Telling the whole story: Better science communication for national development
“When you think of Borno State, what is the first thing that comes to mind?”
31 Nigerians answered this question and their answers were — Insecurity, bombing, IDPs, Boko Haram, insurgency, tears, humanitarian crisis, war etc. Only one answer had a counter-narrative and that was ‘a land of resilience’.
While it is true that Borno State and most of North-Eastern Nigeria has been ravaged by attacks by the militant group Boko Haram, it is not the only thing happening in the state. According to 2017 data from the Global Burden of Disease, conflict and terrorism do not appear in the top 20 leading causes of death among males and females aged 15–49 in Nigeria. This is the danger of a predominant narrative about a country or region according to Chimamanda Adiche’s popular TED talk — The Danger of a Single Story.
Borno State is indeed a land of resilience as, occasionally, stories of a people’s hardiness, in the face of insurgency, displacement and insecurity, filter through. One of such is the work done by Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Maiduguri, Isa Marte Hussaini, in the area of cancer therapy using herbal remedies. Professor Hussaini and his colleagues have made promising findings around using local solutions for cancer treatment that have been presented to the Nigeria Academy of Science. However, beyond the initial buzz that was generated when they were first announced in 2015, not much effort has been put into consistently communicating these scientific findings with the general public.
This did not deter Professor Hussaini as he continued his work despite the insecurity in the region.
Changing the Narrative
One organisation is hoping to change this dearth in science communication by bringing together a large cohort of scientists and journalists in the same room. The aim is to encourage effective communication of sciences to the public in order to garner more support and investment in research and development by the government, the private sector and other relevant stakeholders. It also aims to help scientists appreciate the need to collaborate with the media to share their work especially if it has the potential to impact their communities and help journalists understand the essentials of science communication. Dubbed the African Science Literacy Network (ASLN), the platform started by inducting the first cohort of a combined group of 70 journalists and scientists following a two-day science communication workshop in Abuja from 14th — 17th October 2019.
The initiative is made possible by a Wellcome Trust Public Engagement fund award to University of Sussex researcher, Dr Mahmoud Bukar Maina. He serves as the Director of Outreach at the Teaching and Research in Neuroscience for Development (TReND) in Africa, a non-profit that promotes science education and innovation across Africa.
Dr Maina says the challenges faced by science education in Nigeria are worsened by the dearth of science communication. The network will, therefore, serve as a springboard for scientists and journalists to collaborate better and understand ways to communicate science in accurate, jargon-free language, with the goal to make Africa realise its full potentials in sciences.
The Science Communication Hub, facilitators from the University of Sussex and University College London, Francis Crick Institute London, Yerwa Express, and TReND in Africa collaborated to deliver the workshop.
Institutionalising science communication
At the end of the two-day activity, one thing came out clear — even though several people may consider science as abstract and far-fetched, almost everything around us is made possible by science and innovation. Once any finding has the potential to profoundly impact the lives of people, everyone is interested to learn more about it. A case in point is the recent discovery and patenting of an Ebola cure by Congolese researcher, Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe.
The way forward is to ensure that journalists understand the need to show the human side of researches, how science can improve life and tell the human stories behind the data. This way, the public can connect more with promising scientific findings and participate in community events aimed at promoting science education.
Researchers are also encouraged to look beyond conducting research just for the sake of research or for promotion. They should engage in research that will change the lives of people by providing evidence for informed policymaking.
Academic institutions can be more proactive by being more strategic and deliberate about engaging the public and specific interest groups and disseminating relevant aspects of their work. They can achieve this by setting up media units in their institutions and occasionally organising science events that create a participatory and engaging atmosphere to communicate science.
Achieving all these has a major limitation — Funding. Professor Hussaini understands this and continuously advocates for more funds in research especially in his current role as a Commissioner of Higher Education in Borno State.
Everyone then has a role to play in ensuring more funds are dedicated to research and development. Scientists should be more open with their work and make a case about its potential to transform lives. Journalists should communicate effectively so that the public can understand and use the information to advocate. The government must adequately fund research institutions and to make use of the information and policy recommendations they release to make evidence-based decisions.
Change may not happen immediately as initiatives that stand the test of time are usually done systematically. But as Professor Hussaini and his team in Borno have shown, there is always more than one side to every story. With the resilience they have shown in their determination to communicate science more effectively, in the near future, when Borno State is mentioned, the narrative will no longer be about insurgency and displacement, but of innovation, courage, and leadership.
So how about you? “When you think of Borno State, what is the first thing that comes to mind?”