Part of what I do as “The Germ Guy” is to identify new trends and potential possibilities for research and collaboration. It’s exciting because it allows me to understand what is happening in the world of infectious disease and how scientists can best join in the advancement of scientific knowledge, public awareness and policy.
It’s also shown me the extent of the knowledge and awareness gap between the academia, public and politicians when it comes to infectious disease. There is no one specific reason for this distance but rather there is a general understanding that little to no connection between the academics, the politicians and the public exists. For example, in 2003, the SARS epidemic led to an almost panicked state in Canada and even led to some martial rules in Ontario. At the end of it all, the public was left confused, the academics were confounded and the politicians were condemned. Little has changed. Just look at what happened during the H1N1 pandemic.
So how can we bring the academics, the public and the politicians closer together on infectious disease awareness?
Soon, there’ll be an APP for that.
Over the next few months, I’ll be working in concert with the Research Centres where I am employed to develop a network that links academia, the public and politicians (APP for short). The framework is still being hammered out but I think this would be a good time for experts who want to help close that gap make themselves known and perhaps pledge to get involved.
The concept is novel. There is no doubt that many organizations are working to develop models for influencing policy change. Some are highly successful, such as UNICEF, however most do not have the buy in from both the public and the politicians. This concept differs in that the audience is not the politicians nor the policymakers, but the public so that they can be the driving force behind change. Yet the actual structure of the information hub would reflect current political hot topics such that politicians can ask for more information in an easy manner and even request plain language summaries of documents and papers. In essence, it’s a three-way translation system that not only bridges the gap, but reinforces the connection between these three groups.
The method is simple. The scientific community is rife with articles, papers, reviews, book chapters and grey literature that explains, elaborates and enlightens upon various topics from hepatitis to HIV (just take a look at what a PubMed search for HIV brings about…and this virus has only been known for some 30 years). Most of these articles, however, are written according to the journal’s style, and reflect the current scientific language of the day (HIV was called LAV once). As I’ve learned from many friends and family members, these articles are not at all easy to read. Thankfully, there are many in the scientific community who have the ability to translate the knowledge into plain language that is both accessible but also interesting. After all, every scientific article tells a story; it’s just up to the storyteller to make it worthwhile.
There will be buy-in from all three sides. Interest has already been shown here in Canada from both the public and the politic to develop this kind of network. Details will follow (and if you contact me directly, I can share more) but this call is not going out without some work already completed in the background. What I can share is that some politicians want to end the dissonance between them and the public but there are few topics that can be discussed without some form of partisanship. As SARS, H1N1 and thanks to George Clooney, malaria, has made clear to us, no one, regardless of socioeconomic status, is truly immune from infectious disease. And this might be a very good platform on which to rebuild trust.
It’s early but it’s the best time to start. Plain and simple, the APP needs to go viral when it’s introduced to the public. Right now, what’s missing are the names of experts who have demonstrated their ability to translate complex scientific information to the public. If we can gain a critical mass of these individuals, whether they be from Canada or worldwide, then we can start showing the public that we want to keep them informed and the politicians that we are doing our civic duty to keep the information flowing in the direction it needs to go: Academia -> Public -> Policy (and back to academia).
So, if you’re an infectious disease expert, whether you be a doctor, researcher, journalist or avid scientific blogger and you wish to share your knowledge with the public but more importantly in such a way that it will drive political change, then please let me know. As I mentioned, the details are being hammered out but as in the case of an epidemic, if we can reach a tipping point, the endeavour will be effective.