We are scientists, not activists (or should they be?)

“We are a sick nation,” Professor Anthony MBewu, head of South Africa’s Medical Research Council, told delegates at the African Science Communication Conference today. He went on to explain: “12% of us are living with HIV/Aids, we have one of the highest TB rates in the world and up to 50% of us are overweight or obese, thus likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.”

“So, the tax payer is not giving us money to produce scientific publications that will boost the CV’s of researchers; no, they want real outcomes that will make all of us healthier,” he added. “In this process, science communication is not a ‘nice-to-have’, it is critically important.”

His Council recently established a “research translation” unit to help researchers achieve desired impacts on policy, practice, products and public health promotion. MBewu said that the MRC is “new” to the field of science communication and that they would have to boost future investment in this area. “We work with life and death issues, and therefore we need to be very responsible and careful with our science communication,” he explained. “We don’t want to censor any communication by our scientists, but we have to be aware that people can die if information is miscommunicated or they misunderstand our health messages.” From infant health, nutrition and malaria prevention to safe sex and tobacco control, there are public science communication challenges in everything the MRC is trying to do.

Elsabe Brits, a science journalist at a large daily newspaper in South Africa, asked why the MRC was not doing more to raise awareness about the devastating health impacts of alcohol abuse in the country. “We need to improve our act on this,” MBewu agreed.

“Where was the MRC when our government’s AIDS policies made us the laughing stock of the world?” asked Derek Fish of the Unizul Science Centre in South Africa. MBewu admitted that “mistakes were made”, but went on to outline how a series of technical reports released by the MRC led directly to new treatments policies in the public health sector. “But we are not activists,” he believes. “It is not our job to lobby, but to communicate the best scientific advice.”

But, should scientists sometimes be activists?

This concluding thought from MBewu contrasted with a view expressed at a Wellcome Trust workshop on public science engagement that I attended in another part of South Africa in December 2008. A debate on “research and activism” concluded that academics have a major task and responsibility to tackle the government – and act as activists – when the government gets it wrong scientifically. “Scientists do, however, pay a price when they become activists,” Professor Wim Sturm of the Nelson Mandela Medical School said at the time. Go to http://scienceincommunity.wordpress.com for more thoughts on public engagement from this event.

Marina Joubert, SciDev.Net

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