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Science communication helps make research outputs accessible to smallholder farmers

Manila, Philippines (October 17, 2023) — Rice research continues to be the core business of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). However, for the institute’s scientific outputs to have an impact, IRRI needs to communicate its research to farmers across Asia and Africa. This is where science communication comes in.

Science communication plays an important role in ensuring IRRI’s research-for-development products are shared with different stakeholders, most importantly the farmers, to motivate them to adopt new and better rice varieties and farm management techniques.

The importance of science communication was highlighted at a panel discussion organized by IRRI at the 6th International Rice Congress. This discussion showed perspectives from Africa, South Asia, and the Philippines on using science communications to affect policy change, providing extension services, and making stakeholders more aware of the developments in agricultural R&D.

Serge Savary, editor–in–chief of the Food Security journal, shared his experience and insights on how the journal can be used to determine how the global science community addresses food security questions by analyzing article submissions.

Food Security is a place where the major challenges of our world meet,” said Mr. Savary.

The journal receives a large number of submissions from across various locations and regions which are often justified by field research. The ones for publishing are selected based on the issues the articles aim to address. Some issues are temporary while others are long-lasting. Some are minor while others are seemingly persistent and widespread.

“The editorial policy at Food Security is undoubtedly unbiased,” he said.

The highest number of submissions come from the sub-Saharan Africa region followed by South Asia, East Africa, and Southeast Asia. Submissions from sub-Saharan Africa had the highest acceptance rate. Sub-Saharan Africa stood at the top spot with gender themes.

The food production theme, mostly associated with nutrition security, is strongly represented in submissions from East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa,  and South Asia. Other associations include the impact of crises on food production, the consequence of technical-social change on food production, and the effects of crises on the economy.

 Science communication can also be used to influence policy decisions, according to Abdelbagi Ismail, IRRI’s regional director for Africa.

“There is much good science that comes out every year however that does not necessarily result in impact,” Dr. Ismail said. “Scientific communication is always very technical and only scientists can understand it. For other stakeholders, especially the policymakers, to understand,  it needs to be distilled and put in a simpler form. Messages should be simple but be effective enough to affect government policy.”

Swati Nayak, lead of IRRI South Asia’s Seed System and Product Management and 2023 Borlaug Field Prize awardee, pointed towards first understanding the adoption process and behavior change-- which is affected by social and cultural norms--and then designing a communication strategy that fits into the context.

“Farmers around the world are a heterogeneous group, even within the same region,” Dr. Nayak said. “They are guided by their education, social, and economic conditions. Hence, communications for them should be designed in a manner which takes into consideration this heterogeneity.”

This becomes all the more important in the case of extension services where the objective of communicating with the farmers is to elicit a positive behavior change, she added.

For Jasper Arcalas, a multi-awarded journalist for the daily business newspaper in the Philippines, journalists should learn to grasp science to take advantage of the many opportunities for agricultural journalism in the Philippines.

“Gone are the days of general journalism,” Mr. Arcalas said. “To be a successful journalist, one should embrace science and bridge the gaps between science and its other stakeholders.”

It has been said that science is too important to be left to the scientists and not to be a part of popular culture. However, an important matter for science communicators is finding the balance between science and effective messaging for the general audience without diluting the former.