10 3 / 2022 // LEOPOLDINA / NEWS
“ It falls to the world of science to find the best way of communicating and advising ”
Part 3 in a series of articles on policy advice in the field of tension between science , politics and the media
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered an unprecedented situation , with disinformation and misrepresentation just two of the many exceptional challenges to be faced . As far as researchers are concerned , one of the key implications is that the science community must become more involved when it comes to finding the solutions to societal problems .
“ The science community needs to learn to communicate clearly in a way that everyone can understand . It needs to demonstrate and defend the principles behind its approach .”
BY MICHAEL HALLEK ML *
The COVID-19 pandemic raised new challenges in the world of science , affecting research , communication and policy advice . Three factors coincided during these unprecedented times : ( a ) A fast-paced , highly dynamic situation shrouded in uncertainty affected ( b ) many communities susceptible to misinformation due to shifts in media usage , ( c ) which had already seen the rise of populist , nationalist movements determined to deliberately trigger or fuel fears by spreading lies and fake news before the pandemic had begun .
In a situation this complex , overcoming national and global crises is even more challenging . Finding the best way of communicating and advising is one of the scientific community ’ s relevant tasks .
I personally became more involved in the winter of 2020 / 21 after realising that more and more critically ill patients in the intensive care unit at the hospital I was running were fighting for their lives on ventilators . It became clear to me that we were in danger of losing all control over the situation . Within the space of just six months , around 90,000 people had lost their lives to COVID-19 in Germany . There was a lot of discussion about the situation within my circles of friends and acquaintances in the science and medical professions and we decided to share con structive suggestions . Our No-COVID strategy set out practical plans for ope-
Michael Hallek , member of the Leopoldina
ning up and ensuring a sustainable recovery using all the tools available within a democratic civil society .
A deliberate attempt by one section of the media to incorrectly frame our suggestions as restricting freedom resulted in a backlash . Guests with vaguely scientific backgrounds were invited onto chat shows where they made claims about No-COVID that could have easily been disproved by a quick fact check . The resulting false balance caused the government to falter when it came to consistently following a clear , straightforward , knowledge-based approach .
And yet all our hard work did end up having a positive impact . A modified version of the phased plan for managing the pandemic based on incidence rates that we ’ d developed at the start of 2021 was rolled out by many parties and local governments , replacing the previous strategy of playing it by ear .
Another win came in November 2021 following a call from the science and medical communities to swiftly turn the attention from the Bundestag elections to reinforced efforts to fight the pandemic . Some of our demands , including the creation of a board of qualified experts within government , were subsequently met .
Image : M . Wodak | MFK
So what lessons can we take forward ? I have no doubt that the science community must become more involved when it comes to finding solutions to societal problems . We cannot stand down now . We need to learn to communicate clearly in a way that everyone can understand . We need to demonstrate and defend the principles behind our hypothesis-based approach . And we need to show that owning up to a mistake in our scientific work is a sign of quality and honesty rather than weakness . When communicating with the public we must also highlight the principles of a secular , well-informed society and its intrinsic characteristics and values like humility , honesty , empathy towards other people and living organisms and freedom ( but not just our own freedom ). This is the only way we can contribute to the modern European ideal of a democratic and pluralistic society .
* Michael Hallek is the Director of the Department I of Internal Medicine at the University Hospital of Cologne / Germany and the director of the Center for Integrated Oncology at the University of Cologne / Germany . He is an internist specialising in hematology and medical oncology and has been a member of the Leopoldina since 2011 .