Friday, December 30, 2011

New Beat in Philippine Journalism

In October 2011, I reviewed a new book titled Communication chanllenges and Convergence in Crop Biotechnology, an analysis and synthesis of essays on reportage of crop biotechnology in various countries.  This book was edited by Dr. Chel Navarro, a devcom specialist and science journalist, and Dr. Randy Hautea, a noted plant breeder and former director of UPLB's Institute of Plant Breeding.  Dr. Hautea is the International Coordinator of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), which holds office at the International Rice Research Institute.  Dr. Navarro, on the other hand, is the Network Manager for ISAAA, who has been responsible for the compilation of works explaining how biotechnology is being communicated in various member countries of the Network.  The book is an excellent synthesis of the global experience in communicating scientific information, and should be an excellent reference for science communication in the field of development communication.

My review has yet to appear in the papers, but I'm reproducing it here for the benefit of those early birds who may be interested in it.  I titled the review:  Science: Evolving Major Beat in Philippine Journalism

In the long and eventful history of Philippine journalism, Filipino journalists and media practitioners have played their professional roles ever so seriously particularly in the realm of politics and political development.  Certainly, political journalism is important in the life of the Philippines as a nation, but there are those who believe there may have been too much of it in Philippine media and too little of other fields of endeavor that have as important implications to national development of the country. One such area has just been highlighted by the release in mid-2011 of a significant book that could be refocusing our viewfinders on the field of science journalism or science communication, which is implied as an inflection point in the long history of journalism in the country.  Increasingly, more and more science stories are appearing the Philippine tri-media of the newspapers, radio, and television on regular basis, a clear indication of an increasing interest in science and technology among media consumers.

The book titled Communication Challenges and Convergence in Crop Biotechnology, edited by Dr. Mariechel J. Navarro, a development communication expert, and Dr. Randy A. Hautea, a noted scientist and plant breeder, documents the global experience in the efforts to make the general public understand and accept the tremendous opportunities in improving human living conditions both in the developed and developing world through appropriate application of science and technology.  Navarro and Hautea have painstakingly documented both the pros and cons of science and technology developments as these have affected the daily lives of people in various countries, particularly in relation to the production and consumption of genetically modified crops for food.  In their preface to the book, Navarro and Hautea said that the “debates on crop biotechnology have polarized the stakeholders due to conflicting messages and opinions that span socio-cultural, political and even religious issues.”

These debates, Navarro and Hautea observed, have “elevated biotechnology into a social phenomenon beyond the realm of science,” hence the gap has grown wider between those who believe and those that cast doubts on the safety to humans of the products and practices in the production of food through biotechnological processes. 

The book is divided into five brief parts: Part I focuses on the synthesis of global experiences with biotechnological efforts among scientists as well as global experiences of professional communicators in their efforts to explain science and biotechnology to the general public.  Part II, on the other hand, synthesizes the varied, sometimes dramatic, experiences in testing and commercialization of biotech products in countries considered “biotech countries,” which include the Philippines, India, China, and Australia.  Part III deals with what the editors referred to as “potential biotech countries,” which include Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Vietnam, where biotech crops are being tested and where there’s strong possibility that genetically modified products shall be adopted.  Part IV, deals extensively with regional (Asian) initiatives in biotechnology and science communication, and, finally, Part V rounds off all these experiences in a synthesis of the global practices in communicating biotechnology to the general public. 

Communication Challenges and Convergence in Crop Biotechnology is not a textbook in science communication, much less a workbook for science journalism.  It is a collection of essays on analyses of varied experiences in communicating science, particularly biotechnology, to the general public around the world.  The case studies in the countries of Asia and Australia that are reported in this book are exemplars of how various countries, both developing and developed, have reflected on specific challenges of how to communicate science, particularly crop biotechnology, to the public.  Through these interesting case studies, the authors have laymanized the divide between science and society,  translated into practical framework and procedures or processes designed to enhance the capacities of science communicators through appropriate training, defined key science publics and champions, and focus on public values about science and technology.

To science communicators worldwide, the book has this reminder: 

Debates surrounding the acceptance and adoption of crop biotechnology have put the focus on the variables beyond science itself.  The polarization of stakeholders due to conflicting and mixed messages, and the presence of divergent information sources, among others, affect public opinion on science in general and biotechnology in particular.  Communication is one of several key variables needed to create an enabling environment for biotechnology. . . . Science communication will, thus, play a contributory role as catalyst for change in making possible an informed public, science-based decision-making, and higher capability, equity, and empowerment among stakeholders.

Navarro’s over-all synthesis of the science communication experience in Asia and Oceania expresses a fundamental principle in science communication, which is that science must be part of public attitude and knowledge based on values more than on mere information.  “These values,” Navarro says, “include high trust in science and the regulatory system, credibility, freedom of choice, and in the belief that humans have control over their environment.”  In other words, it is part of effective and efficient science communication to align science with public values and making that alignment clearly understood by the public.

The book quoted National Scientist, Dr. Gelia T. Castillo, as having said, thus:

Times have changed from a time where technology basically moved itself to farmers’ fields without much effort to one where many publics have emerged.  Stakeholders now assert their rights to know and right to participate in science-related decisions which affect their lives.  In a world of many persuasions, causes, and conflicts, crop biotechnology is one “defining technology which has changed the relationship between science and society.”

In other words, what Dr. Castillo is putting emphasis on, and which the book has appropriately picked up, is that it’s no longer simply a case of just letting the results of scientific endeavor slowly seep into society but that efforts must be taken, particularly by scientists, science communicators, and the general public, to enhance the blending of the fruits of scientific endeavors with the needs of society.  Indeed, such is one of the primary philosophical bases for science communication.

Without doubt, this book provides significant guideposts as well as enough motivation for Filipino science journalists or communicators to be more advocacy-oriented in educating Filipinos about the strengths of science and technology as catalysts for national development.  If one goes by the message of this book, then science is evolving as the new major beat in Philippine journalism.

The book carries in its 300 pages numerous lessons for science communicators, but perhaps the most significant of these are those that deal with making information available and accessible to various publics such as policy makers, scientists themselves, academics, technology regulators, media entities, and the general public

Communication Challenges and Convergence in Crop Biotechnology was jointly published by the New York-based International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech  Applications (ISAAA) and the Los BaƱos-based Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA).

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