Thought Leadership

Why it is Essential to Support Nigerian Researchers and Journalists in Science Communication

5 Mins read

By Abdullahi Tsanni, Emma Weitkamp, and Mahmoud Maina (Guest Writers)

In October 2019, the African Science Literacy Network (ASLN) conducted a survey during a training event on science communication for scientists and journalists in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. The study published in late 2023, explored communication activities carried out by Nigerian health researchers and journalists, their motivations, and the challenges they face in bringing science to the people.
 
Established to increase public understanding of science and fuel the public’s interest in research, ASLN has trained more than 70 journalists and scientists from all parts of Nigeria. Over 60 articles on science and health issues have been written by our fellows and published across national and international media outlets, including this one. Nigerian scientists and journalists are rightly working together to disseminate knowledge and engage the public with research. We encourage institutions, universities, and the government to join the push. Robust science communication is vital for informing and educating the public and policymakers about advances in scientific research in Nigeria. And it will help promote a healthier society.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Why Science Communication?
 
Our work highlights the necessity of science communication when it comes to public health. Journalists and health researchers both contribute to the quality of information available to the public about health issues, whether these are long-term conditions such as diabetes or unexpected crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding how journalists engage with health research, and the challenges they face is critical to improving health reporting. Similarly, understanding how health researchers view information sources, and the challenges they face in their own public communication will help build a stronger flow of information to the public to help them make informed decisions about their current and future health. For this reason, we sought to understand how journalists and health researchers together currently share information with the public and how these practices could be improved. 
 
A wide range of media platforms are available to the public, when seeking or encountering health research. Our study in the Journal of Science Communication shows that Nigerian health researchers and journalists use different communication tools to disseminate knowledge and engage the public, helping to ensure wide reach. These tools include writing for the public, public speaking, social media usage, working with educators, and in-person engagement.
 
Journalists and researchers also claim different levels of experience with these tools; journalists had more experience with arts, festivals, policymakers, and video production, while scientists focused more on communicating with other scientists. Journalists were more engaged in community-oriented activities like social media and writing, whereas scientists preferred working with educators and engaging in direct interactions. 
 
Improving health knowledge
 
This study found that the primary aim of science and health communication is to educate the public, followed closely by informing the audience. A significant number of researchers and journalists also take part in science communication to inspire young people, encourage evidence-based attitudes, counter misinformation, and engender conversations. These public-focused goals align with a desire to improve people’s health, empowering them through provision of information and spaces for discussion. Supporting health researchers and journalists in science communication will play crucial role in providing accurate, accessible information. This will benefit public health and lead to increased health literacy among ordinary Nigerians and a well-informed citizenry.
 
Although communication goals are broadly similar regardless of the level of experience of science communication, both researchers and journalists with less experience are more likely to prioritise self-promotion, persuasion, and encourage evidence-based attitudes. This suggests that with greater experience comes a recognition of the important role that communication plays in promoting public health. Aligned with this, those with more experience are more focused on countering misinformation. When the COVID-19 pandemic exploded, panic about the coronavirus fuelled the spread of false remedies and affected Nigeria’s attempt to prevent infections. Science communication has an important role to play in curtailing such bogus information and boosting public health.
 
A matter of trust
 
We also explored trust in a range of information sources. Not surprisingly, scientific journals and conferences are widely trusted and consulted by researchers and journalists, alongside science magazines. They also trust international media news, though don’t consult it often. Trust in Nigerian newspapers is high amongst journalists, but not scientists. Similarly, looking at social media, Reddit is not trusted much but is used more by researchers than journalists.
 
When it comes to communication materials such as blogs and press releases produced by organizations, we found a variable pattern. Like other science sources, universities are trusted and used, while communication materials from NGOs, industry, and government vary in their level of trust. Material posted on X (formerly Twitter) by individuals and NGOs is less trusted by researchers compared with journalists, while university Facebook sites are broadly trusted, and industry Facebook sites less so, particularly by researchers. These patterns likely reflect levels of trust in organisations, with those perceived as being independent (universities) held in higher trust than those where there may be underlying agendas at play. 
 
A particularly interesting finding relates to trust in scientists; scientists were widely trusted, including scientists working for industry. This despite industry generally being less trusted. Furthermore, government information was the least trusted source amongst both journalists and researchers. Overall, trust levels in the government are low, while trust in journalists, scientists working in universities, those in the private sector, and health professionals is higher, and trust in science as a discipline is nearly unanimous. This suggests a need amongst government to work on establishing trust and credibility with these key communities. 
 
Bridging the gap between science and society
 
As much as science communication is essential, some obstacles stand in the way. Nigerian scientists and journalists face several barriers to bridging the gap between science and society, such as lack of resources, insufficient support from managers or organisations, and poor funding to support science communication projects. Particularly within places like universities, research institutes and hospitals, management could be more supportive of staff wishing to undertake science and health communication activities. Given the important role of health and science research in Nigeria, funders may also consider how such activities could be supported. 
 
Training programmes in science communication are needed for both health researchers and journalists to develop their skills in effective communication and the use of different media including social media platforms, video production, podcasts, infographics, educational materials, and games, among others. This would enable both researchers and journalists to fulfil their potential as communicators of health-related information. Such an approach would further strengthen the flow of information from the research community to wider audiences.
 
ASLN is a successful example of how scientists and journalists can take steps to improve science communication in Nigeria, but such efforts need to be sustained.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

About the Authors

Abdullahi Tsanni is a science journalist and founding partner of the African Science Literacy Network (ASLN). He earned a master’s degree in science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Emma Weitkamp is a founding partner of the African Science Literacy Network (ASLN) and professor of science communication at the University of the West of England Bristol, UK. She holds a PhD in biochemistry from Cambridge University, UK.

Mahmoud Maina is a neuroscientist and founding partner of the African Science Literacy Network (ASLN). He holds a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Sussex, UK.

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