Science communication, like science itself, is a global enterprise. We are all affected by climate change. We are all grateful for advances in medical research. We are all captivated by the vastness of space. But we are not always very good at sharing information about scientific issues across national, cultural or linguistic borders.
The United States, like many nations, is made up of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. I grew up in a small town in southern Virginia – far from a cultural hotspot. Yet I had grade school classmates who spoke Spanish, Korean, Italian, Japanese or other languages at home. Becoming a U.S. citizen does not mean abandoning your language or cultural background. (My grandfather, son of German immigrants, didn’t learn to speak English until he began elementary school.)
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 37 million U.S. residents who spoke Spanish at home in 2010, up from 17.3 million in 1990. That indicates that approximately 10 percent of U.S. households are, presumably, more comfortable speaking Spanish than English. What is the science communication community in the U.S. doing to reach that audience?
To begin finding out, I reached out to Luis Quevedo, a scientist turned science communicator. Quevedo is director and host of the show CST (Science, Health and Technology), which airs in the U.S. and across Latin America on NTN24, as well as managing director of Imagine Science Films and former producer of NPR’s Science Friday en Español. He also produces a monthly science podcast and writes on his site, Probeta en Nueva York.
I asked him about good sources of Spanish-language science news, the overall state of Spanish-language scicomm in the U.S., and what we can do to make it better. [Editor’s note: this interview is available en Español here.]
Communication Breakdown: What got you interested in science communication in the first place?
Luis Quevedo: In hindsight, I could say that I was always interested. But the reality is that it was a surprise. I trained as a biotechnologist in Barcelona, Spain, but a sort of inherent intellectual promiscuity made bench work deeply frustrating and thus I moved to editing and technical writing. Once there, I realized I had a lot to learn if I wanted to be any good at it. So I went back to college for a masters in journalism that, through an internship, landed me in Spanish National TV as a script and production assistant on a famous science program. There I discovered the joy of science communication: a job that required learning and reading ad libitum and then to metabolize whatever I was learning that week to write it in a general-audience-friendly way on a weekly basis. Also, getting paid at the end of the month had an unreal quality for the whole first year.
CB: You moved to the United States from Spain in 2010 when your wife took a position at Rockefeller University. What was your initial assessment of Spanish-language science communication in the U.S.?
Quevedo: I knew the English-language panorama to a certain extent, but I had no clue as to what was going on in Spanish. After a few months, I realized that the answer was: not much. It seemed that nothing was going on in mass media besides translations of science-themed TV productions from Discovery or NatGeo channels, of course. And I couldn’t quite gauge whatever was taking place in small scale projects, for Spanish-speaking high school students, etc.
CB: Can you tell me a little bit about your work experiences in Spanish-language science communication in the U.S.?
Quevedo: My main experience has been in radio and TV. As the Spanish-language producer for NPR’s Science Friday, I created a weekly podcast, inspired by the NPR show, where I interviewed Spanish-speaking researchers about the latest papers published in peer-reviewed journals. I had a two-fold aim: on the one hand, to inform, and, on the other, to showcase the great number of Latino or Spanish-speaking researchers publishing at the highest level.
CB: Are there any challenges that are specific to Spanish-language scicomm in the U.S.? If so, what are they?
Quevedo: Yes. In my opinion, and in my area of expertise, I find two.
The Spanish language, its increasing electoral importance notwithstanding, has a secondary role in cultural matters in the U.S. There are no publications – or radio or TV shows – in the Spanish language that cover science and technology topics. (At least regularly and in depth. I used to produce Science Friday en Español until early 2013). I do think that, if you’re interested and/or educated enough, you are supposed to access or consume those contents in the English language.
Now, that shouldn’t be a problem since everybody who lives and works in the U.S. does speak – or is supposed to be able to speak – English.
The problem, in my opinion, is that that assumption leaves out in the cold a large chunk of the Latino population that, despite a good level of English, might just not be confident enough, nor directly targeted, by English-language publications. This is a cultural issue, not just an information one.
The information issue is the following: the share of the Latino population that only – in practical terms – lives in Spanish, that gets news and informal adult education in Spanish, don’t have access to a high quantity and quality of information.
