10 Tips to Effectively Communicate Biotech for Scientists
During an exclusive online workshop in animal biotechnology that ISAAA Inc. hosted in February 2023, one of the topics discussed in the open forum was communicating biotechnology to the public and public acceptance of genetically modified (GM) animals and the products derived from them. Each resource speaker had something relevant to say about it, which only shows how important it is to address concerns about science communication, as well as getting people to listen and understand what scientists are saying.
Here are some tips that scientists may find useful when talking to the public about the technology they use, in reference to the output of a different workshop in 2015 conducted by the National Research Council in the United States, published by the National Academy of Sciences.
1. Understand the nature of the controversy.
Effective communication does not come in a “one size fits all” format. Each situation is different, and so are the messages and the key players. It is best to take a step back, identify the issues at hand, then work on them with carefully designed communication strategies to ensure that the correct message gets across. It is also important to remember that each stakeholder group represents only a section of the general public. If friction occurs between two stakeholder groups, it does not necessarily mean that the public’s opinion about GMOs is divided. A communicator might want to consider engaging with a stakeholder group and ensure them that their concerns are valid. This shows that there is sincerity in addressing the concern, and it is felt not only by that specific stakeholder group, but by the other groups as well.
2. Add the element of respect in the communication process.
It doesn’t help to barge into people’s lives, present facts, then ask them to make an immediate decision on whether they like GMOs or not. Communication requires respect for the people you are talking to. Be respectful of their stake, situation, worries, and interests. Show sincerity, and the community will more likely respond to the message in a positive way. A community that is more open to receiving science-based messages is less vulnerable to misinformation.
3. Learn from past experiences.
Social science research helps explain how people process information and the effectiveness of different communication approaches. Science communicators are welcome to refer to findings of past social science research to develop a communication strategy, instead of having to come up with a new strategy every time. A repository of these past experiences can be a gold mine of information. Learning from those who have already engaged the public can help reduce missteps when developing communication plans, not just for the communicators but for the message receivers too.
4. Keep enhancing your communication skills.
In today’s setting, trainings and courses are more accessible to more people. A lot of institutions and organizations offer communication trainings and courses in face-to-face and online settings. ISAAA Inc. offers science communication and social media management trainings for scientists and regulators in the Philippines, and an annual short course on agribiotechnology, biosafety regulations, and communication to everyone who is interested. These capacity building activities help scientists see the bigger picture when they are communicating about their research. It enables them to develop strategic plans for handling inquiries from different kinds of people that will work to everyone’s advantage. Grab the opportunity when a good science communication training comes along the way.
5. Examine biases.
A good communicator must be able to negotiate between his own bias and those of others. While it is easier to lean towards finding a source that agrees with you, it is more important to find a credible source that will acknowledge both risks and benefits associated with an issue. Likewise, it will also be a good experience to engage with someone from the opposing side to discuss their arguments, provided that he too is willing to negotiate his own bias. The discussions do not need to be about scientific facts only. They can also be about the stories and values of the people who are involved in science.
6. Bring the human element into your stories.
The right mix of storytelling and evidence about controversial topics like GMOs can be effective in engaging people to listen. People will likely pay more attention to stories that they can relate to. Be mindful of their experiences, their culture, their values, and their community. This is especially true when food is involved. Food is very personal to people. It embodies so much of one’s individuality – his basic needs, tradition, family relations, and personality. These should be considered when communicating about genetically modified foods, as they help people to open up and listen.
7. Be patient with the results.
Science does not always make it to the news headlines. But that doesn’t make it less important. Scientists need to understand that scientific research findings will not always be the most important topic to everyone at the same time. Rather, it becomes significant at different times to different people, depending on the personal or societal contexts. And in the long run, some of them become part of national conversations that affect policies, agriculture, the environment, food security, and societies. And that is a good indicator of effective science communication.
8. Listen to different sides of the story.
Talking about science does not happen in a linear format. Rather, it is a dynamic discussion that occurs in a large framework that involves different key players, not just the scientist. Some scientists and science communicators have the impression that they are the only ones who need to speak. That is not always the case. It is vital to respect and include different kinds of scientific opinions, as well as a diversity of opinions, especially those that come from communities who will be greatly affected by scientific innovation. It is also important to avoid dismissing, discrediting, or failing to respect reasonable concerns about the consequences of new technologies.
9. Engage in meaningful conversations.
Scientists can be approached by members of the public who have not formed an opinion on GMOs but are interested to know more about them. Rather than convincing them immediately to focus on the benefits of GMOs, scientists can use the opportunity to start a meaningful conversation about the matter. Communication can help limit polarization and controversy. Knowing the difference between persuasion and engagement promotes a representation of diverse interests when making a conversation. It also helps find a common ground between the scientist and the layperson.
10. Find a common ground with the target audience.
High quality discourse is the center of a meaningful public engagement, especially when the topic is controversial. When discourses are respectful, outcomes of engagement tend to be more valuable and useful to communicators. It may be wise to consider holding social gatherings instead of speeches and press releases, as the former is more participatory for those involved. Social gatherings can help ease tensions and promote civil exchange of views. Those who are present can find a common ground before starting conversations of debatable concerns. The common ground helps key players acknowledge shared commitments that can foster a healthy discussion.
ISAAA Inc. advocates for the knowledge sharing of science-based information for different stakeholders and beneficiaries of agricultural biotechnology. If you or your institution would like to know more about how ISAAA Inc. can help you with science communication, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the ISAAA website.
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