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To become more informative

Two new studies, one by Unicamp and the other by the Academy of Sciences of Bahia, enhance the understanding of the public perception of science in Brazil

VERIDIANA SCARPELLIFor more than a decade, researchers from the Laboratory for Advanced Studies in Journalism (Labjor) of the University of Campinas (Unicamp) have been working on the front line of efforts to measure the Brazilian public’s perception of science and technology. The Labjor projects are part of an international initiative that began in 2001, involving the Organization of Ibero-American States (OEI) and the Network for Science and Technology Indicators – Ibero-American and Inter-American (RICYT/CYTED). Since then, Labjor has been intensifying and refining the methods used in its analysis in order to identify strategies that will improve academic communications and expand access to scientific information in Brazil.

Labjor published two extensive mappings of the image of science in Brazil in its Indicadores de ciência, tecnologia e inovação no estado de São Paulo (Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators in the state of São Paulo), sponsored and published by FAPESP (in 2005 and 2010). Before that, the results of their first survey, conducted between late 2002 and early 2003, had appeared in a book entitled Percepção pública da ciência (Public Perception of Science) by Carlos Vogt (Unicamp-FAPESP, 2003). The second Labjor survey, taken in 2007, was based on the same questionnaire that was used in seven Ibero-American countries—Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela, Spain, Panama, Chile and Brazil—making it possible to compare the collected data. Most recently, in 2012, the laboratory headed up a third study, an unprecedented effort that focused on health, the results of which were published in 2013. “The subject of health appeared in the earlier surveys as among people’s primary concerns, which is why we decided that it deserved special attention,” explains Carlos Vogt, coordinator of Labjor and president of the Virtual University of the state of São Paulo (Univesp). Vogt has previously served as chancellor of Unicamp and president of FAPESP.

One of the first challenges facing Labjor was to determine which indicators were most suitable for use in different countries and regions, in order to develop a methodological standard that could be used for comparison and analysis. The work by the Unicamp laboratory has borne fruit on other frontiers of Brazil and, in 2013, after the coordinator of Labjor had made some contacts with the academic community in the state of Bahia, the Labjor methodology was used as the basis for a survey sponsored by the Academy of Sciences of Bahia, chaired by Roberto Figueira Santos, former governor of that state and former president of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq).

“After numerous discussions about the future of scientific education, we came to the conclusion that we had objective data about education in the field of science but no information about the public perception of academic production in Bahia,” says Othon Jambeiro, professor at the School of Communications of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). Jambeiro, in partnership with Maurício Barreto, professor at the Public Health Institute of UFBA, coordinated the survey that the Datafolha Institute was commissioned to conduct.

074-079_PercepcaoSaude_217-1Research mathodology
The questionnaire used in the city of Salvador (Bahia) was adapted from the successful methodology employed earlier by Labjor. Researchers drafted 20 to 30 questions and conducted the surveys through personal contacts made with individuals at flow points chosen by lot and distributed on the basis of the residential density of the city. Men and women from all social classes and age groups, starting with age 16, were interviewed, having been chosen in accordance with local specificities and demographic dynamics identified by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). The first questions asked were more general and sought to map the reading habits of the general public, as well as to identify the occupations that respondents held in highest esteem. Researchers also asked questions designed to determine the subjects of greatest interest and elicit opinions about the sectors of government that people thought should receive the most funding, such as health, education, public works, public safety, etc.

One phase of the survey enabled respondents to spontaneously mention the fields they were interested in and the topics they felt were controversial. Later, more specific questions were asked, and respondents were invited to assess the risks and benefits of space research, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology, for example. They were also asked to ponder statements such as: “These days, is science more important than faith?” or “Have science and technology made us healthier?” Taken together, the responses obtained build a powerful tool that can point out the principal subjects that people are interested in and their opinions on the present state of scientific development in Brazil.

