The impact of the media on scientific research

Nov 1, 2016

Sandhya Sriram

Research Fellow

Singapore Bioimaging Consortium

The Singapore Bioimaging Consortium (SBIC) aims to build a coordinated national programme for imaging research, bringing together substantial strengths in the physical sciences and engineering and those in the biomedical sciences. It seeks to identify and consolidate the various bioimaging capabilities across local research institutes, universities and hospitals, in order to speed the development of biomedical research discoveries.

© miakievy/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty

“Did you know that cancer can be cured by eating XYZ (type of food) three times a day for just three months?” asked one of my aunts. I was taken aback and immediately told her that it was nonsense and asked her where she heard or read this so-called ‘information’. It turned out that one of her friends had posted it on her Facebook wall and she had assumed it was true without bothering to check the source of the information.

Limited awareness and ignorance of biotechnology, biological sciences and its role in society has made it difficult for the general public, such as my aunt, to critically evaluate the veracity of clickbait-style health articles.

The problem with science stories prepared by the mainstream media is that their focus is on increasing their viewership and subscribers, so they have an incentive to report anything and everything — spoon feeding the audience, with questionable fact-checking. This is exacerbated by the fact that many scientists don’t want to or don’t have the time to talk to journalists or corporate communications about their research and discoveries, or don’t bother to write or speak about it in layman’s terms.

To bridge the gap in public perception and education of biotechnology and other related sciences scientists, doctors and researchers have a responsibility to engage in science communication, which means discussing their work in an intelligible and audience-friendly way. Science communication generally refers to the communication of science-related topics to non-experts and while it often involves practicing scientists participating in ‘outreach’ activities, it has also evolved into a professional field in its own right.

My partners, Dr Laxmi Iyer and Prasanna Kumar Juvvuna, and I co-founded Biotechin.Asia, a news website for biotech and healthcare news to communicate fact-based scientific research written by scientists, doctors, medical professionals and researchers. Recently, in September 2016, I launched SciGlo, a one-stop solution for scientists which curates fact-based, reliable, science-related articles from all over the world. Both of these sites sought to provide a platform that represented science and scientists correctly and responsibly interpreted and communicated scientific findings to make it easier for laypeople to have access to credible science news.

Some research institutes, universities and scientists themselves are revisiting scientific communication. Scientists seem to be more willing to speak to the media about their research. The impact of open access and social media on scientific research is catching on, and scientists are using social media to voice their opinions and let the public know if certain news items are bogus. Overall, scientists have a responsibility to work with the media to deliver the ‘right’ science to the public and make sure it reaches them in a timely fashion.

Sandhya is a scientist, entrepreneur, serendipitous journalist and a manager. She lives in Singapore currently and wears many hats – Research Fellow at SBIC, A*STAR transitioning to a Programme and Grants Management role; Co-founder & Author, Biotechin.Asia, Biotech Media Pte. Ltd.; and a mother of a very active and inquisitive toddler! On top of all this, she just launched another startup and web platform to help scientists and students all over the world, called SciGlo. She is also the former Vice President & Publicity Chair of the A*STAR Postdoc Society (A*PECSS).