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Why communicate agricultural science to non-specialists? A brief for livestock geneticists

At a recent workshop co-hosted by an NGO called Biosciences for Farming in Africa (B4FA) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in Nairobi, Kenya, ILRI communications staff Susan MacMillan made a short presentation on why the 20-plus animal geneticists in the room should bother communicating their science to non-specialists.


The big picture
‘A scientifically educated citizenry
and a concerned scientific community
is the price of our collective survival.’

The practical picture
To get the obvious out of the way: We communicate to non-specialists to enhance our impacts, fundraising, partnerships and public support and acceptance of our research.

The not so obvious

  • Communicating well is fun and energizing—for you and others.
  • Communicating well is personally and professionally empowering and rewarding.
  • Communicating well is the single thing, aside from the research itself, that will make the biggest difference to your research having impact.

The bad news
Animal genetic resources is a neglected topic.

This is a hard topic to communicate. You can’t just jump in—you have to educate people with no genetics background.

Most people will assume this is a non-sexy topic—that it will be hard to understand

The good news
You have a fresh story. What is blindingly obvious to you is news to others (and vice versa).

People actually like to learn new stuff (they just don’t want to experience pain in their learning). And once you articulate some aspect of this research well, you can recycle that message/story endlessly among very different audiences.

You can surprise people that this is actually a ‘hot’ topic.

Two (related) questions
What we want to do here is to put animal genetic resources ‘on the map’.

  • The question is, ‘What map?’
  • Which is to say, which direction do we want to go?
  • Is the answer less obvious than we think?

Let’s imagine that we and our partners manage to raise this issue in public fora somehow.

  • Then what? What will this and related groups do with the greater attention? What should we do with it?
  • Is all this communicating simply to get more money and public acceptance to do the research we want to do?
  • Do we/should we have a bigger ambition? Idea? Is there something bigger at stake here?

‘In science, dollars are helpful, but ideas are decisive.’

Three principles for communicating controversial stuff

People have a right to be scared. Especially of new stuff. Especially this new stuff. While most people are scientifically illiterate, geneticists are getting their hands on the molecular levers of biology itself. We can already slice and dice the building blocks of life. We’ll soon be doing this very fast and at very little cost. Our technologies are getting ahead of our cultural means of managing them, even of comprehending all their implications, which are profound.

Our job is to help lay people steer a course
through diverse ideological posturings—
to help them move from fear to worry to concern
to thoughtful responses to advanced genetics.

Long before you give information, give people an understanding that you share their basic values. You, too, want a safe and healthy world. You, too, worry about the fate of your children and their children. You, too, understand that scientists can make mistakes. You, too, see that there are many, many things for people to care about, and that this research is just one small part of a much larger picture.

We don’t have to approach agricultural development as a zero-sum game: My loss is your gain, and vice versa. While we must manage expectations, we should not forget to build big visions. Yes, we’re working on some of the biggest challenges humanity is facing. We’re working to liberate people from the deadening weight of hunger and poverty and illness and environmental degradation.

But our resources are just as big. The energy and potential of Africa’s indigenous livestock—which manage to produce and reproduce in harsh environments—are prodigious. Africa’s farmers are radically practical as well as humanity’s very first experimenters. Africa’s donors are deeply committed to great African futures. Africa’s scientists have the future in their bones—they ask questions they think they have a hope of answering.

Together, these groups have created
miracle crops like corn,
miracle animals like the Holstein.

Together, these groups helped eliminate
famine in India and China.

It’s Africa’s turn.
It’s a big continent.
Build a big vision.

For more about this workshop, visit ILRI’s event wiki page.

About B4FA
The aim of this project is to encourage dialogue and to promote a better understanding of the available options for improving agricultural productivity in four African countries – Ghana, Tanzania, Nigeria and Uganda. The project aims to work in three general areas.

Opinions and ambitions
Production and dissemination of a scholarly publication which synthesise information and views from opinion leaders about the potential benefits, concerns, application and consequences of new technologies for farming in Africa.

Communication and dialogue–a media fellowship programme
A series of professional development fellowships for media professionals, focusing in particular on the science of plant breeding. Journalists and editors from radio, television, newspapers and journals were offered technical training combined with field visits, mentoring and support and long-term networking opportunities.

Strengthening and enabling implementation
Studies of how to strengthen extension services that deal with the application of the new technologies and processes. Extension agents play the crucial role of linking research institutions to the intended end users of agricultural research products and technologies–farmers.

Biosciences for Farming in Africa is funded primarily by the John Templeton Foundation, which serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. The Foundation takes a particular interest in how major advances in genetics might serve to empower individuals, leading to spiritually beneficial social and cultural changes.

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