On June 7, 2020, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced that from June 10 to Aug 31, 2020, Malaysia is transitioning in the so-called Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) which entails a lot more freedom in movement. Many experts in Malaysia agree that this transition also means the “passing of baton” in the fight against COVID-19 from that of the healthcare frontliners to the public. Healthcare frontliners might have “won” the battle, but now it depends on the public whether the victory remains with us.
While a lot of attention has been dedicated to infection control and prevention strategies, not many seem to engage science literacy as a crucial cornerstone to build the capacity of our society in embracing the “new norm”, or to sustain the victory, so to speak. Simply speaking, while we all talk about various SOPs which are no doubt very important, we need to also realise that in the end it is the society which will have to implement, apply and obey the SOPs in everyday life. It will be very difficult for the public to obey the SOPs when awareness is low.
Science literacy comes to put public awareness in place, so that public engagement and empowerment can bring about needed changes for the community to “live with the virus”.
What is science literacy and why it is important?
What I mean by “science” here is not limited to natural science, but all domains of knowledge where intellectual deliberations occur, and evidence is sought after.
Science literacy is defined as the ability to understand scientific concepts, to pose, and evaluate scientific arguments, as well as to apply the concepts for personal decision making. Such qualities generally would entail explorative curiosity to phenomena, be it natural or man-made and a drive for truth-seeking behaviour.
People can have different degree of science literacy across various science domains and over a lifetime. Attitudes and values established toward science in one’s early years (e.g. school years) will shape a person's development of science literacy as an adult.
A scientifically literate person will exhibit inclination towards correlating experiences or phenomena with scientific explanation, arguments, and evidence. A scientifically literate person is expected to respect conflicting differences among thoughts and ideas emerging due to uncertainties.
Nobody will deny that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is full of science concepts. Science is the only way people can understand how the virus spreads, how the disease causes clinical manifestations, and eventually how the outbreak can be contained. Science is also the only way people can understand the pandemic beyond its medical and public health discourse, its impact on economy, its impact on politics, its impact on religious practice and so on.
On April 14, 2020, the WHO’s COVID-19 Strategy Update issued six criteria that basically sets out requirements for countries planning to ease their restrictions. One of the criteria mentioned that “communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal” with an emphasis on major shift in outbreak control strategy where community members are to play roles.
Such criteria stresses on the importance of science literacy as part of the pandemic’s new norms. Community engagement and empowerment will only be effective and sustainable in an informed and educated society where literacy to scientific components of the problems at hand is adequate. Studies have shown that science literacy may affect preventive health behaviours and that science-literate individuals may be more equipped to efficiently look for and process health-related information.
How to adopt science literacy as part of the new norm?
ACCESS: Public access to science is first and foremost. There are at least two aspects here: the media and the language.
In terms of the media, we are currently living in an unprecedented time of history where the public has almost limitless media options for seeking information, ranging from mainstream outlets of TVs, newspapers, etc. to informal social media platforms. Nevertheless, we must understand that while this is the case for the urban public, the rural public may not enjoy the same level of access. While we have seen efforts to increase cyber-connectivity in rural areas, this does not necessarily mean access. We need media innovations with the capacity for access penetration into rural setting, considering level of education, social as well as cultural factors.
Language is another aspect to pay attention to. Although Malaysians are perhaps more accessible to English than the people of other ASEAN nations, Bahasa Malaysia as a national language takes the lead in many communication settings, formal or informal.
The extent of Malaysian public interests towards scientific evidence presented in their national language, as seen in their access to cochrane.org page presenting healthcare information in Bahasa Malaysia provides an example to this. The Cochrane Collaboration is a global collaborative effort of researchers, professionals and consumers of healthcare that aims at producing and disseminating high quality healthcare evidence (www.cochrane.org). When Cochrane Bahasa Malaysia first started translating healthcare evidence into Bahasa Malaysia in 2015 the page only received around 1,000 views for the whole year. This number swelled in 2019 into 1.5 million views.
Having local language is, however, not enough. Science writers often have problems finding suitable terms and sentences to deliver complex science messages without ending up with technical jargon. Jargon may cause “public allergy” to science because it creates a clear barrier between those who know and those who do not know. Worse still, it rather places science at the top of an ivory tower than trigger curiosity to explore.
INTERACTION: That science is a boring subject may be a prevalent impression. Scientists communicate among themselves with dedicated media platforms that give almost no room for the public to participate. The scientific community should be open for wider and deeper interaction with the public. Scientific journals should introduce plain language summaries to science articles they are publishing. The plain language summaries should be published together with jargon-filled scientific abstracts in their publication indexing system. Indexing or abstracting systems of scientific publications, such as Scopus, ISI, MyJournal, MEDLINE and so on, as well as conventional science media platforms such as researchgate.net, academia.edu, should open dedicated space for direct interaction between the public and the publishing scientists by displaying their articles’ plain language summaries.
Plain language summaries should consider visual or graphic representations, rather than only words, to deliver their scientific messages. It is often wise not to try to explain everything. Here scientists can be expected to filter which part of their findings that has public interest.
Some scientists do show up on their social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and they have been successful. Scientists and physicians such as Eric Topol (@EricTopol), Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins), and Amalina Bakri (@DrAmalinaBakri) garnered hundreds of thousands to millions of followers. As much as they have direct access to the public and influence their science literacy, response from the public would as well enrich their scientific endeavours.
One caveat is perhaps the realisation of how rapid science evolves. When the COVID-19 outbreak began, authorities relied on its droplet transmission for a prevention and control strategy. It took scientists only weeks to show evidence that preventing transmission is not as simple as social distancing because there could be infectious micro-droplets circulating in a confined space, which then prompted a more aggressive prevention strategy. Such evolving evidence could be confusing at times. In this context, scientists should play a shepherd role rather than simply as a messenger.
The recent Lancet-gate commotion provided another example of how a scientific report which initially seemed like a massive breaking news and managed to force WHO to temporarily suspend the hydroxychloroquine arm in the global Solidarity Trial turned out to originate from an allegedly scam database and ended up at retraction. When all this happened in such short period of a mere two weeks, it advises the scientific community on the importance of addressing public confusion over the issue.
COHORT: Sporadically, cohorts of science-enthusiasts are emerging especially during the current pandemic when interests are blooming. More of such cohorts are needed across different science disciplines and across different social backgrounds to develop and nurture interests within society.
Malaysia has a good society capital on this. The country is listed among top 20 nations which are most frequently accessing cochrane.org page, highlighting attitudes of Malaysian public towards evidence-based healthcare information. In 2019, Malaysia ranked 15 with 1,092,823 cochrane.org access coming from the country. This is an increase from 2018 where Malaysia ranked 19 with 266,753 accesses.
Efforts to promote science literacy as part of the pandemic’s “new norms” should be a collaborative project kick-started jointly by the government and the academia before we can expect widespread public adoption. With its authoritative position and administrative power and networks, the government is in the position of initiator and facilitator, if we want this project to run efficiently at a massive national scale.
Universities and the rest of the academia should play roles as content creator and innovator. This is because they have the needed critical mass of scientists and teachers as well as ecosystems and infrastructures for creative development.
Dr Teguh Haryo Sasongko is an Associate Professor at Perdana University RCSI School of Medicine and Deputy Director of Perdana University Center for Research Excellence.
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