“Our aim was to diversify our portfolio of engagement activities in order to better engage with the public through their preferred channels and to support one of our strategic communication objectives – To promote the CVR as a world-class centre for virology research. We also recognised that by having a range of engagement activities we could better support all CVR students and staff wishing to get involved in communication and engagement.”
It is our belief that measured, accurate and timely communication of virology is critical to improved public health and understanding of science. Over the last one and a half years, I have established an innovative digital engagement platform (called ‘Contagious Thinking’) embedded within the CVR, in the form of combined podcasting, blogging and social media tools in order to communicate – and engage the general public with – CVR research and virology and science in general.
Inspired by a recent Wellcome Trust report by Ipsos MORI that stated that while the majority of the public is interested in science they wish to engage through online media directly from scientists themselves rather than actively in person from third parties. To this end, we have published over twenty articles via our blog and ten episodes of our podcast to date, focusing on important virology topics of public interest, contributed by expert virologists. Article topics include: eradication of hepatitis C virus, the pros and cons of genetic engineering of viruses and using viruses to cure cancer. Podcast episodes took the form of ‘meet the experts’ where we discussed latest research with visitors to the centre. Topics included: what is gene therapy? How does HIV infect cells? And a discussion with CVR staff and students who volunteered during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. Contagious Thinking complements ongoing engagement efforts from the CVR and has begun to lower the barrier to communications from within the centre.
Recognising the importance of online media in science communications, the central purpose of Contagious Thinking is to get the CVR engaging with the general public via the digital media. To achieve this outcome successfully, three aims were met: 1) Establish the platform physically (set-up blog and podcast/get equipment) and train contributors; 2) develop and deliver content (find topics and publish content on platform); and 3) begin engagement through social media. We are now using our early experience to evaluate how to better engage with the public in the future so this endeavour becomes sustainable.
Principally, we have proactively communicated our research and that of virology in general out with the usual academic media of communications, through the use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud and iTunes). Contagious Thinking has focussed on communicating areas of virology of public interest, such as Ebola, HIV and HCV, and mosquito-spread viruses, like dengue and Zika. Partnering with known brands such as the MRC, Microbiology Society and ‘This Week in Virology’ podcast, is essential to bringing our science to a wider audience. We wish to be an example for how research-focused centres can embrace digital media to communicate science.
Communication of research, virology and the scientific career lies at the heart of Contagious Thinking. We have taken the approach that research is best communicated with the direct input of experts and scientists carrying out the research. The majority of content has focussed on a specific paper, topic or stories about researchers. Our blog was used – in partnership with local conference organisers and the Microbiology Society – to write about viruses that are spread by ticks and mosquitoes in the run-up to the International Meeting on Arboviruses and their Viruses (IMAV). Additionally, investigators have written articles to coincide with published papers.
The Contagious Thinking audience of our blog, podcast and social media, is an integral part of our project. As viruses, infectious diseases and science, impacts and affects everybody globally, we employed a non-targeted strategy of communications, exploiting digital and social media to disseminate and engage with the general public across the world. Contagious Thinking is a group project and is brought to you only with the help of staff and students at the CVR and visitors to the centre. Over twenty individuals have contributed directly to making the project a success. In sum, six PhD students, three postdocs, twelve principal investigators and two members of internal communications team have contributed to date. This is either through generating content, agreeing to be interviewed or through the management and promotion of content. We have distributed our content via partnership with Hepatitis Scotland, MRC and Microbiology Society.