This is a rather bold statement, so allow me to give you an example. In a study conducted by UC Davis in California, it was shown that “Hispanic children often have undiagnosed developmental delays and large numbers of both Hispanic and non-Hispanic children who first were thought to have developmental delay actually had autism.” The authors said in the paper that “results […] recommend increased public health efforts to improve awareness, especially among Hispanics, about the indicators of developmental delay and autism.”
I take this as an example of what we might be missing, real problems under the radar.
The second problem might be somewhat abstract, but I find it very important: role models. I do think that science communication not only informs but also inspires. By portraying researchers, their work, words and lives, young people (sometimes) get acquainted with them and, maybe, wonder how it would be “to be a scientist.”
Now, it has been discussed in the media how important having textbooks that incorporate a diversity of ethnicities can be for students. The same can be applied to science communication. Please note that I’m not proposing to substitute, but to increase exposure to diverse role models.
On top of that, Spanish-speaking countries have not had a strong scientific tradition. That makes any shift in attitudes towards science hard.
CB: How do those challenges compare to science communication challenges in Spain or other Spanish-speaking countries?
Quevedo: I think that, setting aside the English-Spanish issue I mentioned, the lack of role models in the media is equally worrying in Spain and, so I’m told by colleagues, in other Spanish-speaking countries.
CB: Let’s talk about mainstream traditional news outlets for a minute: newspapers, magazines and TV news programs that are not specifically-focused on science. Most of these mainstream outlets have seen a decline in science coverage in recent years. Have Spanish-language news outlets seen similar declines?
Quevedo: I do not have numbers, so I can’t really speak to that effect. I tend to doubt that, if only because I’ve never seen “that much” science in mainstream media.
CB: There are also traditional, English-language media outlets that do focus solely on science: Scientific American, Popular Science, or NOVA on PBS. How many Spanish-language science-focused news sources exist in the U.S.? Is that part of the challenge for science communication to Spanish-speaking communities?
Quevedo: To the best of my knowledge, none. I used to produce Science Friday en Español. The experiment lasted for one year. When I figured that because a multiplicity of factors I wouldn’t be able to expand and make the project grow (more staff, better production budget, etc.), I presented my resignation. I do produce the podcast on a monthly basis, though, from New York, in Spanish, with the same basic ingredients but, of course, much less money behind it.
There are a number of interesting, budding initiatives in a very mainstream way, in Nat Geo Mundo, for instance, but nothing specialized that I know of.
CB: While science coverage may be down a bit in conventional, English-language media outlets, there’s been a significant increase in science communication via online tools such as blogs, Tumblr accounts, YouTube channels, etc. Has there been a similar increase in Spanish-language scicomm via these online platforms?
Materia is a non-profit e-newspaper, focused on science and medicine. It is remarkable by its journalistic standards and because they publish under a CC license. It is a young project, too, hardly a year in existence, and I’m sure they’re here to stay.
SINC is a project financed by the Spanish Government, in the guise of a news agency. It has been some 5 years in existence and it provides a lot of quality copy to a very large number of publications in all Spanish-speaking countries. It also publishes under a CC license.
The third is Naukas, and I put it apart for the sole reason that they are not journalists but more of a grass-roots science-loving crowd posting in a very, very popular blog. They organize conferences, events and the like, too. It is very interesting but I think somewhat tangential to formal science communication.
CB: I think that science communication is important, and it’s something that I’m passionate about. I’d like to help in some way if I could, but I don’t speak Spanish. Is there anything that non-Spanish-speakers in the science communication community can do to support or facilitate Spanish-language scicomm efforts?
Quevedo: Yes, please! Ideas are welcome and my friends at CienciaPR or SACNAS or JustGarciaHill I’m sure have a lot to say here. My idea would be: let’s start a dialogue about the relative importance of serving more, better science to Spanish speakers in the US. I can only imagine good things coming out of it: more people interested in science, in research and in fostering both, in any language.
CB: If you could get additional funding or other support for just one Spanish-language scicomm effort, what would it be? Why?
Quevedo: A radio program. Because everybody can listen to radio or podcast, whenever. Because dialogue is king in communication, in my opinion. Because a radio show is nowadays a multimedia venture that can include an occasional video, a blog, and social media activity. Because it’s cheaper than TV and easier to consume. Because we could syndicate the program anywhere in the world and help inform and educate citizens. Because I know too well that a good story, a good segment about science can change the way you think or see a part of the world for better.