by Abdalhadi Alijla, past GYA Executive Committee member, Co-Founder of the Palestine Young Academy, and Postdoctoral fellow at the Orient-Institute, Beirut
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, “fake news”, that is, unscientific information and untrustworthy news, have made their way to Arabic audiences. Based on the author’s content analysis and verification of hundreds of news pieces published between January and July 2020 inclusive, there is sound evidence that the more scientists and health officials engage with the issue and media – particularly through targeted social media campaigns – the less “fake news” is spread, and the more scientists have an impact.
Science and scientists are integral parts of both crisis management and risk management efforts. Scientists draw the lines denoting which information is correct and in which areas things may go wrong in a time of crisis – particularly when it comes to natural sciences such as health, the environment, engineering and urban well-being. In that sense, science diplomacy as a connection between science, policymakers and the public have an important role in combating fake news that may lead to negative consequences in society.
An examination of 785 news articles and viral posts revealed that fake news in the Arabic language regarding COVID-19 diminished significantly with the dissemination of more scientific and official information. In collaboration with Misbar, an Arabic-language fact-checking team, the author found that almost 50% of COVID-19 news published in June 2020 was “fake news”, compared to 74% of news published between January and March 2020, inclusive. Moreover, the data shows a changing course of the sections of fake news or falsifiable news throughout this period. The author suggests that early engagement of trustworthy news from official media channels (e.g., from health authorities, science institutions, and scientists) and medical experts minimised the spread of fake news.
These findings suggest that science diplomacy is needed and appears to be a necessary tool in times of crisis. Indeed, early intervention may result in a positive outcome; however, a consistent and strong relationship between the public and scientists is required to face future pandemics and crises in which science plays a major role.
Science and scientists should be presented as a crucial part of humanity’s future and survival, as the challenges of our planet and those faced by generations to come must have a strong scientific community whereby humanity collaborates with policy-makers, governments and non-state actors at the local, regional, national and international levels. This requires that governments engage scientists to design their policies and build risk-mitigation plans, as well as engage with the wider community.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, only Lebanon used a risk and disaster system to share information with the public; others shared aggregated data that raised public doubt in many of the region’s countries. The COVID-19 experience in MENA has taught us that the early engagement of scientists and science diplomacy with society when it comes to accurate data builds a strong level of trust in official institutions, while refraining from publishing detailed data raises questions and creates a gap that can easily be filled by fake news.
Besides this, a regional scientific community focusing on public health and the environmental crisis (the two fields in which we are facing immense challenges) will enhance government capacities to network and build a regional body of public diplomacy at various levels, with access to many resources.
A regional network and councils will effectively minimise the resource gaps and accessibility issues faced by the public, as states have various levels of wealth and means to access people in their countries (such as television channels). Such bodies would be able to create a system of data sharing, foresee and predict potential problems and help formal institutions to map solutions. At the same time, most importantly, they will take early actions of engagement with the public, through media, educational institutions, and also non-governmental information. In other words, early access to the public through scientists, and in various ways will have a positive impact on society and strengthen relations between science communities, government, and non-governmental organisations.
In times of crisis, science diplomacy is not just a tool to be used “when needed”, rather, a strategy that scientists, governments and communities continuously and consistently use in society – particularly when aiming to build trust between policymakers and scientists. Science diplomacy is a doctrine whereby scientists need to exert tremendous effort in times of crisis to fight fake news, and simultaneously focus on finding solutions while relying on the trust that communities and societies offer them to deliver the right messages at the right time.
The COVID-19 crisis has challenged social scientists just as much as natural scientists Coordination and networking is required between the two fields to ensure that science serves politics and society as much as society and politics serve science. In this way, we can fight misinformation and increase trust in science for a better future.
Addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on early-career researchers
By Paulina Carmona-Mora (University of California Davis, United States)
8 July 2021
We in the scientific community – including those of us in higher education – have felt the effects the COVID-19 pandemic on science. Indeed, as laid out in the recent 2021 IAP-GYA joint communique, “faculty and student flexibility and mobility have been reduced, and university resources have been severely constrained and remain uncertain.”
Overall, science has been in the spotlight in the recent year, especially the scientific fields that directly inform the pandemic response (such as epidemiology, economics, public health, virology, pharmacology, to name a few), generating rapid input to support policies. Although the feedback between science and policy-making varied amply worldwide, the need for both sectors to work together to solve global issues has been highlighted. On the other hand, research fields not related to the pandemic response have been slowed down due to the pandemic mitigation and contention measures.
Early-career researchers (ECRs; this group includes PhD students, postdoctoral fellows, and scientists with approximately 10 years or less of experience after their doctoral degree) represent a vulnerable sector in research and higher education. Their challenges often include job insecurity and precarity, lower funding opportunities and less visibility. All of these were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Immediate challenges faced by researchers not directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic response
- Mobility restrictions affected access to laboratories, halted field work and modified the organisation of scientific conferences.
- Challenging telecommuting conditions (issues include access to technology and connectivity, lack of childcare).
- Reduced funding and furloughing of employees.
- Expiration of funding or fellowships, with sub-optimal progress due to the previous challenges.
Long-term effects that could hit ERCs harder
- Lack of data acquisition during the pandemic can cause reduced opportunities to secure new funding, new fellowships or attend future conferences, and it can also lead to the termination of research or contract positions.
