Talking Points: Luisa Massarani on communicating science in South America

A Brazilian expert reflects on the challenges faced by those who conduct and share science in her region.

Luisa Massarani is a science communicator and researcher at the National Brazilian Institute of Public Communication of Science and Technology and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), in Rio de Janeiro. She is also regional coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean at SciDev.Net. Here she discusses academic research and science communication in Brazil.

Luisa Massarani. Image credit: Marina Ramalho e Silva

What is the mood in the scientific community in Brazil at present?

Many scientists are worried about the future. There are constant cuts in the budget, which reflects the fact that politicians and policy makers don't understand the importance of science for society and development. Our general election, held in October to choose a new president and national congress, is a very important moment; the results of the second round at the end of this month will be key for the future of science in Brazil.

You once wrote that "each new politician wants to leave his or her own mark on the country, eliminating the marks of predecessors": how does this impact on science in Brazil?

This has been a problem in Brazil, and also in other countries in Latin America, for a long time. The government of the day might start various interesting initiatives, but when a new government arrives, it will often ignore or even destroy initiatives that were started by the previous government. Take my own field of science communication: I recently visited a science and art museum in João Pessoa in Brazil that was created few years ago, and it was sad to see how abandoned it is now. Sometimes it is like the movie Groundhog Day, doing the same thing day after day without learning anything.

How have public attitudes towards science evolved over the course of your career?

Surveys of public interest in science are held quite regularly in Brazil. In the most recent survey, which was in 2019, Brazilians expressed a lot of interest in science and high level of trust in scientists, but public consumption of science – such as reading science stories in newspapers and magazine, listening to radio programmes about science, or visiting science museums – was quite low. An obvious question is: has the pandemic changed public trust in science and scientists? We are holding a survey about this issue right now, and will have results in a couple of months.

How do you feel the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the work of science communicators in Latin America, especially as some governments seemed to undermine scientific efforts?

In my view, both scientists and science communicators have had keys role in fighting COVID-19 in Latin America, and many scientists who had not previously engaged with the public did so during the pandemic. At the National Institute of Public Communication of Science and Technology, for example, we designed a low-cost initiative for communicating trustable information about COVID-19 using social media and reached more than 5 million people in two years (the project ended in March 2022). We produced content such as video interviews with scientists and infographics, and distributed this content via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, and also via our website. However, with our President, Jair Bolsonaro, downplaying the risks posed by COVID-19 and often spreading misinformation – such as saying that getting vaccinated could lead to people getting AIDS or even turning into alligators! – we were like the nanopeople of Gulliver's Travels. As most people know, Brazil had one of the worst COVID-19 death tolls of any country.

In your experience, what are the main barriers that researchers in Brazil and the Global South face when trying to publish their work in leading (English-language) journals?

The obvious barrier is language. There is also quite a lot of anecdotal evidence that some researchers in 'the West' think that many scientists in the Global South don't have the intellectual ability needed to carry out robust research. To illustrate what I mean I will share two personal anecdotes. The first incident happened years ago, when I submitted a paper to a journal about the coverage of genetically modified crops in Brazilian newspapers. Brazil was the second biggest producer of genetically modified crops in the world at the time, and there was a lot of controversy about them. Despite all this, one of the peer reviewers asked: "Why is a paper from Brazil important?". Would the reviewer ask the same question if it was a paper from US? On another paper, about a study we carried out in Colombia, the reviewer read the manuscript very carefully and commented that "the English is awkward" on almost every sentence. The funny thing was that one of the authors was an English speaker from the United States – and they had never received this kind of comment before. However, at some journals with open-minded editors and peer-reviewers, coming from the Global South may be an advantage because you can have a different perspective. This is certainly true in science communication.

The SciELO database of open-access journals emerged in Brazil 25 years ago. What impact has SciELO – and open access more generally – had in Latin America?

First of all, it is important to say that the meaning of the term 'open access' has become somewhat distorted: articles in well-known open-access journals might be free to readers, but authors (or their institutions) often have to pay a large fee to publish, which makes this kind of 'open-access' unaffordable for many researchers from the Global South. Although most journals say that they give waivers to authors from the Global South, things are less straightforward in real life. The process can be time-consuming, and the end result is often not a waiver but a reduction in the fee – however, the reduced fee can still be unaffordable. SciELO and most Brazilian journals really are open access; that is, neither the authors nor the readers need to pay because costs are covered by the government or by the institutions that own and run the journals. This makes a big difference for scientists, and also for science communicators. However, we need to do more to make SciELO, which contains articles from more than 1000 journals, more visible outside Latin America.

You often caution against seeing Latin America as a monolith. Can you share more on this?

Indeed, I like to call attention to the fact that the countries in Latin America can be very different, both economically and culturally. We even have different Brazils, depending on which region of the country you are in, or whether you are in an urban area or a rural area. Still, I do feel that the different countries in Latin America are strongly connected and that we all face similar challenges and opportunities. In my own area, science communication, researchers from the different countries meet at the RedPop conference – but we should collaborate more.

Luisa Massarani was interviewed by Peter Rodgers, Chief Magazine Editor, and Elsa Loissel, Associate Features Editor, eLife.