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Open mics for science

Podcasts gain audiences and open new avenues for science communication throughout Brazil

Friends since their undergrad days at USP, biologists Marco Farias, Lucas Andrade, Jefferson Silva, and Marcelo Sato host the podcast Alô, Ciência?

Léo Ramos Chaves

Four biologists who recently graduated from the University of São Paulo (USP) joined forces in 2016 to launch a science communication project. Even though they were working in different locations, they kept in touch virtually and met twice a month to record the podcast Alô, Ciência? (Hello, Science?), a program distributed over the internet in which they discuss science topics and interview experts. “We got to know each other by participating in extension projects at USP and always thought about working in science education,” says Marcelo “Caramelo” Sato, now a master’s degree student at the university’s Institute of Biosciences (IB-USP). Over the last two years, 58 episodes have been produced and recorded in a studio borrowed from IB-USP. Working completely voluntarily, the podcast creators take turns at tasks such as scheduling, recruiting guests, recording the program, and enduring eight-hour sessions editing the content. The episodes are up to an hour and a half long, and average 5,000 downloads each—the audience, like the podcast creators, is made up mainly of young people with college-level educations.

The project remains on solid ground, and recently attracted three more participants, two biologists and one geologist. No one else needs to take money out of their pockets to get the program on the air. Thanks to a group of 40 donors who make ongoing contributions through crowdfunding platforms, Alô, Ciência? raises about R$400 a month to pay small expenses, income that’s complemented by the sale of podcast t-shirts at events. “We’ve learned a lot by preparing each episode, which is one of the main rewards for our effort,” said Jefferson Silva, a master’s degree student at IB-USP. The program topics are diverse, such as the journey of the Voyager spacecraft, the impact of invasive species, or the tragedy at Brumadinho. “We look for hot topics and use ordinary language to reach a broad audience. It’s no use denouncing flat-earthers and the anti-vaccination movement to only make an impact within the bubble of the university,” adds another of the podcast’s creators, elementary school science educator and illustrator Lucas Andrade. The group plans to use donation money to invest in new areas, such as YouTube videos. “We’re going to spread science to the adolescent audience, which has little interest in podcasts,” says Marco “Marx” Farias, also a professor of biology.

The trajectory of Alô, Ciência? is representative of science communication across the country, generally produced voluntarily and with some kind of activist slant. With downloads counted only in the thousands, the format doesn’t generate the avalanche of views YouTube videos do, but it does catch the eye of an audience that’s willing to delve into specific subject matter and takes the time to do it. According to PodPesquisa 2018, a survey conducted with 22,000 listeners by the Brazilian Association of Podcasters, 84% of the podcast audience in Brazil is male. About half are between 20 and 29 years old, followed by the 30 to 39 age range, which makes up 34%. Six out of ten are completing or have completed a college degree, while another 20% have postgraduate educations. “The profile follows a pattern similar to that of people looking for science information on the internet, which is also mostly male and educated,” explains molecular biologist Luciano Queiroz, coordinator of the Dragões de Garagem (Garage Dragons) podcast. Last year, he and two colleagues described the science podcast scene in an article published in the Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências (Annals of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences).

The science podcast audience in Brazil is mostly college-educated and male, and enjoys longer-running programs

From the point of view of podcast producers, one of the advantages of podcasts is the low cost, which is accessible to anyone who wants to engage in science communication. It takes work, but it’s possible to create content by simply connecting an appropriate microphone to a computer equipped with recording and editing software. Dragões de Garagem, for example, was created in 2012 and today mobilizes a network of 18 researchers and students, some of them outside Brazil, who divide into groups and create the programs through Skype. To get around noise in the internet connection, each participant records their own audio during the discussion and sends the audio file to an editor, who selects the best quality takes and reconstructs the conversation. An episode about the fire at the National Museum prompted a discussion between four participants: an entomologist in Florianópolis, a paleontologist in Germany, a biologist from Rio, and a historian in Brasília. Although they were conversing on Skype, the impression for the listener was that the four of them were talking around a table.

