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Guest Blog: Successful Scientists Need to be Science Communicators
Editor’s Note: Charlotte A. Moser is the assistant director of the Vaccine Education Center (VEC) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. In this capacity, she created the Parents PACK program to keep the public up to date with accurate information about vaccines, co-created the Vaccine Update program for healthcare providers, and assisted with re-positioning the Vaccine Makers Project to become the classroom-based program of the VEC. She also co-authored Vaccines and Your Child: Separating Fact from Fiction (Columbia University Press, 2011) and has published primary research related to virology and immunology. Moser was also part of a team at CHOP and Temple University that developed a novel microencapsulation system to enhance immunity to vaccines. In this guest blog, she writes about the Center’s central role in disseminating accurate, honest, unbiased information during the COVID-19 pandemic, answering questions about vaccines from colleagues and families throughout the world.
The last year has been unsettling, to say the least. Perhaps one of biggest contributors to this unease has been the unknown. Indeed, what is known is less scary, but since the shutdowns last March, we have collectively been living one day to the next not knowing what to expect: When will businesses reopen? Can children safely go back to school? When can I go without a mask? And, are those vaccines really safe?
The Vaccine Education Center (VEC) has been answering questions for 20 years about vaccines and vaccine science. With the pandemic, our jobs took on new meaning. Virtually everyone in the world was waiting for vaccines, and many were looking for vaccine information.
In the last year, we’ve spent our time serving on committees, reviewing data, fielding questions from colleagues, and helping develop guidance. VEC Director Paul Offit, MD, spent countless hours talking with reporters and appearing in the media. We have completed research to understand healthcare worker attitudes about COVID-19 vaccines and discussed the concerning trends related to delayed delivery of routine childhood vaccines.
We’ve made videos, updated websites, written newsletters, and created new materials, but perhaps the moments when we have felt most effective were in the interactions we had with individuals — the dad trying to find a vaccine for his 16-year-old, high-risk daughter; the husband worried that his wife could not get vaccinated because of an existing health condition; the woman worried about her 100-year-old mother getting her second dose of vaccine … and we could go on.
Because of our dedicated webpage, COVIDVaccineAnswers.org, we have answered hundreds of questions from around the world. Many of these people have expressed their gratitude as the answers “eased their fears,” “gave them confidence,” “allowed them to sleep better,” and, in some cases, “convinced them to get vaccinated.”
Indeed, over the last year, science — and the scientists conducting it — have been the heroes. Equally important is communicating that science because the difference between science and science communication can be the difference between vaccines in vials and vaccinations in arms.
People, rightfully, have questions about COVID-19 vaccines, and they need somewhere to go for accurate, honest, unbiased information. In a world in which information — and misinformation — is literally at everyone’s fingertips, it is critical that scientists, healthcare providers, and others who know the science avail themselves for questions and take time to provide answers, so people not only find the answers they are seeking, but they find answers that are accurate.
Historically, scientists have not spent much time communicating with the public; indeed, career advancement has not been realized by doing so. But the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that the public needs access to reliable scientific information and, sometimes, help identifying misinformation. As such, we hope that moving forward, not only will more scientists make it a point to communicate, but also that science communication will be integrated into the formula for defining who is considered a successful scientist.
It is no longer enough to know; it is about sharing what you know. As one grateful respondent replied, “Thank you for treating me like I do have a brain. And showing me such respect in answering my worries.”