Umar Siddiqui FIBMS - Communicating Science in a Pandemic
From the R number to herd immunity to the spike protein and mRNA vaccine, the Kent variant and ‘flattening the curve’ – the media has been awash with specialised scientific terminology throughout the pandemic. Communicating these complicated concepts in a way that’s understandable to the public has been vital in tackling the virus.
From his unique position as a biomedical scientist and reality TV star, Umar Siddiqui FIBMS explores how well science has been conveyed during the pandemic. He also sets out how we can build bridges between experts, decision-makers and the public to improve scientific dissemination during COVID-19 and in future health emergencies.
Image: ©Jude Edginton/ Studio Lambert
I currently sit with the latest edition of The Biomedical Scientist, reading through the article entitled 'The Vaccine Race' and, as I'm reading it, the significance dawns on me that throughout most of 2020, I was in the unique position of being a biomedical scientist on a reality television show, broadcast at a time when television itself brought my profession 'front and centre'.
From the first weeks in late February, when the news took on a distinctly biological guise, I felt a need to not only champion the work of my colleagues but to make sure that whatever little virology I knew, I had to get it right in my head. Because for me, even though Gogglebox can be seen as light entertainment, I felt a pressing urge to communicate what I knew and also what people expected me to know in a way that was neither overly complicated nor alarmist.
Looking back, I think, for the most part, when the producers of the show asked me for a scientific opinion, I had to juggle three aspects;
- To communicate what I knew plainly and coherently.
- To defer to the experts when I didn't know (usually by just holding up my hands and saying 'I don't know).
- To analyse and critique the way information was being presented by others who knew what I also knew.
And after reflecting on these aspects and coupling them with the outcomes of 2020, I began to think that it's not enough to know your facts; you have to present them in such a way that it limits confusion, doubt and obfuscation. So with that in mind, I'd like to share my thoughts and opinions on the way the Covid-19 pandemic was handled in terms of communication in the media.
Communicating what you know
This may seem, on the face of it, easy, no? You have learned or grasped a scientific concept, be it the infectivity of Sars-CoV-2, the origins of the virus, the disease itself, the importance of keeping the R rate below one and the significance of viral mutation. All this is clear in your mind; you've done the research, read peer-review articles, completed some online courses and consulted with your colleagues. But is what is in your head going to come out in a way that people can understand and subsequently learn from, and apply, this knowledge themselves?
As an example, I was, on Christmas Day, trying to explain the functionality of an mRNA vaccine to my family, and I found that I had to carefully consider my choice of words and how best to illustrate the process. I had the luxury of being able to visualise mRNA entering the body whereby it is taken up by the host's cells and, using the cells own bio-molecular machinery (the various enzymes, ribosomes etc.) - the cell is able to synthesise an immunogenic component of the virus. But how would I explain that to my family and, at the same time, allay their concerns over safety and efficacy?
I ultimately likened this concept to the body's immune system being a sort of Police force trying to track down a criminal (virus). But rather than being presented with hard evidence with which to identify a criminal, such as a particular type of hat that the criminal wore, they were instead given instructions on how to knit that hat for themselves!
I'm not sure that I succeeded in using this analogy to explain what an mRNA vaccine is and how it works and given time, and with less turkey and wine in my system, I could have perhaps come up with something better. But I think it highlights the importance of finding that balance in communicating something that is fairly complex in a way that is simple yet accurate, and sometimes I think the higher the scientific understanding of something, the more your brain moves away from being able to explain it simplistically.
The importance of saying 'I don't know'
No one person can know everything about the coronavirus, and as much as we like to think that an experienced scientific mind combined with having all the facts at our fingertips can make us omniscient, we have to accept that there remains a lot that isn't known about Sars-CoV-2.
I was determined when the reports first came out, from Wuhan and then northern Italy, not to second guess what was going on and what would happen. So many instances of people talking themselves into a corner or being left with egg on their faces (almost literally in the case of Edwina Currie), illustrates just how important it is, to be honest when a particular aspect of what you're dealing with is still, at the least, speculative or at most still a complete mystery.
