Life Sciences Communication contributes to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic

The Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC) has been hard at work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many LSC members have played active and instrumental roles in applied communication projects at the community and federal level along with conducting valuable research.

“COVID gave new life to an idea that many STEM scientists and public health scholars still falsely cling to: the idea that science should determine policy. Science has never and should never be the sole driver of policy,” said Dietram Scheufele, LSC professor and Taylor-Bascom Chair, “people’s values, individual rights, and many other trade-offs between convenience and prudence have at least as much influence as scientific facts.” This is where the work of LSC faculty and students come in. Much of the work currently being done by the Science, Media, and the Public (scimep) research group in LSC is figuring out how the general public, policymakers, public health officials, and scientists make sense of complex, emerging science that the majority of society tend to know very little about. COVID-19 proves to be exactly that, but with the added challenge of inconsistent and unclear information coming from myriad sources. LSC members are well equipped to tackle the communication challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and that is exactly what they have done over the course of 2020.

Group of people outside under a tent
A COVID-19 testing site set up on the UW-Madison campus. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

At the start of the pandemic and throughout spring 2020, several LSC members teamed up with public health officials, local municipalities, and members of other UW-Madison departments to form a communication task force to help address COVID-19 in Wisconsin. Acknowledging the challenges associated with communicating about and promoting the adoption of precautionary behaviors, the task force was formed to use social science theory to develop effective communication strategies. Among faculty, staff, and students from UW-Madison and affiliated organizations, as well as several community partners, this task force included contributions from LSC’s professor and chair Dominique Brossard, assistant professor Kaiping Chen, associate professor Bret Shaw, faculty associate Don Stanley, Ph.D. student Christopher Wirz, and M.S. students Brianna VanMatre and Ashley Cate.

Since it is necessary to understand why people act a certain way to create these strategies, Brossard, Wirz, and co-authors conducted research that focused on understanding what influenced Wisconsin residents’ likelihood to observe physical distancing guidelines. The report, which was covered by the WI State Journal, among other outlets, provided important insights to be used by communicators in the state.

Additional data collection led to more than 40,000 responses from Wisconsinites which were analyzed using computational techniques by Chen, with the assistance of LSC Ph.D. students Luye Bao, Anqi Shao, and Shiyu Yang. The team (which also included Brossard and Wirz) found that COVID-19 related opinions in Wisconsin are not static – they change in response to a rapidly evolving situation. According to Chen, a critical conclusion of the published research was that communication about COVID-19 should be dynamic and evolve to address people’s experiences and needs over time.  “When designing a message to try to convince people to take precautionary actions against COVID-19, you want to do so while conveying that these actions are going to help them in multiple ways,” Chen says. “It’s not just a single message in a single layer.”

Pamphlets describing CODI-19 guidelines
UW-Madison campus signs include directional information plus reminders about physical distancing, health, and safety protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Once the task force identified specific demographics that were least likely to adhere to social distancing guidelines, Shaw and Stanley developed messages grounded in communication theory and best practices for public health and tested them on social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. The results from these message tests provided important insights about what messages were most effective for reaching certain audiences via social media to encourage behaviors that prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Another important topic that has been at the center of discussions about COVID-19 is the issue of misinformation, for which Scheufele, LSC Ph.D. student Nicole Krause, visiting Fullbright scholar Isabelle Freiling, and Brossard provide crucial insights in an article featured in ISSUES. With the plethora of information available, accurate and inaccurate, many have claimed we are living in an “infodemic.” This infodemic leaves communicators with a vast array of challenges when trying to communicate about COVID-19. The article goes in-depth on four of these challenges and offers advice to politicians, journalists, scientists, and other communicators. The main message is simple: communicators need to acknowledge social values and scientific uncertainties, not just “accuracy” and “facts.” Further looking at the issue of misinformation, Brossard along with Krause, Freiling, and LSC Ph.D. student Becca Beets stressed the “multi-layered risk” related to misinformation in general, and fact-checking in particular.

It is clear that social science insights based on scientific evidence should provide a framework for decision making during crises such as COVID-19. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, created the Societal Experts Action Network (SEAN). SEAN provides rapid actionable responses to social, behavioral, and economic related questions raised by decision-makers on the ground. Brossard, who also serves as the chair of NSF’s social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE) advisory committee, is a member of the executive committee of SEAN. With her co-authors, Brossard produced a report on strategies for increasing people’s cooperation with “protective behaviors” against COVID-19, which has been downloaded by many policymakers. As a follow up to the initial report, Brossard was involved in another rapid expert consultation through SEAN that uses developmental psychology and brain research to support campus leaders to work together with college students to prevent further spread of COVID-19 on college campuses and in the surrounding communities.

LSC faculty extensively provided outreach, were cited in countless media outlets, and have incorporated the science of science communication in COVID-19 context into their classes. Overall, COVID-19 communication has proven to be an incredible challenge – a challenge that multiple LSC faculty and students can help successfully address. “There is always this assumption that communication is easy,” says Brossard “but humans are complicated beings, and the psychological processes that determine why they behave a certain way or not, are more complex than we tend to believe. There is no magic bullet for communication.” Throughout the pandemic, LSC’s goal has been to address this complexity. As Scheufele stressed, science alone should not determine policy and we are happy to see LSC’s expertise be leveraged to provide critical insights on the social aspects of crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Story by Jori Skalitzky, LSC B.S. ’22 and LSC’s 2020-21 Lenore Landry Scholar