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Science communication helps strengthen democracy, argue experts
Author: Corporate Communication / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie [Alec Basson]
Published: 05/11/2018

​​​The public engagement with science and communicating science to the public is important if we want to strengthen our democracy, said Dr Beverly Damonse from South Africa's National Research Foundation on Monday (5 November 2018).

She was one of the keynote speakers on the first day of a three-day international conference (5-7 Nov) on science communication taking place at Stellenbosch University (SU). The conference, which forms part of the commemoration of SU's Centenary, is organised by the South African Research Chair in Science Communication (SciCOM) and hosted by the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at SU. Themed Science communication and democratic South Africa: prospects and challenges, it brings together national and international experts in science communication and science communication research.

In her presentation, Damonse said if we want to demonstrate the societal impact of science and the investment in science, “we have to think about building critical publics, about involving adult audiences, about new non-traditional stakeholders, about debate and scrutiny."

She did mention that there has been a positive evolution of science engagement efforts in South Africa over the last 25 years despite a lack of money and infrastructure.

“A number of programmes have been implemented over the years that are based on the imperative to get the science into the society."

“South Africa has used the science centre network as a basis to reach communities, from urban and rural communities. You also have large national campaigns. We've slowly build up a community of science engagement and science communicators."

Damonse pointed out that since 1994 policy perspectives have highlighted the importance of more engagement with society.

“There has been an increased demand over time for legislative mandates for science engagement. There is more demand to start to communicate the societal impact of research and a need to change the nature of engagement between science and society."

She said resources remain a problem and there's also a need to improve the way impact is measured. Elizabeth.jpg

Reflecting on the broader African situation, Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala from African Gong, an organisation that popularises science and science communication, said the backlash to the reversal of fortunes has poses significant challenges to science communication.

“The challenges for science communication and its practitioners are immense and they drives us to an imperative to transform practices, approaches and frameworks as a concerted strategy for the advancement of democratic principles and civic citizenship because ultimately, the ideal democracy is one in which as many citizens as possible votes and voters are armed with the most objective information."

Rasekoala said there is a need for an Africa-centric science communication framework that focuses on intra-African collaboration and partnerships.

She added that science communication must be able to transform the lives of people and the trajectory of the continent.

Rasekoala encouraged science communicators to become the real champions of societal democratic transformation that they claim to be.

In welcoming the conference-goers, Prof Peter Weingart from SciCom said it is important for science communication to focus on what it can offer people, what their needs are and why science matters. Prof Eugene Cloete, Vice-Rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at SU, opened the conference and said science communicators help to communicate the value of research and science to society.

  • Main photo: Dr Beverly Damonse speaking at the conference.
  • Photo 1: Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala addressing the delegates. Photographer: Anton Jordaan