Title page for ETD etd-08232006-122915

Document Type Doctoral Thesis
Author Conradie, Elizabeth Stephanie
Email econradie@saipa.co.za
URN etd-08232006-122915
Document Title The role of key role players in science communication at South African higher education institutions : an exploratory study
Degree PhD (Communication Management)
Department Marketing and Communication Management
Advisor Name Title
Prof A F Grobler Committee Chair
  • communication specialists
  • key role-players
  • media
  • journalists
  • scientists
  • science communication
Date 2006-04-30
Availability unrestricted
South Africa, as a developing country, depends on science and technology to support industries to reach informed decisions and be competitive in the international marketplace. However, most people cannot distinguish between scientific, non-scientific and pseudo-scientific subjects. To distinguish between these categories of subjects and to emphasise the importance of science communication, it is necessary to communicate science to various stakeholders: schools, government, decision-makers, the general public and the media.

An understanding of science makes the task of the role players in science – and especially the communication of science to the general public – even more imperative. The role players in science communication have to ensure that the message of science successfully reaches the general public (literate and illiterate; urban and rural societies; young and old) to ensure prosperity and the enhancement of a sustainable environment. The key role players in science communication in South Africa can be identified as scientists, who are the source or sender of the science message; communication specialists at higher education institutions (HEsI), who fulfil a mediation function to convey the message of science to all stakeholders; and South African journalists, who are the final distributors of the message to all stakeholders (the recipients of the science message). There is, however a fourth key role-player in science communication, and that is the executive management of HEIs, since they should provide the communication specialists at their institutions with the trust and empowerment to distribute the message of science to journalists in order for these messages to reach the general public.

Science communication is still a new and vague concept to many South Africans. Limited research has been conducted on the key role players in science communication; the specific role of communication specialists at HEIs in science communication; and the relationship between the different key role players. However, in many countries, including South Africa, various studies have been conducted on public attitudes towards science, which is in general positive.

The problem identified in this study is that although science communication is regarded as a priority in South Africa, science messages are not effectively reaching the general public. There are several possible reasons as to why the general public is not well informed about science. One is that scientists find it difficult to simplify scientific facts so that they are understandable to the layman. Another reason is the lack of a proper relationship of trust and mutual understanding between scientists and journalists, resulting in inaccuracies in science articles that appear in newspapers, magazines and on television. A third reason is that communication specialists at HEIs, who are supposed to take responsibility for media liaison, experience a lack of trust and empowerment by their executive management to liaise with stakeholders, including the media, at their own discretion. According to De Beer (2001:84), the executive management at HEIs do not empower their communication specialists to discuss matters with the media without the involvement of the executive management. A fourth reason is a lack of training in the writing of science articles, which results in an inaccurate coverage of science in the media. Therefore, the role of communication specialists at HEIs is very important. Communication specialists have to build a bridge between an institution’s management, scientists and the media as stakeholders of HEI.

The general research aim of this study is to investigate the relationship between key role players in science communication and to determine the role that they play in science communication. Following the general research aim, six objectives are stated: Firstly, to determine the importance of science communication amongst key role players in science communication (executive management, scientists, communication specialists) at HEIs in South Africa, as well as journalists in the South African media. Secondly, to determine if a relationship of trust and mutual understanding exists between key role players in science communication in South Africa. The third objective is to determine if the role of communication specialist is a role of strategist, manager or technician in the facilitation of science communication at HEIs in South Africa. Fourthly, to determine the extent of training provided at universities and technikons in South Africa for scientists, communication specialists and journalists to enable them to write science articles. The fifth objective is to investigate the coverage of scientific topics in articles in the South African mass media. The final objective is to analyse the content of articles on science in selected South African media from 1 March to 31 May 2004 and to compare the results of this study with a study conducted by Van Rooyen in 2002 (Van Rooyen, 2002).

The empirical component of the study supplements the theoretical component. In Phase 1, a quantitative, exploratory survey research was done to establish the role of communication specialists in science communication at HEIs in South Africa. In Phase 2, content analysis was used to analyse the content of scientific articles in selected print media over a period of three months. Van Rooyen (2002:21) invited researchers to repeat the study she conducted in 2002 at regular intervals. Therefore, based on the invitation of Van Rooyen, Phase 2 of this study was conducted, using the same criteria, method and time frame as Van Rooyen had done. Comparisons of the results of the two studies are provided.

The main conclusions of the study were:

• Although science communication is regarded as important by the key role players in science communication, not enough is being done by South African HEIs to promote the importance of science to the general public, including the literate and illiterate; urban and rural; young and old people, to ensure a sustainable environment.

• There is not a proper relationship of trust and mutual understanding between the key role players in science communication.

• Communication specialists are regarded as managers, as opposed to strategists or merely technicians, in science communication, but they are not always empowered to act efficiently as facilitators in the mediation process between scientists and the media.

• There is a lack of proper training for scientists, communication specialists and journalists in science writing or science journalism in South Africa.

• The coverage of science in the media has not improved much since Van Rooyen’s study was conducted in 2002.

Recommendations regarding the management of science communication can be summarised as follows. South Africa needs a national forum to conduct an audit and formulate a structured, reasoned national science communication action plan for South Africa. More feedback should be given to the science communication community about who should receive funding and what projects should be funded. The Government of South Africa should encourage higher education institutions to organise public debate sessions where scientists and the general public can discuss controversial issues regarding science and research in an open forum.

Furthermore, scientists should be encouraged to provide information to communication specialists so that they can distribute science messages to all stakeholders. Communication specialists should create and support a science writers’ network in South Africa; develop and promote databases of science writers and media-friendly scientists; collect science articles from scientists and prepare them for publication together with supporting visuals; facilitate linkages and collaboration with corporate sectors; participate in international networking; and conduct visits to expert programmes.

It is imperative for communication specialists, scientists and journalists to receive training to optimally fulfil their roles in science communication. Communication specialists should have writing skills to be able to assist scientists and journalists to create messages about science acceptable and understandable to the literate and illiterate; urban and rural; young and old people of South Africa. A course or degree in science journalism is therefore imperative.

To enhance coverage of science in the media, science ideally needs to be integrated into popular, peak-time programmes such as local dramas, historical and other documentaries, talk shows, and even soap operas. All mediums should be considered, including radio, television and the Internet to communicate science to the general public.

© University of Pretoria 2004

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