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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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Standing up for science in South Africa

I’ve just got back from a trip to South Africa. For a while now, we’ve been getting requests to run workshops there, as researchers really want to set up a VoYS network. I spent a few days working with them and sharing my experiences.

In South Africa 24% of 15 year olds are illiterate, life expectancy is just 52 years and 1 in 5 people aged 15 – 49 yrs old is HIV positive. When Thandi Mgwebi, National Research Foundation, outlined these challenges in her talk at the Witwatersrand Post doc symposium in Johannesburg, I was really taken a back. I’d also never realised just how few researchers there are in South Africa – there are just 13 post-docs at the University of Witwatersrand.

Wits post-docs

Talking to members of the scientific community in Pretoria, it was clear that with so few people in research, there is a lot of pressure on them to make a difference and engage with the public. They also stressed to me how they need to be careful not to march in all-knowing and discredit traditional healing practices that are not evidence based, without considering how the community would react. Scientists are carrying out research on many of the traditional plant-based remedies in South Africa, to try and bridge this gap between medicine and myth.

I helped run a workshop for early career researchers at Wits and they got to hear from scientists and journalists with a wealth of media experience. What struck me was how similar their messages were to those that are raised at our UK workshops. But there were obviously also some South African specific examples – HIV specialist Professor Glenda Gray described difficult dealings with an AIDS denialist journalist and the importance of getting vital health information to the public.

I was taken by the researchers’ enthusiasm and determinism to stand up for science and set up a VoYS network in South Africa.  I’ll be keeping an eye on how they get on. Maybe next time, they can come to the UK to tell us what they’ve been up to?