock in the Global South.

Susan: I think the greatest challenge is getting people like me from Cleveland, Ohio, from a suburb who had never probably seen a cow until I was 20 years old, to understand ways of life that were remarkably different from the one I grew up in. To just understand that the world is diverse and many people are literally eating bowls of boiled sorghum which is a grain traditional grain in Africa every night of the week. They don't see milk. 

It's a different world from the world I grew up in.

We are not advocating for livestock. That is an instrument for them. To move out of poverty, we know, for many of them, but it's not livestock that are our main advocacy. It is for people and for people to have a better life. 

if I would ask anything of science communications is that everything that comes out is aware of that complexity and speaks to it and furthers our understanding of it. Rather than just takes a very small piece of information and is satisfied with getting that out. 

Brenda: Now, at this point, if you’re someone whose wondering—what of the advocacy groups championing plant-based diets, animal welfare, or the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by reducing livestock consumption across the world? Because they’re definitely important and we’re not saying they’re not.  


Elliot: What we’re saying is that it’s all about perspective. And what works for one region of the world, may not work for another. 


Susan: All of these groups are doing tremendous work, but they all came together in a, if you will, in a in a synergy 

 And so to gather all of those people arguing against livestock as a whole, has hurt the people of the developing world who don't have such a big voice and have other concerns that are primary, they may care about animal welfare, but they care more about their two year old child who may die of malaria. They have huge pressing concerns, existential concerns, which we don't usually have in the West anymore. And so therefore, they have a very different perspective. And this is that perspective that communications, I hope, can help the world understand through good storytelling or good videos may be sort of tick tock, I don't know, through through film to allow people who have grown up with many resources to understand what it's like to live with few.

Elliot: Like we mentioned before, science communication is a big responsibility. People writing about science and why it matters can shape research into narrative. And this in turn can end up having a tremendous impact on things like funding and public support. In the end, all of this comes together to impact the lives of people in developing countries—for better or for worse.  

Brenda: Exactly. Which is why Susan’s point resonates. More than scientific expertise, science communication and science advocacy are about storytelling, and making the science accessible. We’ve seen how delicate that process is with the FAO’s Livestock Long Shadow report. It’s crucial, like Susan said, that we maintain a view that acknowledges the complexities of the world and the different lives of the people who inhabit it. 

Elliot: Well said. And I think that’s a great place to leave off for today. Thank you so much to Susan MacMillan for helping us understand the importance of science communication in the developing world.

Brenda:  And thank you to our listeners for joining us. We would love to hear your feedback on today’s episode or the whole podcast series. So please reach out to us on Twitter at BomaPodcast to let us know your thoughts, and also, what topics you’d like us to cover moving forward. And if you enjoyed today’s episode, please don’t forget to share and subscribe. I’m Brenda Coromina

Elliot: And I’m Elliot Carleton. 

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