A study published in 2018 by chemist Lewis MacKenzie of the University of Durham in England found 954 science podcasts in the English language, and noted that the number of programs grew exponentially between 2010 and 2018. He also observed that two-thirds of them are presented by researchers. Podcasts have long been widespread in the United States, where there are already well established science programs such as Startalk, presented by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, usually accompanied by a comedian. Science Vs is another example, originally created in Australia to denounce false scientific claims in product advertising, as well as those published in science magazines such as Science.

In Brazil, audience favorites have also emerged. According to PodPesquisa 2018, there are two programs among the country’s 20 most popular that are dedicated to science communication. One of them is SciCast, with an average of 90,000 downloads per episode. Besides being the most popular, it has a robust production infrastructure. It’s created by 90 volunteers, mostly researchers, who take turns producing the weekly episodes. “We did two call-outs to increase the team, and a lot of people already familiar with the project stepped up to help, and filled out a form on our website,” says Fernando Malta, SciCast’s coordinator, and a graduate in international relations with a master’s degree in environmental engineering. “Since then we’ve been able to strengthen the team in every area of knowledge.” The program has already spawned a spin off, called SciKids, in which scientists answer questions asked by children.

Publicity Physicists Jeferson Arenzon, Marco Idiart, Jorge Quillfeldt, and Carolina Brito create the Fronteiras da Ciência podcastPublicity

The most recent episodes dealt with topics such as software development, the history of cities, and radiology. “Our audience is made up of lay people, so we go heavy on the analogies. We look for explanations that are correct from the academic point of view, but always with a fun twist,” says Malta. The initiative has three sources of funding: donations made through a crowdfunding site, which come to as much as R$6,400 per month, corporate sponsorship of occasional episodes, and participation in science communication projects—one series of ten episodes on health is being produced with support from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation. SciCast is the flagship podcast of the internet portal Deviante, with the proceeds from the program going to help finance podcasts on other subjects hosted on the same platform.

Another science podcast with a large audience is Naruhodo!, presented by statistician and psychologist Altay de Souza and publicist Ken Fujioka, who record their conversations in a home studio. The program’s topics revolve around questions from listeners and news stories about science that sound strange or exaggerated. Souza verifies the origins of the news story, reads the science articles that support it, and shows whether it makes sense or not. One recent target was a study that supposedly proved the low intelligence of people who post motivational phrases on social networks. They were able to verify the seriousness of the research group that did the study at the University of Waterloo, in Canada. But the research, in fact, said nothing about the intelligence of social network users, and the objects of the study weren’t motivational phrases, but rather, vaguely meaningful and falsely profound affirmations. The Canadian group was interested in creating tools to help predict people’s tendency to believe in fake news.

“Preparing the program is like planning a lesson on a subject that you haven’t yet mastered, a challenge that I love,” says Souza, who researches sleep medicine at the Department of Psychology of the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP). Throughout the episodes, he makes a point of scrutinizing how the scientific method works. Even addressing issues such as homeopathy or horoscopes, he always avoids saying that something is true or false. “I show that science is useful for reducing uncertainties about a particular subject and that the idea that the stars can control your life has a very high uncertainty.” Naruhodo! is hosted on the B9 platform, which distributes some of the most listened-to podcasts in Brazil, such as Braincast, on digital technology and culture, and Mamilos, on journalism. This helps attract the audience who already likes podcasts.

Léo Ramos Chaves Sarah Azoubel and Beatriz Guimarães won a competitive grant from the Serrapilheira Institute and are preparing two seasons of the podcast 37 GrausLéo Ramos Chaves

Podcasts use various tricks to gain an audience. Naruhodo! names their episodes with funny questions, like “Do Japanese people all look alike?” or “How do I know you’re you and not me?” to arouse users’ curiosity, and then always offer explanations based on science. The Dragões de Garagem podcast draws on elements of pop culture, and has achieved above-average numbers of downloads with programs that explored the concepts of physics and biology in various Star Wars movies. “The show’s humor and informal tone have a wide appeal and help attract audiences with varied interests,” explains biologist Luciano Queiroz.

Another valuable resource has been to approach science content by telling the stories of real people. For example, in one episode of Dragões de Garagem, Barbara Paes, a doctoral student in molecular biology tries various arguments to convince her grandmother, a retired teacher of 82, to get vaccinated against the flu. There is already at least one science podcast in Brazil that is totally dedicated to storytelling. Produced and presented by biologist Sarah Azoubel and journalist Beatriz Guimarães, 37 Graus (37 Degrees) has published three episodes, which told stories related to topics such as leprosy, dating apps, and space exploration. The production is more work-intensive than traditional podcasts. It involves producing interviews, scripting stories, recording narration, and editing. “It takes days to edit,” says Guimarães.

