On 4 June 2021, a lunchtime webinar on “Public engagement beyond COVID – Where do we go from here?” was jointly organised by the European Science Engagement Association (EUSEA) and the COST Cross-Cutting Activity (CCA) on Science Communication. Gathering more than 50 participants, the event explored lessons learned, shared reflections and co-created practical recommendations for science communication and public engagement strategies derived from the global pandemic.
Creating a bridge between the CCA on science communication and the ‘APPLY’ COST Action, this EUSEA-CCA hotpot provided a unique opportunity to demonstrate interesting and valuable synergies between the two COST activities, as the summary of the event below shows.
The ‘hot pot’ session was built on the expertise shared in the CCA webinar on “Science Communication in time of Covid-19” in July 2020 and the subsequent CCA publication “Communicating science in times of Covid-19, a selective overview of good practices” (February 2021).
The key speakers had a 2-hour window to express their thoughts and ideas on how the recent pandemic profoundly changed public engagement, including ways to tackle challenges.
The event was introduced by Ms Cissi Billgren Askwall, President of EUSEA, who briefly talked about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the European Science Engagement Community. Prof. David Budtz Pedersen, Chair of the COST CCA Network, introduced the CCA and its priorities, in particular highlighting the network’s aim to bridge the gap between science communication, policy makers, as well as journalists, citizens and other stakeholders. Prof. Budtz Pedersen underlined the importance of learning lessons from a variety of stakeholders, which is a key added value of the CCA network.
The CCA Chair also took note of the fact that different institutions have different mind-sets and different priorities. He stressed the importance of building mutual trust and understanding on how policy makers work. At the same time, there is a need for researchers to reflect on how to deliver research, how to shape rather than influence and overtake decision making.
The floor was then given to Prof. Marcel Tanner, President of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. His intervention focused on ‘Reflections on Science Engagement and Policy Making in Times of COVID and Beyond’. Prof. Tanner explained the need to consider balancing carefully risks and benefits when communicating about the pandemic, bearing in mind the importance of providing perspective. “The essence of science communication to policy and society is that we show what we do and do not know, providing the right context. At any stage of the research process you have options for actions in light of the situation at that point in time.”
In the same spirit, Prof. Budtz Pedersen commented that “as policy makers, you cannot wait to have the perfect knowledge, the perfect science. You have a responsibility to act based on the knowledge and science available to you at that very moment.”
Dr Sarah Foxen, Head of the Knowledge Exchange Lead at the UK Parliament, presented a case study featuring the science communication activities of the Knowledge Exchange Unit within the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) at the UK Parliament. Her intervention highlighted that, since the start of the pandemic, there has been a clear increase in Parliament in the demand for access to expertise and evidence. At the same time, the UK Parliament has witnessed an increase in supply of expertise from the research community. Dr Foxen highlighted three key lessons learnt for what comes next:
- The need to build understanding around politics and policy making;
- Need to find appropriate ways to collaborate and share data;
- Need to adapt ways of working to enable more inclusion and engagement.
As the other speakers, Dr Foxen stressed the need, for the science communication community, to reflect on how can we enable the broad wider public to engage with policy making processes.
Dr Marcin Lewinski, Chair of COST Action ‘European network for argumentation and public policy analysis – APPLY’, and Dr Fabio Paglieri, Leader of the Action’s Working Group on Designing Public Argumentation and Policymaking completed the circle of interventions by presenting their Action’s work on how to manage risk and uncertainty via public argumentation, with a special focus on how science communication and public policy have often been mismanaged in the case of COVID-19 vaccination campaigns across Europe. When discussing the pro-vaccination arguments put to the public, Dr Paglieri explained that there is a need to consider the implications of the messages conveyed to the public. “The facts don’t speak for themselves”, which is why any science communication approach needs ample reflection.