Truth and liberal democracy came under sustained attack in 2016 amid a massive political shift – a shift that transformed the political landscapes in the UK and USA, and now even threatens the work of the UN. Global debates on migration and climate change, among others, were twisted time and again with ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’; and this may be just the beginning.
Against this backdrop, we took a stand for evidence-based approaches, delivering a course on Science Reporting at the City of Knowledge in Panama, 12-16 December 2016. The workshop title, ‘Reach & Turn’, drew from the navigation points of the famous canal: from Balboa Reach on the Pacific entrance to Trinidad Turn on the Atlantic coast. But it also referred to reaching out, turning heads, and shifting mindsets – in many ways the core of communications.
This first edition focused on the research and media landscape of Panama, but was led by an international group of instructors from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Paraguay, Spain and the UK – representing the United Nations University, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ). The workshop also enjoyed the constant support from Fundación Cuidad del Saber, and Panama’s National Secretariat for Science and Technology (SENACYT).
From military base to a seat of learning
The course took place in a poignant setting: the City of Knowledge (Ciudad del Saber — CdS). A generation ago this compound was a US military base, but after devolution to Panama it has become one of the most intriguing educational endeavours of the region. Overlooking the Miraflores Locks, the CdS campus now hosts government agencies, universities, private companies, and the entire UN Country Team of Panama. Scientific research is conducted every day on the campus with the aim of improving the lives of the people of Panama. Ciudad del Saber shows how knowledge and cooperation can flourish in Latin America and its example should be followed by other countries in the region and around the world.
During the interactive sessions we discussed how communication professionals, researchers and science journalists can work together to overcome their various – but often similar – challenges. In the process, participants enjoyed open and frank conversations, facilitated by our instructors.
The United Nations University took the lead on the first two days, explaining the importance of communicating evidence-based and policy-relevant research to a broad audience. Being a UN agency tasked with bridging the gap between researchers and policymakers, we were able to draw from vast experience, sharing both good and bad practices. We not only moderated lively discussions, but also received feedback on our work and methods – so we also learned from the participants. This reflected our belief that learning (like love and communication) should always be a two-way process!
Our partners led the next two days of ‘Reach & Turn’. Award-winning Guatemalan journalist Lucy Calderón, from the WFSJ, then led a day of workshops that discussed the intricacies of science journalism and stressed the importance of regional cooperation.
After hearing from UNU and the WFSJ it was time for our participants to put their learning into action – and that was when Nicolas Cañete and Javier Iglesias from the IDB and Opinno, respectively led a ‘mediathon’. This competition challenged our participants to work in groups and develop a fresh idea for scientific reporting in Panama. We were amazed at the speed at which they came up with tangible plans and it was very difficult to pick a winner. We realised just how much potential there is when gathering a group of such diverse backgrounds who share a common goal. These participants wanted to share all the interesting scientific work done in Panama and elsewhere and get civil society interested in science – some of their presentations were truly inspiring.
Shared (inter-continental) workspaces
One of the targets of SDG#17 states that we must “enhance North-South, South-South and triangular regional and international cooperation on and access to science, technology and innovation and enhance knowledge sharing on mutually agreed terms”. This week-long workshop was designed to make a positive contribution to this and many more targets of the 2030 Agenda. It created an environment where journalists, academics and policymakers could meet and where people from different parts of the world could share knowledge.
We had some heated debates and while we did not always agree with each other or find the all the answers, by the end we were asking the right questions and doing it together (and based on these discussions, a tailored policy brief is already in development). Now we look to the future and plan to share this course to a wider audience – across Latin America and other regions of the Global South.
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / S.Brodin, D.Salama; WFSJ / L.Calderón