- Halted international mobility impacted ECRs’ visibility, created less valuable networking opportunities and chances to engage in international collaborations.
- Although virtual interactions (conferences, workshops, webinars, etc.) have posed as inclusive alternatives to in-person interactions, internet access issues and difficulties to acquire specialised training (international exchanges, travel or training fellowships) can negatively impact future opportunities for ECRs.
- Global disparities and differences in research systems worsened the issues faced during the pandemic, leaving ECRs in lower economies in a worst-case scenario. International competitiveness of ECRs in such countries will decrease.
Since the pandemic was declared, the GYA has undertaken various activities to make the voice of ECRs present in multiple arenas.
- GYA members issued Beyond Boundaries, a statement calling to strengthen international partnerships and to harmonise international policies towards the mitigation of the pandemic. The GYA has also participated in several statements jointly with the G7 group of academies, the United States Academies of Sciences and Medicine, and the group of G20 Science Academies (S20).
- The GYA, along with the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), issued a joint communique highlighting some of the most pressing challenges for higher education globally, and proposed solutions to mitigate the further entrenchment of inequalities.
- Tackling internet access disparities and addressing agenda issues due to time zone differences, the 2020 GYA e-AGM and e-conference combined real-time and asynchronous events, live discussions with pre-recorded presentations, including a subsidy for internet access for participants that required it.
- The GYA’s Sasha Kagansky Interdisciplinary Grant and the Young Scientist Ambassador Program (YSAP) were also developed in virtual formats. These programmes aim to connect researchers across countries that do not traditionally engage through science. The first results of both programmes have shown that virtual engagement with a bilateral or country-specific focus can be valuable, when given meaningful opportunities to interact.
- As all the involved parties are still trying to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on ECRs, several GYA activities proposed to survey the effect on ECRs’ work and careers, to enable tailored solutions.
- Capacity-building has gone virtual, with workshops for science leadership, science communication and science diplomacy reaching a wide range of ECRs globally.
Ways forward using global tools (extracted from Table 1 in 10.31235/osf.io/f9tsw)
Learning from GYA experiences, the next steps should involve input and action from ECRs and international societies, academies, and organisations to mitigate the effect of the current pandemic on young researchers.
How to increase visibility and networking opportunities for ECRs?
- Promotion or support to intergovernmental associations to foster mobility of researchers between countries.
- Furthering scientific interactions at multinational levels, focusing on less-developed countries.
How to increase international collaborations, especially for science-lagging countries, or Official Development Assistant (ODA) recipient countries?
- Implement collaborative scientific schemes (including pilots or exploratory studies, without prerequisite data) with national, regional, and transnational stakeholders to promote scientific exchange.
- Encourage the inclusion of science-lagging countries in international consortiums.
How to reduce the impact on ECRs from science-lagging or ODA-recipient countries?
- Promote regional and transnational (Global North/South, South/South) funding programs to stimulate cooperation between scientists, and explicitly allowing equal engagement and direct interaction for ECRs.
How to reduce the impact of lower funding affecting professional networking activities?
- Promote scientific mobility to international and intraregional loci.
- Facilitate access (differential cost if not free of charge, or subsidizing ECRs) to scientific virtual meetings between scientists and other stakeholders.
How to address reduction in scientific funding due to the pandemic response?
- International societies, academies, and organisations: advocate with governments and institutions to make visible all the fields of science and aim to influence public budget decisions.
- Promote private investment in science allied with academia, prepare ECRs to interact in this interface.
The solutions and ways forward mentioned above will require dedication and collaboration, but we the undersigned feel they must be taken. If you have other solutions to add, or would like to work together with us on any of these topics, please do reach out to corresponding author, Paulina Carmona-Mora.
Note: This post is a summary of the GYA publication “Mitigating losses: How science diplomacy can address the impact of COVID-19 on early career researchers”, available here: 10.31235/osf.io/f9tsw). Authors: Sandra Lopez-Verges (Gorgas Memorial Institute of Health Studies, Panama), Bernardo Urbani (Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research, Venezuela), David Fernandez Rivas (University of Twente, The Netherlands), Sandeep Kaur-Ghumaan (University of Delhi, India), Anna Coussens (Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Australia), Felix Moronta-Barrios (International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Italy), Suraj Bhattarai (Global Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, Nepal), Leila Niamir (Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, Germany), Velia Siciliano (Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Italy), Andreea Molnar (Swinburne University of Technology, Australia), Amanda Weltman (University of Cape Town, South Africa), Meghnath Dhimal (Nepal Health Research Council, Kathmandu, Nepal), Shalini S. Arya (Institute of Chemical Technology, India), Karen J. Cloete (University of the Western Cape, South Africa), Almas Taj Awan (Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil), Chandra Shekhar Sharma (Indian Institute of Technology, India), Clarissa Rios Rojas (Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom), Yoko Shimpuku (Hiroshima University Japan), John Ganle (University of Ghana, Ghana), Maryam M. Matin (Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran), Justine Germo Nzweundji (Institute of Medical Research and Medicinal Plants Studies, Cameroon), Abdeslam Badre (Mohammed 5 University in Rabat, Morocco), and Paulina Carmona-Mora (University of California Davis, United States).