I realise that there is a demand for information that sometimes borders on zealous and when scientists play the 'We don't know at this stage' card, some view this stance with suspicion, but in my opinion, there is nothing worse than proclaiming a breakthrough before the results are in. In fact, to do so, and be contradicted at a later stage, can do irrevocable damage to credibility and reputation.
How is the science being presented?
Think back to this time last year or any time in most of our lives. Did we ever see periodic briefings by scientists and government health officials on television? I think most people can say with some confidence that this is a novelty. So, in that respect, we could argue that there is a new form of communication or dissemination of a particular type of information, one that directly correlates with how our lives will be lived over the ensuing weeks and months. With that being said, can we critique the current approach? It's not like we have much to compare it to, thankfully.
I urge anyone in our profession that the next time you see a government health minister or scientific advisor on television, at one of these briefings, to put yourself in their shoes.
Would you do it differently? Is the seemingly endless procession of graphs necessary?
When Covid-19 first landed on our shores, what information should have been made available immediately? What information could have waited? And what information (if any) wasn't necessary at all? For example, it seems to me that the delay in mentioning a key symptom of the loss of smell and taste was perhaps due to the experts feeling that this was only anecdotal and they didn't have enough data to go on. But in quelling the spread of the virus, couldn't that information still have been made more open to the public at an earlier stage?
It's easy to offer these opinions in hindsight and I'm sure that every bit of new information is thoroughly examined, verified and packaged into a form that the authorities deem will have the most benefit, even though it may not be obvious at the time.
Bridging the Gap
The communication of scientific discoveries that will have a negative impact on health and society is often fraught with difficulty. There have been numerous instances of concerns to public health that have warranted timely notification and clear instructions on how to keep ourselves and those close to us safe and well, albeit nothing on this scale. And this doesn't just include infectious diseases.
We have the on-going threat of climate change and pollution, dangers related to the consumption of foodstuffs, drugs, alcohol and tobacco and who knows what else in the future?
However, one thing that seems to hold true is that when people in authority are faced with a novel threat, the response seems to be one of caution paired with confusion, which also seesaws between apathy and over-reaction. Perhaps therefore it is best left to people with a better understanding of human nature, but it does illustrate the complex interaction that scientists have with people in authority.
It isn't the job of scientists to largely consider how what they've found from laboratory testing will impact the economy or society at large. If I can cite an example from the film The Imitation Game where the Enigma code is finally cracked by Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), there is a scene during this film that quite nicely illustrates the divide between the scientists and naval command, where the moral issue of making it known that they've cracked the code is not in the best interests of strategic warfare.
I'm not suggesting that certain information be withheld in the case of this pandemic, but I can't help think there needs to be a more effective bridge between the discoverers and the announcers of the discovery and its implications.
Equally vital in predicting and assessing public behaviours and response are perhaps people who know more about how society en masse reacts to unseen danger and threat, people who have a firm understanding of mental health, people who understand what will make audiences pay attention and act accordingly and even, dare I say it, people with a bit of showmanship and affability.
Scientists in many disciplines are often seen as insular, unapproachable and incomprehensible and even in some cases sinister, and I know for the majority that is most certainly not the case. But this misperception, which is perhaps nothing more than unconscious bias, is perhaps one of the biggest contributors to the reluctance to accept what is being communicated. I feel that television and to a greater extent, all forms of media have a duty to extinguish this feeling of distrust, but we have our own part to play in raising awareness and allowing a peek 'behind the curtain' and events such as National Pathology Week and Biomedical Science Day are definitely a step in the right direction.
Overall, one thing that this pandemic has taught me is that what we as a profession do is vital but just as important is to let people know what we do in a way they can relate to. Never has there been a more crucial time to really reflect on what a positive or negative result means to society as a whole, and if we are to avoid generating a void of confusion and unclear messages, a void that can readily be filled with pseudoscience and unsubstantiated claims, it's important we also consider our approach as to how to let people know.
Read how COVID-19 has affected Umar's Gogglebox filming and his work in the lab in the latest edition of The Biomedical Scientist.
You can also hear Umar chatting to us about his working day and experience filming Gogglebox on a recent episode of our new Podcast.