FROM IAN THORNTON, POLICY ADVISOR AT THE ROYAL SOCIETY, RETURNING FROM GHANA…

As the Accra traffic crawled through the rain towards the airport, I had ample time to reflect on the trip. It had been three days packed with informative meetings and valuable discussions. The next, and more substantial challenge, was to take forward some of the decisions we made.

I was in Ghana for a workshop run by the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences (GAAS) on communicating science in the media. At the Society, we work with the GAAS and the national academies of Ethiopia and Tanzania to  build their capacities and to support them to provide evidence-based advice to their governments and other stakeholders. The Ghanaian Academy had identified the poor standard of science reporting in Ghanaian media as an issue they wanted to focus on, and together with the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC), the three organisations  put together a workshop to throw light on the issues.

Our combined networks had secured an excellent line-up of speakers. The invited journalists were vocal and opinionated,  and discussion was robust. But the event left me feeling troubled by the scale and complexity of the challenges. The barriers to better science reporting are substantial: participants questioned the quality of science education in Ghana, editors’ appetite for science stories, and bemoaned journalism courses for not including science components. Combined with journalists’ limited access to sound scientific information, it is easy to see why coverage of issues like nuclear power and H1N1 is often found wanting.

The Academy is taking steps in the right direction. They will be running a training course for scientists shortly on how to work with the media, and working with universities’ PR officers to build links between the media and scientists. (An initiative  picked up in the Ghanaian national press during the meeting.) But calls at the workshop for broad reforms to science teaching, and a science desk in every newspaper are things that many people in the UK still want – and perhaps not the most practical next steps for a country like Ghana.

What is clear is that working in partnership will be key to moving forward. The Academy is ambitious, but the challenges are bigger than one organisation can tackle alone. After a full debrief from the event, we will be encouraging the Academy to reach out to relevant partners and to together define prudent next steps, building momentum as they go.

For more information on the Society’s programme to build the capacity of African academies of science please see http://royalsociety.org/Pfizer-African-Academies-Programme/

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