Alice Roberts: academics must engage with Covid vaccine sceptics

Public engagement expert concerned about communities that scientists are failing to reach

November 26, 2020
vaccine needle inoculation injection
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Academics must continue to engage with people who are sceptical about getting inoculated against Covid-19, according to a science communication expert who said it was “no good” for academia to simply produce a vaccine and say: “Here it is, everybody.”

Alice Roberts, professor of public engagement in science at the University of Birmingham, said that there was only a “tiny minority” of anti-vaxxers who were “dogmatically going to refuse” to take a Covid-19 vaccine, but there was “a significant proportion of people who say they are concerned, and probably for good reasons”.

“They’re reading all the news; they’re reading about how these vaccines are being developed and that to some extent shows that they’re really interested in it. So I hope that we continue engaging with those people and that hopefully in the end we have enough people having the vaccine, importantly not just to protect themselves but to protect everybody else,” she told Times Higher Education’s THE Live UK event.

Professor Roberts, who has presented a series of television programmes focused on archaeology and anthropology, added that social media was still a useful tool for scholars to engage with the public and that when using platforms such as Twitter, academics should focus less on closed-minded individuals and more on the fact that conversations were taking place in “a room full of people”.

“Thinking back to years ago when I was quite vociferous about the possibility of creationism being taught in schools before we had evolution embedded in biology, I did occasionally get into debates with creationists on Twitter. I reflected on this and thought, is it a useful thing to be doing because I’m pretty sure that the person I’m directly engaging with isn’t going to change their mind?” she said.

“But, of course, what happens on social media is that you’re having that conversation in a room full of people, so there are lots of people engaging with that conversation and listening to the argument on both sides and making their mind up. So I do think it’s useful to have those conversations and to keep on talking.”

She added: “It is no good for us to just do the science behind closed doors and not talk about it. It’s no good to just make a vaccine and then say: ‘Here it is, everybody, it’s what you wanted.’ You’ve got to have ongoing conversations about it.”

But Professor Roberts said that the biggest challenge she faced as a science communicator was not about converting dogmatic individuals, because these people were engaging with science even if “they’ve decided not to listen”, but about the communities academics were not reaching at all.

“We need to do an awful lot more in reaching out to what we used to call hard-to-reach communities – that’s from our perspective in scientific institutions…Otherwise we have a very real danger of having a population where there is a group of people who are very well-informed scientifically and that’s helping them with their decision-making, helping them with their health, helping them with their lives. And then a group of people who don’t have access to that science,” she said.

Professor Roberts also spoke about the challenge that scholars on the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) faced in being seen as apolitical and independent, but said that was why it was “really useful to have a group like Independent Sage”.

“This is a group of scientists that have come together because they believed that the public at large in all its great variety and also the government could probably do with having a group of scientists who were completely independent. So I think that’s a great model, and I don’t think it’s in competition with Sage, I think it complements it,” said Professor Roberts, who chairs Independent Sage’s weekly briefings.

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