The biggest problem encountered during the two most recent surveys, conducted in Bahia—with 404 respondents in Salvador—and in São Paulo, with 1,511 respondents living in 109 cities in that state—is the public’s tremendous lack of familiarity with the institutions that produce science in Brazil. An important percentage of respondents were unable to spontaneously mention a university or institute. Only 17% of São Paulo State respondents knew the name of an institution that does research in the field of health. In the city of São Paulo, the figure was 10% among people who had finished elementary school or were classified in socioeconomic Classes D and E (the least well-off of the five classes used in Brazilian statistics). The institutions most often mentioned were the University of São Paulo (USP), Unicamp, and the Butantan Institute. That pattern was repeated in Salvador, where 87% of respondents were unable to name an institution that funds science in Bahia.

“It was a shock to find out that people’s perceptions are so limited, even among upper income groups, as regards the universities and institutions that finance research in this state,” Othon Jambeiro says, sadly. “This is striking; after all, the function of a university is to produce knowledge and pass it on to the general public, but that perception is lacking.” Among the institutions most often mentioned by residents of the capital city of Bahia are the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, the Bahia Research Foundation (FAPESB), Petrobrás, and UFBA.

VERIDIANA SCARPELLI“Perhaps universities aren’t aggressive enough in promoting themselves or connecting with the school system, or finding ways to involve students and teachers in scientific seminars and discussions,” he suggests. The survey showed that less than 10% of the population is in the habit of watching programs or reading news reports about science and technology, although 59% said they are interested in the subject. To most respondents in Salvador, the profession of “scientist” is thought to be very rewarding from a personal standpoint, and 55% said science is an attractive career for young people.

Residents of the city of Salvador are concerned about the quality of education in the school system. Two-thirds believe that they received a mediocre or poor instruction in scientific and technological subjects. Even so, the profession of teacher is the most admired; teachers rank above doctors, scientists, journalists, and engineers. In comparison, Labjor found in 2012 that 88% of São Paulo respondents admire teaching as a profession, followed by doctors and engineers, tied at 87%, and scientists (83%). In general, there is substantial agreement among Bahians (87%) that scientific knowledge helps people make important life decisions. To 74% of residents of the city of São Paulo, science and technology will help improve health and the environment. For both residents of São Paulo State and the city of Salvador, science is considered useful, especially in the areas of health care and disease prevention.

Based on the results obtained in the survey of the public perception of science in Bahia, the Academy of Sciences of Bahia developed a set of research studies that will enable it to delve further into the initial conclusions that were presented. The intention is to involve in that effort students and professors from some graduate school programs, particularly from the Interdisciplinary Studies on Universities, Dissemination of Knowledge, Public Health and Education—all UFBA programs. Participants in programs from other universities in Bahia will probably also be invited.

Labjor researcher Ana Paula Morales says it is essential to take advantage of the high degree of credibility enjoyed by research institutions, which are mentioned as being most reliable in forming the opinion of citizens in general, and “to bring these institutions closer to the public when it comes to furnishing specialized information.” According to researchers, the flourishing of communications teams at the universities, as well as journals that publicize academic production and the creation of programs specializing in scientific journalism have already contributed to the (gradual) evolution of the spread of scientific knowledge in Brazil.

Diagnosis of health in Brazil
The opportunity for Labjor to conduct a study focused on health arose out of the publication of a request for proposals for the Research Program for the Unified Health System (SUS), which had financial support from FAPESP, in 2009. Partners in the initiative were the Institute of Health (IS) of the São Paulo State Department of Health and the Institute of Investigation in Immunology, affiliated with the National Institute of Science and Technology (iii-INCT). The program’s objective was to obtain guidance in developing public policies in the area of communications in the interest of improving SUS management. “It is interesting to note the growing importance that communications are being given when researchers prepare their requests for proposals,” says Ana Paula Morales, who holds a degree in biomedicine and is a specialist in scientific journalism at Labjor and a member of the team of researchers responsible for drafting the questionnaires. The combined results will be published in an article, and a video featuring interviews with the professors who are involved in the project is also being produced by the team.

