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Science communication by a scientific foundation

Why is it difficult to communicate about health-related subjects?

There are many different players in the field of scientific communication and public engagement. Besides individual scientists, larger research institutions and journalists, smaller advocacy groups and foundations often play a major role.

In this article, we discussed with Valentina Borsella about the goals and the communication activities of the Fondazione Carlo Molo, an Italian foundation that carries out research in the field of neurosciences, as well as public engagement activities and social initiatives, and we will discuss different strategies that can be used to transmit information to the public. We will also see how the same institution can talk to different audiences and reach different goals.

The interview has been translated from Italian and edited for length, flow and structure

Q: Dr. Borsella, could you introduce yourself and the Foundation you work with?

A: I am Valentina Borsella, I am a project manager and a science communicator for the Foundation Carlo Molo, in Torino. My activities revolve around the topic of aphasia, a condition caused by cerebral damage in which the ability to produce or understand speech is greatly diminished. For instance, patients could be unable to retrieve some words, or to form structured sentences, or to understand what is being said by other people.

Q: And what are your target audiences and your goal?

A: We have more than one audience. One is the general public. In that case, our goal is to spread awareness and educating about aphasia, and especially to dispel myths and stigmas around this condition. We also talk with other foundations, institutions, and policymakers - generally, to create new initiatives that can support people with aphasia and their families.

Q: Your topic is quite specific and, I suppose, hard to communicate.

A: Yes, especially when it comes to removing the stigma around the illness. Fighting it is quite important for us, but it is not always easy.

Q: What strategies do you adopt with the general public?

A: Well, it depends on the event. The public that attends conference cycles is usually already aware of the consequences of stroke, so we don’t need to “hook” them to transmit our message. However, relying on talks from experts and scientific data is usually not enough to convey the message. Therefore, we use different tools, such as science plays, videos and virtual “experiments” with the audience.

Q: Can you explain in more detail some of your approaches?

A: Sure. As I said before, it really depends on the audience. For instance, if I am talking to the general public, I could try to connect with them on an emotional level by asking them to impersonate a person affected by the condition. I will ask them to listen to a simple message - for instance, the notice that a scheduled appointment with a doctor has been cancelled. Then, I ask them to repeat the message without being able to use keywords as ‘doctor’, ‘appointment’, or the names of the days of the week.

Q: Is this approach effective?

A: It allows people to experience directly what it means to be unable to communicate, and to feel the impatience from the person you are talking with. So yes, I would say it works. Video material also works very well: if I say that an aphasic patient needs more time to communicate, everyone will interpret “more time” in its own way. If I show a video, everybody will witness the situation directly. Sometimes talking is not enough to bridge the gap between the experts and the audience.

Q: So, conveying your message accurately is one barrier you are facing. Are there other issues when communicating science, at least in your case?

A: Yes. We are talking about an illness, and this means that people will sometimes have an instinctive resistance towards the topic. Stroke is not a rare occurrence, nowadays, and when we are talking about its consequences, we are also reminding everybody that they are a real possibility, and some of them might tune out.

Q: This is an interesting aspect. Fear is not the best tool to use when the topic could touch personally any member of your audience.

A: Exactly. We have to balance the different aspects of the communication: we need to have a simple message, we have to be clear, but we must respect the sensibility of our audience. Ironically, it is easier to communicate about this topic if we keep it away from daily life. There is another aspect: not all health-related topics have the same impact on the public. In my experience, it is easier to engage the audience when you’re talking about childhood illnesses than when talking about elderly people, as we do. Knowing both your audience and the impact that your message has on the audience is crucial.

Q: And how does your message change when dealing with different audiences? Policymakers, for instance, or other institutions?

A: First of all, we don’t have to simplify so much the message. The goal changes - it is not spreading awareness on the condition, and it rather becomes collaborating to create new tools and initiatives. One interesting aspect is that even people working in healthcare do not necessarily know much about this specific condition, or its consequences. You can never rely on what your audience knows, and this is particularly true for policymakers and administrators, as they are not in charge forever. Every time there is a new appointee the communication must start from the beginning again…

Q: So, the communication strategies to reach different audiences can be quite different

A: Indeed. And again, even defining different audiences group might not be enough: you must be aware of how they are changing and of the specific circumstances that might affect your message at any given moment.

Q: Let’s go back to the general audience. Your goals are very well defined; what other strategies do you use to reach them effectively?

A: As I said before, it is often a balancing act. For instance, we sometimes use stage plays to spread awareness. In that case, watching the play itself is the reason why the audience is there, but we cannot convey all the information we would like to transmit. Therefore, we use complementary strategies: we distribute informative leaflets along with the theatre program - of course, hoping that the audience will read them and bring them back home

Q: So, that would be a measurable goal. More in general, how do you assess whether a public engagement effort reached its effect?

A: In the short term, we use obvious measures: the size of the audience, the number of documents distributed, the number of questions we receive after a talk. On the long terms, the metrics are different: we monitor the local media, we count the number of contacts and queries we receive, and of course, the number of institutions involved in our activities is an important metric too.

Q: To conclude, are there other pitfalls that could make your activities less effective, and that you would warn our learners about?

A: Yes, I would like to go back to the topic of communicating the consequences of illnesses. As part of our institutional activities, we involve patients in video making or other artistic endeavours. Showing these works is important to increase the understanding of aphasia, but it is also risky. It might happen that the audience will consider the product just as the result of a social activity carried out with patients. To avoid this, it is important to include a scientific voice. Showing things is important but it is not enough, we must also explain things rigorously.

Some reflection topics

This short interview underlined some crucial aspects that we mentioned in the previous two steps, especially the importance of knowing your audience and their response to your communication efforts.

Imagine yourself as a communicator in a similar circumstance:

  • How would you balance your goals of spreading awareness and communicating correctly the consequences of an illness with the audience expectation and goals?

  • Can you imagine other barriers that were not discussed in this article?

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Science Communication and Public Engagement

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