Featuring Dr. Glen Pyle, Co-Lead Ontario, COVID-19 Resources Canada

For most Canadians, March held many pandemic anniversaries: from workplace shutdowns and border closures to the advent of Zoom socialising. But for many scientists, it also marked one-year since the beginning of their fight against COVID-19 misinformation. What began as a debate about the severity of COVID-19 compared to the flu progressed into arguments surrounding its mode of transmission, culminating  in rampant misinformation about treatments and vaccines. Countering COVID-19 misinformation with crystal clear scientific messaging is imperative to maintain public trust in science and promote greater adoption of preventative strategies such as social distancing and vaccine uptake.1 Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, effective science communication has emerged as a crucial public health tool to mitigate the spread of the virus and ultimately save lives.

To learn more about the role of science communication during the coronavirus pandemic, I sat down with Dr. Glen Pyle, Co-Lead Ontario of COVID-19 Resources Canada and author of numerous #ScienceExplained pieces. With his insights, below I discuss two key challenges facing science communication during the pandemic.

(Image Credit: ASBMB)

  1. The COVID-19 infodemic

The overwhelming tide of COVID-19 information itself poses a challenge for science communication efforts. Over the last year, one quarter of all front-page online news articles pertained to COVID-19.2 And beyond traditional news sources, COVID-19 coverage has consumed podcasting, blogging, and social media outlets. The World Health Organization (WHO) has highlighted this “overabundance of information – some accurate and some not,” as an infodemic.3

The faces behind this  infodemic are heterogeneous – made up of journalists, scientific institutions, and governing bodies, but also non-expert individuals and social media influencers. The torrent of COVID-19 coverage has become increasingly polarized and exaggerated over the course of the pandemic, leading 96% of Canadians to encounter COVID-19 information online that they suspected was misleading, false, or inaccurate.4 Studies have found that COVID-19 misinformation is especially prolific on social media, which is concerning given that 65% of Canadians report social media as one of their COVID-19 information sources.3,5

“We have been dealing with these problems for a long time,” explains Dr. Pyle. “People who are conveying misinformation about the vaccines, guess what, these are the same people who were doing this two years ago, before COVID-19.”6

A major contributor to the COVID-19 infodemic is the unprecedented speed and volume of COVID-19 research. As of March 2021, scientists have produced over 370,000 publications focused on the coronavirus pandemic. At present, over 43,000 of these (11.6%) are preprints, which are manuscripts posted on publicly available servers before peer-review. Posting of preprints has surged during the pandemic for fast and accessible sharing of COVID-19 data that has helped speed up research on this deadly virus.

Nonetheless, preprints pose challenges for science communication. Science conducted at breakneck speed is  prone to mistakes, which are usually addressed during peer-review. While scientists understand the caveats associated with  preprints  and therefore read and share them with a greater degree of scrutiny, the media often represent these findings as being vetted conclusions. A recent study found that about half of media stories in early 2020, including from established news outlets such as The New York Times, did not label preprints as such in their reporting. The reporting of these studies needs a more nuanced approach than is currently being undertaken.

“I think that people who don’t know the peer-review process and what it actually does don’t fully appreciate that some of the information [in preprints] can be overstated or even mistaken and that we need to correct it,” Pyle remarks.6

To combat misinformation and guide Canadians through the infodemic, scientists have launched multiple science communication initiatives to serve as reliable sources of COVID-19 information. These include the COVID-19 Resources Canada #ScienceExplained program, the #ScienceUpFirst initiative, and the ON COVID-19 Project.

(Image Credit: Nathalie Lees, The Economist)

  1. Understanding of the scientific process

The pandemic has amplified the reporting of scientific developments in real time. Unfortunately, key pillars of the scientific method  like frequent debate and evolving interpretations have been undermined by oversimplification, eroding trust in science.  This is well exemplified by the policy reversals on the use of face masks in response to emerging data, which led to a 10% drop in public trust in science.1,7 To combat this, scientists must ensure that the public clearly understands  the scientific process.