The two research projects conducted by Labjor and the Academy of Sciences of Bahia indicate health as one of the main topics of interest among respondents. The subject was considered a priority for 87% of the residents of Salvador and 85% of those who live in the state of São Paulo. Particularly, it was discovered that there is a latent curiosity about seeing a more intensive dissemination of reliable information about chronic diseases, including cancer and diabetes, and about new treatments and technological innovations in the field of biomedicine. Traditionally, the profession of physician continues to be widely respected and appreciated by the general public, even though the habit of seeking religious counsel persists, along with self-medication and other home remedies for infirmities. In general, the surveys portray a Brazil of contradictions, whose people experience both advances and shortages in terms of health care.

It was found that there is a thirst, not yet slaked, for more information about health in Brazil. And the academic world needs to converse more effectively with society on some subjects. A review of the results obtained identifies an important opportunity for better handling communications about chronic diseases that concern people. Cancer was the disease most frequently mentioned in the interviews; which suggests that it is a subject that should be a central theme in communications about public health in Brazil. Smoking, alcoholism, obesity, and HIV/Aids are other afflictions that deserve more publicity and more thorough discussion, the São Paulo survey shows.

The segment of the population that said they were poorly informed about health complains that they do not know how to get the information or where to look for it. Others simply say they are not interested in the subject, or that they find it hard to understand the language and complexity of the topic. “We came to realize that there is a huge gap between the topics of interest and the degree of familiarity with them,” says Ana Paula Morales. There is a significant difference, 28%, between interest and the extent of knowledge among the population as regards health and medicine. In Salvador, the figure is even higher, 30%. “This demonstrates how important communications are, as is the intense relationship between research and dissemination of science and technology,” says Vogt.

VERIDIANA SCARPELLIBoth surveys made a significant contribution: they mapped the respondents’ reading habits and patterns of consumption of information. The study done in Bahia found that practically all respondents are accustomed to watching television for an average of four hours a day, while 76% said they read newspapers. Politics and sports news appeared the most frequently in routine consumption of information by residents of the city of Salvador. This was especially true of men and people with less schooling. In São Paulo, television programs and the Internet appeared to be the principal sources of information, although books and government health campaigns were seen as enjoying greater credibility.

Despite the high degree of credibility, only 19% of residents of the city of São Paulo said they have followed the advice given in the government’s health campaigns. What may explain that attitude, according to Carlos Vogt, is the modeling of the government’s health campaigns. They usually focus on age-related niche issues, such as the campaign about flu aimed at senior citizens and the publicity about polio vaccine for children or the vaccine against HPV for girls ages 11 to 13. “We could say that those campaigns are successful since they have significant quantitative results. They lead the public to learn about an issue and they produce the desired behavior, which is prevention,” notes Vogt.

Science and faith
A figure that surprised the Labjor team was the junction between science and faith; 78% of residents of the state of São Paulo are confident and optimistic as regards the role of science and technology in improving health, the environment, and the quality of life of Brazil’s population. However, it is worth noting that when compared with the role of religion, only 26% of respondents say that science is more important than faith. The last time they became ill, 22% of respondents say they sought help from their church or religious group to solve the problem and 29% resorted to home remedies and the advice of family members as a source of information.

In Salvador, the public is of the opinion that scientific activity has its limits. Only 25% agree that it can resolve all their problems; 63% believe that too much value is currently being given to science and too little to religion. This is a standard response, especially among people over the age of 60, those who have only a basic education, and the evangelicals.

If interpreted as a barometer of the principal demands by Brazilians, both surveys reveal an unsatisfied demand for a more serious approach and commitment by government to health and education. A finding in the Bahian study shows the discrepancy between areas in which the public perceives that Brazil is prominent on the international scene—sports, tourism, and industry—and the sectors where they would like to see more robust government investment—health, education, and transportation, to be specific.

“The public exerts both direct and indirect pressure on governments and has an impact on decisions that involve the formulation of public policies in the field of science,” says Othon Jambeiro. The growing appreciation for research in health may be explained, according to Vogt, by the change in the model of governance in the management of science. “While previously the decisions on investments in science were made primarily, and excessively so, from the top down by some government leaders and a top corps of scientists, now the model tends to be more democratic and decisions on investments increasingly require participation by civil society.”