Thandi Mgwebi, executive director of research chairs and centers of excellence at the South African National Research Foundation.

Thandi Mgwebi, executive director of research chairs and centers of excellence at the South African National Research Foundation.

Atlantic Photography Boston

Fighting scientific misinformation: A South African perspective

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA—In 2006, South Africa’s future president Jacob Zuma said that he showered after sex to avoid HIV. The statement angered health experts and highlighted the country’s struggle to accurately communicate science. Thandi Mgwebi has spent the past 6 years trying to improve this communication. As executive director of research chairs and centers of excellence at the South African National Research Foundation (NRF), the largest government funder of science on the continent, she recruits international scientists and oversees the funding of their work. Yesterday, she participated in a panel here at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science) on “access to scientific expertise in fast growing African countries.” After the discussion, Mgwebi sat down with Science to talk about the obstacles to a better public understanding of science.

Q: What’s the disconnect between science and the public in South Africa?

A: We don’t have platforms [for communicating science] that are institutionalized. The people are there and they’ve got the will, but they don’t have the expertise to do it. They’re research scientists and they’re highly regarded, but in terms of communicating, that becomes a different ball game altogether. And then you get false stories [like Zuma’s statement about HIV]. Those kinds of stories are because of lack of communication and teaching. We don’t know why he said it, but it wasn’t a joke.

Q: What was the impact of that?

A: Nobody has quantified it. From the learned community of course it’s laughable, but you don’t know what’s happening in a local environment—in a village, for example. We don’t know how it affects education against sexually transmitted diseases, for example. It’s coming from a head of state. Obviously there must be some bad impact.

Q: How do you combat that kind of misinformation?

A: We’re trying to get all our scientists to be involved in one way or another in science writing, and the NRF has an internship program for young scientists in which the centers of excellence partner with science journalists. NRF also has a unit called SAASTA (South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement). They deal with science education, science awareness, and science communication.

Q: How is the misunderstanding of science different in South Africa than in the United States?

A: It’s the scale. I think the issues are the same, but the scale is different. There are also a lot of socioeconomic issues in Africa, and therefore approaches to help have to be different. Indigenous knowledge systems are very important in Africa. With the prevention of HIV, there were a lot of education initiatives, and most of them were aligned with what people believe. You have to look at the belief system, and not just come with your hardcore facts about science. I don’t think you’ve got that in the United States. If you do, it’s not at that scale.

Check out our full coverage of the AAAS annual meeting.

What message would you send into space? Tell us on Twitter and Vine with #msgtospace!