One foundation  of the scientific process is that new information guides opinions. Every independent research study is a  puzzle piece building towards an understanding of a topic. Puzzle pieces can be repositioned or even replaced as more information is generated, which is why scientific consensus is ever-evolving and cannot be reached from single studies. However, the media often resorts to reporting on single and/or pre-print studies with an oversimplified narrative  for catering to a lay audience. They  may report these findings as facts, another departure from the scientific method. Another key stipulation of the scientific process is that science is imperfect and is corrected through peer-review and accountability from the scientific community. The media’s reporting style leaves little room for correction such that, if and when corrections are made, it can seed distrust of institutions, as was observed during the hydroxychloroquine retraction scandal that fed conspiracy theories and public discourse.1

Science communicators have been working to make the scientific process more accessible. The COVID-19 Resources Canada #ScienceExplained is one program that invites the public to submit questions for scientists to address. “One of the questions that came up was [about] the process of peer review,” recounts Dr. Glen Pyle. “I think that largely came from when papers were being published and then retracted.”6 In response, Pyle created a video explaining how the peer review process works, which he believes will help dispel mistrust and misinformation about how papers get published. “It removes the opportunity for people to criticize falsely and make things up.”6

In this light, the coronavirus pandemic has provided a useful opportunity for the public to learn about the scientific process and observe scientific debate that is usually confined to peer-reviewed journals and scientific institutions, which may dispel some of the elitism that is often associated with the ‘ivory tower’.

Despite the challenges faced, Canadian scientists should receive credit for their massive science communication efforts that have largely garnered public trust throughout the pandemic. This trust is being put to the test during Canada’s vaccine rollout as policy reversals on the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine gain international attention. A recent poll reported that 41% of Canadians intending to be vaccinated are uncomfortable with receiving the AstraZeneca shot, serving as a critical reminder that we must remain vigilant in our science communication efforts.

“If you’re in science, you’re a science communicator. That’s all there is to it,” says Dr. Pyle.

He implores scientists to leverage their scientific backgrounds, advising them to “keep up on the science, because one of the real problems of science communication is chasing a headline.” In navigating tough conversations, Dr. Pyle  recommends using the data to guide a facts-based conversation.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of effective science  communication, a soft skill that is often overlooked in graduate training and is invaluable for industry careers. To develop your own science communication skills, Dr. Pyle suggests seeking feedback from trainees in different departments. “For me as a cardiovascular person, probably the best feedback I am going to get is when I talk to a neuroscientist. They are going to challenge you on those fundamental things that most of us take for granted, or point out ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, because you’re using these terms that are all [jargon].’ Be uncomfortable, stretch yourself.”


If you are interested in developing your own science communication skills, here are some resources to get you started:

LSCDS Career Expo: SciComm Simulation and Workshops

University of Toronto SGS’s Communication Workshops

University of Toronto SGS’s Science Journalism Course

University of Toronto’s Science Communication Club

Royal Canadian Institute for Sciences’ Science Communication Training


Thank you to Dr. Glen Pyle, a Professor of Molecular Cardiology at the University of Guelph and an Associate Member of the IMPART Team Canada Investigator Network at Dalhousie Medicine. Dr. Pyle is the Ontario Co-Lead for COVID-19 Resources Canada and author of numerous #ScienceExplained pieces, with a history of excellence in science communication.


References

  1. Caulfield, T., Bubela, T., Kimmelman, J., Ravitsky, V. (2020). Let’s Do Better: Public Representations of COVID-19 Science. Royal Society of Canada. Accessed March 3, 2021.
  2. Krawczyk, K., et al. (2020) Quantifying the online news media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. medRxiv. Accessed March 3, 2021.
  3. Gross, M. (2020) Communicating science in a crisis. Current Biology. Accessed March 3, 2021.
  4. Statistics Canada. (2020) Misinformation during the COVID-10 pandemic. Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 45-28-0001. Accessed March 3, 2021.
  5. Bridgman, A., et al. (2020). The causes and consequences of COVID-19 misperceptions: Understanding the role of news and social media. Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review. Accessed March 3, 2021.
  6. Pyle, G., Germain, K. (2020) Personal Interview.
  7. French trust in science drops as coronavirus backlash begins | Times Higher Education (THE)