Preparing the program is like planning a lesson on a subject that you haven’t yet mastered, says Altay de Souza

In December, the pair received R$100,000 after winning a science communications grant from the Serrapilheira Institute, and is now preparing two new seasons of five episodes each. “It makes us really happy, because we did an innovative project in Brazil and now we can dedicate ourselves to it 100%,” says Azoubel, who has been a fan of science podcasts—including those based on storytelling—since spending five years at the University of California, San Diego, getting her doctorate. “I spent a lot of time in the lab, and took advantage of it to listen to podcasts,” she says. After returning to Brazil in 2017, she decided to dedicate herself to science communication and took a specialization course at the Laboratory of Advanced Studies in Journalism of the University of Campinas (LABJOR-UNICAMP), where she met her colleague Guimarães. Out of this meeting came the idea of creating 37 Degrees (a reference to the temperature of the human body) and producing the first three episodes using their own resources. The duo’s goal is to create new products and earn money from them. “We’re developing the skills to work in a market that’s growing. Our bet is that the work can be profitable, attracting advertisers and sponsors to our programs, and also producing content for companies,” says Azoubel.

One of the longest-running science podcasts is a chat between researchers in Porto Alegre who were inspired by a radio program on Rádio Gaúcha about soccer. With nine seasons and over 350 programs, Fronteiras da Ciência (Frontiers of Science) is the initiative of four physicists from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). A half-hour long, it airs on university radio every Monday at 1:00 p.m., and then shortly becomes available for download. One of its bywords is to take down myths by means of scientific evidence. “We loved discussing science over lunch, and slowly we developed the idea of turning our conversations into podcasts,” says physicist Marco Idiart.

Léo Ramos Chaves Ken Fujioka and Altay de Souza investigate interesting news about science issues on the Naruhodo! podcastLéo Ramos Chaves

The idea came off the paper and into reality in a moment of indignation. In 2008, a workshop on “quantum therapies” was held at the UFRGS campus and received support from the university. “It was a shock to see the university endorsing a pseudo-scientific theme. I did a search on Google and found that the term ‘quantum’ appeared on the internet much more frequently associated with the term ‘spirituality’ than with ‘Schrödinger’s cat,’” says Idiart, referring to the paradox formulated by Austrian physicist Edwin Schrödinger (1887–1961) to describe the behavior of subatomic particles. The four physicists protested and got time on the university’s radio calendar to clarify what quantum physics is actually about. “Our goal has always been to provide well-informed insights into the issues. It’s a way of giving something back to society, which supports us and funds science,” says biophysicist Jorge Quillfeldt. The program generates an average of 20,000 downloads per week. Episodes that address pseudoscience are always praised, which is not the case when, in the listeners’ perception, the program focuses on other types of activism. “In 2016, at the height of the impeachment process, we made some episodes with political content that divided our audience and generated criticism, such as that we should show both sides of the issue,” recalls Idiart.

Those responsible for the Fronteiras da Ciência podcast organize debates for some episodes, while for others they interview colleagues who specialize in the topics being covered. For either format, they have little assistance. “Sometimes we’re there together Sunday night into early Monday editing the program in order to get it ready to deliver that morning,” says Idiart. But if it’s up to them, the project will have an even longer life. “It’s really great to get to know the work of other researchers, to show off interesting research being done in our universities and, of course, to receive compliments,” says physicist Carolina Brito. Brito, who teaches and does research on amorphous materials, also devotes time to podcasting and extension projects to attract girls to careers in science. She doesn’t believe any one of these activities is more important than the others. “I’ve been interviewed more often about my work on the podcast and the Meninas na Ciência (Girls in Science) project than on my actual research subjects,” she says.

Where to find science podcasts
Fronteiras da Ciência
Dragões de Garagem
Alô, Ciência?
37 Graus
Pesquisa Brasil*

*Pesquisa Brasil is a partnership of Pesquisa FAPESP magazine with USP Radio, which airs on Fridays and is available on podcast aggregators.