What I learned about communicating science at the 2018 World Water Forum

Busani Masiri presenting in Brasilia

The theme of this year’s World Water Forum – which takes place every three years, and is organised by the World Water Council – was ‘sharing water’. One of the aims of the Forum is to raise awareness with decision makers and the public at large about water issues and, subsequently, to generate action. To do this, the science community needs to inform policy and practice by sharing their ideas and scientific findings, and it was with this aim in mind that a special session was organised (under the Thematic Process strand) to explore the ‘Uncertainty and limitation of science and science communication’.

Through the assistance of the International Water Security Network – funders of my PhD study at the University of Pretoria – I secured additional funding from the ‘Thematic Process’ to attend the 8th World Water Forum in Brasilia. When I told a colleague I was going to be giving a presentation on ‘communicating climate science data to water management decision makers’, his response was that this was not my area of expertise and maybe I was moving away from my comfort zone. He was right: I was indeed out of my comfort zone. I am not a communications expert.

However, I am a water governance scholar and I want my research – and that of others in my field – to inform policies that influence water management. Moreover, I want to ensure that my research is not misunderstood, and should be interpreted in the manner I intended. If this is my expectation, then who is in a better position to interpret and communicate my research findings than me?

Alfredo Ribeiro Neto, Solène Fabrèges, Busani Masiri, William C.
Veatch and Layla Nunes Lambiasi

As many publications show, members of the scientific community share a frustration: attempts to communicate science are often badly received. Scientific information is ignored or misinterpreted so frequently that policy makers and the public are less responsive to scientific information than many communicators desire. This is what motivated me to participate in the special session – I stood to learn the foundations of how to communicate science, an essential skill if scientific ideas are to be actionable.

From the discussions that followed the presentations, one recurring theme was the need for science communication to go beyond the scientific journals. Publishing in journals is prestigious, but science needs to find expression in a language that is readily understood by policy makers and the public in order to have any impact. If it fails to do this, then decisions will continue to be based on long-held beliefs and values, even if these might not have scientific backing.

A decision maker’s beliefs are a reflection of his or her perceptions of reality, including facts, opinions and the uncertainties surrounding them. The values they uphold reflect their sense of what to strive for or to achieve, including goals, objectives, and associated trade-offs. As such, in communicating science there’s a need to understand an audience’s beliefs and values.

When scientists leave their comfort zone of scientific publications and venture into communicating science to policy makers and the public, they can benefit from understanding what an audience initially believes about the new information being conveyed. This is important because people assign meaning to the new information by comparing it with what they already believe. Therefore, what recipients of scientific communication learn is jointly influenced by the new information and their pre-existing beliefs and knowledge.

There’s value in understanding, and relating scientific findings to, a target audience’s existing concerns and beliefs. The value is realised in the potential for communicative outcomes that are likely to help more audiences reconcile their beliefs and decisions with scientific knowledge.

By the time the World Water Forum came to an end, it was apparent that there is a key role for science in decision making. However, it became clear that if you want to produce actionable science, communication between scientists and policy makers is crucial – and that this communication must be expressed in a manner that is easily understandable. Many speakers at the forum alluded to the ‘lack of scientific information’ when it comes to decisions in water management. I would argue that it is not a lack of scientific information, but that information is not available in an accessible way.

I would not claim to have left the Forum as an expert in science communication, but I did leave with an eagerness to communicate my research effectively, and with the realisation that there is a need to communicate science beyond journal publications and that scientists should be at the forefront of this process.