Before we answer this question, let’s first contextualize the structure, mandate and operating procedures of the Agrifood Technology Station. The Station consists of seven technical staff members, an Administrator and a Finance Officer. Our mandate is innovation support to SMEs in the food industry and also technology transfer and training. In our set of Standard Operating Procedures it would be quite evident that meeting this mandate requires significant two-way communication with our clients, other academics, suppliers and the public at large.
Now, having said that, it also implies that we need to do this in a way that the parties mentioned above understand, assimilate, use and critique such communication and its content. It will also be evident that the parties mentioned above would almost be a disparate group in terms of science. Put another way, the degree of knowledge of hard science and science “lingo” would vary greatly. In other words, ATS would need to communicate in different ways with different people pending their “science groundedness”.
Why the question in the first place? In the first instance, because of my own interest in science communication in terms of my role as manager of ATS. Hence my completing an online course in science communication through the Center for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) at the University of Stellenbosch. In the second instance, the importance of science communication is growing in this science & technology-driven world. This is evidenced by articles in The Conversation:
- Why academics are losing relevance in society and how to stop it;
- Scientists have much to gain by sharing their research with the public;
- Science needs to start speaking to people’s everyday lives in Africa.
Our job at ATS is thus clearly dependent on communicating science and technology. Over the years we have worked with nano- or micro-enterprises up to multinationals and big corporates. This means we would have communicated with a wide variety of people of all educational backgrounds, including academics at other tertiary institutions. We have learnt over the years how to communicate technically challenging topics or processes. This includes breaking down these topics or processes into simple unit operations. In the initial life of ATS (more than 12 years ago now) this did prove somewhat of a challenge.
Some parts of the challenge was that, in many instances, the clients we serviced were, more often than not, well-versed and technically savvy in their special project or task. However, in the same instance, they would not be as savvy regarding all the supporting knowledge or other operations which they needed for support and for solving their specific problems/ projects. This is where the value of ATS arose i.e. having a good generals science and technology background we could help clients see the trees in the wood.
I also completed a crash course toward certification as a consultant. This was a generic course that could be applied to many different fields. Surprisingly, this course corroborated our learnings at ATS in terms of how to work with a client. This included the empathy required with problem solving as well as the need to listen well before responding. To me, this confirmed that our approach, still in use today, was the correct one.
n the “publish or perish” world of academia, the need to address everyday challenges of our communities has slowly become more important. As the old story goes, blue sky research was the order of the day, a large percentage of which was fundamental or far from directly answering critical, real-world challenges. Suffice to say that, via Universities of Technology and also now traditional universities, this is being remedied. The Agrifood Technology Station is one such unit among many others at the forefront of this bandwagon, again communicating solutions and information to the challenges and improving public understanding of the outcomes of such.
We do try our best!