Science Policy & Funding GeoFIZZ

Communicating Science in Times of Pandemic

How can scientists use YouTube livestreams to help the public better understand scientific concepts?

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“Sorry for excluding you, but political party positioning is prohibited in the group.”

I was shocked. Suddenly, I had been kicked out of the neighborhood online group because I posted a call to join the 2019 Global Climate Strike. OK, climate change is a political issue, but as a scientist, I didn’t think supporting actions to mitigate the negative impacts of global warming was partisan positioning.

I’m a climate scientist working in Brazil, a country that has been heading more and more offtrack of its commitments under the Paris Agreement. The incident made me reflect: What could I do to help people like my neighbors get a better understanding of current scientific knowledge on topics like climate change?

Some scientist friends and I decided to invite the neighborhood to talk about climate change at a local bar. The event was great, and we decided to continue it by inviting other scientists to talk about trending topics. Ciência no Bar (Science at the Bar) was born.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Ciência no Bar has been organizing interview shows on YouTube. Our goal is to connect viewers to scientists using livestreams. We realized that allowing the audience to pose questions during interviews was a promising way to attract a wide viewership. Indeed, according to the YouTube Creator Academy, “people love to influence the outcome of a stream and are more likely to keep watching if they are involved in the process.” We tested that approach to communicate science.

After producing more than a dozen videos, we’ve learned some lessons. We hope other scientists consider our recommendations, watch some of our most engaging videos, and tune in to a future episode.

Lessons Learned

In establishing a series of livestream events, Ciência no Bar learned lessons we want to share with other science communicators.

1. Test before the livestream begins! In one case, the guest faced some connection issues, and it took us a while to fix them. We strongly recommend testing the system at least 15 minutes before. Moreover, the best team configuration is two interviewers and one person responsible for the streaming. That gives more time for the interviewers to gather and sort questions from the audience and contribute to the discussion.

2. Know the guest! We always organize a meeting with the guest a couple of days before the livestream, not just for technical reasons but also to get to know the guest and brief him or her about the format and the target audience. This conversation is particularly helpful for the interviewers to better steer the interaction between the scientist and the audience. As interviewers, we always inform ourselves about the topic and even check the latest scientific findings. Such preparation can substantially improve the discussions.

3. Content: Use visual supports to share a guest’s message! Slideshows and videos can be effective ways to share stories and communicate a guest’s message. We inform the guest that shared content should be used as a visual support rather than the basis for an expository presentation, however—long and complex presentations can bore the audience very easily. We provide a one-page guide to help guests communicate their knowledge—avoiding jargon, using metaphors, finding connections to people’s daily life, not mentioning a politician’s name, and finishing with a positive message.

4. Design: Help speakers to make effective slides! Some slides can be too cluttered or unreadable because of insufficient font size. We recommend informing the speakers about slideshow standards, including guidance on color, images, and appropriate charts. Remember, some people use a mobile device to watch the interview.

5. Control the time of the speaker! Long speeches can bore the audience, especially those who join later and have no clue about what is going on. Banners illustrating the question can help with that, but posing a new question at least every 5 minutes may save the audience.

Videos

So far, feedback from the audience has been very positive. Likewise, the interviewees have been grateful for the opportunity to share their stories. Here are some of our most engaging livestreams.

“What Do Indigenous People Have to Tell the Rest of Us?”

On top of destruction and contamination, illegal gold mining and logging are bringing another threat to Brazil’s Indigenous communities: COVID-19. We invited Yanomami leader Dário Kopenawa and social scientist Maurice Nilsson to talk about xawara—contagious disease, sometimes called the invaders’ disease.

“Does indigenous land demarcation bring any additional protection for the soil, vegetation, or rivers?” an audience member asked [1:01:38]. Kopenawa described the Yanomami’s relationship with land and what he has witnessed from the napo, or white people. The Yanomami rely on subsistence agriculture and rational use of resources and have a profound respect for the land, he said, whereas the invaders leave destroyed lands, contaminated rivers, and social disruption like alcoholism.

“The Antiracist Fight in Brazil and the USA”

In late May 2020, Minneapolis resident George Floyd’s death ignited a wave of protests around the world. Anti-racist movements like Black Lives Matter raised discussions about multiple layers of racism and why racism is still an issue in modern society. We interviewed Princeton historian Isadora Mota to talk about anti-racism and find parallels between racism in the United States and racism in Brazil.

“Are humans racist by nature?” [59:18]. No, said Mota, and this myth that racism has some scientific basis has been used to justify racism and downplay our responsibility to tackle it. Mota explained that at the end of the 19th century, a wave of biologists claimed that social inequalities were due to genetics. This biological determinism has been used to justify social hierarchies but is not supported by science or endorsed by the scientific community. Carolina Levis, a biologist at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil, added that a study showed that prejudice changes with age, indicating that racism is a social construct rather than a genetic one.

“Cyclones, Today and Tomorrow”

On 30 June, the south of Brazil experienced winds of up to 178 kilometers per hour that led to the death of 13 people and enormous damages. The so-called cyclone bomb raised concerns about what to expect in the near future. To help explore that idea, we invited meteorologist Maria Laura Rodrigues of the Agricultural Research and Rural Extension Company of Santa Catarina, Brazil, and climate scientist Michelle Reboita of the Federal University of Itajubá, Brazil.

“Have cyclone bombs happened in Brazil before?” [39:00]. According to Rodrigues, this is a matter of terminology. Since the 1980s, the term “cyclone bomb” has been used by meteorologists, but only recently has the media adopted it. Reboita mentioned that this kind of cyclone occurs, on average, twice a year off the coast of Brazil. A recent study suggests that the intensity of extratropical cyclones in South America is increasing and may continue in the future, however.

“A Race for the Vaccine: From the Spanish Flu to the New Coronavirus”

In July 2020, newspapers around the world reported promising results about vaccines against the new coronavirus. But how far along is the development of the vaccine, and what should we expect from it? We invited immunologist João Paulo Catani of Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie in Flanders, Belgium, to explain the scientific advances against pandemics throughout history and the development process of a vaccine.

“Are vaccines safe?” [21:40]. Catani explained that vaccines are made to be effective and safe, which is why the development process takes a lot of time. Nevertheless, he provoked the audience by stating that nothing is 100% sure and we must decide whether we want to take the risk or not. Certainly, the risk of damage from an approved vaccine is negligible in comparison to the risk of damage caused by a disease like COVID-19. Since the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, scientific knowledge has evolved tremendously, but people are behaving like they were a century ago.

In Conclusion

Ciência no Bar has opened doors to meet scientists with amazing stories. Additionally, I must say that this journey helped me relieve a great amount of mental stress caused by the quarantine. I have started to see a bright and colorful light at the end of the tunnel. And for that light, I have my neighbors to thank.

The sooner people have access to knowledge, the faster they will build awareness and make well-informed decisions regarding the pandemic, climate change, and other challenges our society is facing.

—Pablo Borges de Amorim (@Borgesdeamorim), Climate Scientist

This article was cowritten by Mario Tagliari (@Tagliari_MS), Carolina Levis (@CarolLevisEco), Bernardo Flores (@BernardoMflores), and Bárbara Segal (@labar.ufsc), all from the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil.

Citation: Borges de Amorim, P. (2020), Communicating science in times of pandemic, Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO149200. Published on 18 September 2020.
Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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