Media and Science: How to Bridge the Attention Divide?

Research is hard work and the returns are often small. It is therefore unsurprising that it can be tempting to embellish the results.This goes some way to explain why the public image of science, and especially social science, has recently been tarnished; the biggest recent blow being the uncovering of the extensive academic fraud committed by social psychologist Diederik Stapel (New York Times, 2011).

However, regular media coverage of science also contributes to an unfavourable view of social science. Sexy, ‘funny’ or ‘surprising’ topics are favoured by the media. Most social science studies do not fit any of these categories. Therefore they rarely generate media attention.

This is not Patients at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh. necessarily a deplorable state of affairs. After all, why should Joe Bloggs be interested in the little steps of progress made by social scientists? (And yes, I do believe that social science is useful on the whole.)

Nevertheless, I am concerned about two related issues.

First, if the quality of social science research that attracts media attention is worse than what most researchers produce, it will ultimately damage the reputation of all social scientists and society’s willingness to fund social science research. To return to the example of Diederik Stapel, his findings that meat-eaters are more selfish than vegetarians certainly generated media attention; yet they turned out to be a hoax.

Second, from within the academic ivory tower, it is more and more frequently assumed that small is not beautiful. Journal editors and reviewers will reject or accept papers based on whether it is a ‘significant contribution to the literature’.

I am not alone in my observation that there is a tendency to dismiss societally-relevant work because of practical limitations that studying the messy outside world invariably brings with it (Cialdini, 2009). Instead, laboratory work that yields more ‘conclusive’ results is preferred.

However, it is vital for theories to be tested in the real world. In the case of my recent study on the impact of media coverage on cancer screening, there were competing theories. On the one hand, some argued that the messenger influences the persuasiveness of a message, which would result in preaching to the converted. On the other hand, others suggested that awareness is the key factor, thus predicting a relatively large increase in the previously unscreened population.

Our findings were supportive of the hypothesis that media coverage of cancer prevention and screening mainly has an awareness raising effect. Efforts to generate positive media attention should therefore be encouraged. This may not be a surprising conclusion, but it can certainly be a useful one.

by Siu Hing Lo, alumna of the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance. Image: UN Photo / Mark Garten

Cialdini, R.B. (2009), We have to break up, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4:1, 5-6.
New York Times (2011), Fraud case seen as red flag for psychology research, Accessed online 28 April 2012

Toilets Save Lives: Call for Teaching Tools

Remember that scene from Slumdog Millionaire? That’s what most people in developing country slums have as toilets. Yet at the same time there are thousands of abandoned or barely used household toilets in India and in Africa. Abandoned because they are poorly built, because of a lack of water, or for a lack of maintenance or demand.

Many low-cost toilets become deadly points of environmental contamination. So there is a real need to make sure we build QUALITY toilets – which will be used and appreciated en masse – while working towards the MDG of improving access to safe sanitation.

So what’s the problem? There are plenty of books on sanitation in the market. There’s plenty of information on the internet on sanitation. There are costly workshops that policy makers can attend to learn about this subject, as well as simpler workshops given to masons and field supervisors under less glamorous settings.

There are plenty of training programmes, but what is retained of such programmes? We simply don’t know! The problem is there are no tools to assess people’s knowledge of sanitation.

Representing UNU-MERIT (NL) and FIN (India), I aim to create a tool that will help people who are driving sanitation efforts work out what their team members know or don’t know – and how to rectify this.

In partnership with Gita Balakrishnan of ETHOS (India) and Valentin Post of WASTE (NL), I’m organizing a call for contributions to a ‘Sanitation Question-Answer Bank’ under the aegis of the FINISH programme for sanitation coverage in India.

What does this call for contributions to Sanitation Question-Answer Bank mean? It means if you can think of an interesting question (along with a photo) on how to promote safe sanitation – and can also explain the answer – we want to hear from you!

Expert judges will select 1000 winning entries, each of which will be awarded Rs 75 each (or you can contribute this to repair of toilets!). The concept paper giving detailed explanations about the contest and the answer sheet format is available at Ethos India.

All interesting entries will be acknowledged with the name of the contributor clearly mentioned. These will be compiled into an e-book and put in the creative commons – to be used by any agency teaching about sanitation or anyone who wants to test and improve their knowledge on this subject.

by Shyama Ramani, Professorial Fellow at UNU-MERIT. Image: Flickr / Waterdotorg (Tamil Nadu, India)

Neglected Tropical Diseases and the Austerity Pandemic

Dumdum fever (or visceral leishmaniasis) is caused by a parasite (leishmania) and kills more than half a million people every year. After malaria it’s the world’s deadliest parasitic infection, but little has been done to combat it until very recently.

Dumdum fever is what is known as a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD). Other NTDs include buruli ulcer, chagas disease, cysticercosis, dengue, dracunculiasis, echinococcosis, endemic reponematoses, helminthiases, leprosy, lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, rabies, schistosomiasis, trypanosomiasis, and trematode infections.

More than a billion people UN Photo / Sophia Paris are affected by NTDs, yet treatments are rare. On the one hand this is because they are ‘diseases of poverty’, i.e. they mainly affect poor people who can afford neither vaccines nor medical treatments. So there is little incentive for profit-oriented pharmaceutical firms to invest in R&D for treatments.

On the other hand poor-country governments are often fragile states which lack the resources (and often the commitment) to invest in basic amenities which would limit the spread and impact of NTDs, or to provide access to existing medicines. For instance 2.5 billion people still lack proper sanitation and safe water, and 1.5 billion live without electricity.

Continued growth and economic development, coupled with appropriate policies and government investment, is clearly a necessary condition for reducing and eventually eliminating the impact of these diseases. But development takes time, and the benefits of growth are often slow to ‘trickle down’ to the poorest in society.

Moreover, the debilitating effects of these diseases are a contributing factor to poverty. Global intervention is needed to (i) provide access to existing treatments and best practices, but also to (ii) generate, diffuse and use new and more affordable vaccines and other treatments – for many NTDs existing treatments are ‘old, cumbersome to administer, or toxic’ (WHO, 2012:iv).

The World Health WHO NTDsOrganization (WHO) recently announced a Roadmap to deal with NTDs, which is an encouraging step as far as the former (i) is concerned. It aims to control or eradicate most of these NTDs by 2020. The report notes a growing number of contributions by multinational pharmaceutical firms to contribute resources– e.g. donating free medicines – but also notes that more than US$ 2 billion is still needed.

The WHO’s Roadmap also calls for increased R&D for treatments, but doesn’t go into much detail. Hence the question remains, how can we stimulate innovation to control and eradicate NTDs?

In a recent MSM-MGSoG-MERIT Joint Seminar presentation on 16 February 2012, Professor Nicola Dimitri from Maastricht School of Management and the University of Siena argued that from a R&D perspective NTDs are now less neglected than they were before the 2000s.

However much more needs to be done, particularly if the Roadmap’s goals are to be achieved and maintained. Dimitri discussed a number of recent initiatives to stimulate private sector innovation for better treatments.

These initiatives are at the forefront of thinking about public policies, procurement and innovation for socially desirable outcomes, and include push (such as public private partnerships), pull (such as advanced market commitments and priority review vouchers) and hybrid forms of incentives.

Thus (hopefully) in a few years’ time there may be no more ‘neglected’ tropical diseases. The only discordant note was sounded in December 2011 by a G-Finder (Global Funding for Innovation for Neglected Diseases) report which asked ‘is innovation under threat?’ With many rich countries facing high debt burdens and implementing fiscal austerity measures, funding for innovation has been declining.

The report documents that funding for innovation on neglected diseases was slashed by over US$ 100 million in 2010, mostly in European countries. For instance Sweden cut its funding for NTD innovation by 43 per cent, the Netherlands by 39 per cent, Denmark 49 per cent, Spain 30 per cent, Germany 12 per cent and Norway by 20 per cent.  A neglected consequence of the austerity pandemic in Europe is thus the further neglect of NTDs.

Wim Naudé, Professorial Fellow at UNU-MERIT and the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance