Public perceptions of pesticides & how they influence policy: Case of CKDu in Sri Lanka

I am not a public health or environmental expert, but have long covered related topics as a science journalist.

Among my long-standing interests are the downstream health and environmental effects agrochemicals – both chemical fertilizers and farm chemicals applied against pests and weeds. Parallel to this, I have also been covering chronic kidney disease of uncertain aetiology (CKDu), a mysterious illness that has been affecting thousands of Lankan farmers for nearly 25 years.

A link between agrochemicals and CKDu is suspected, but not yet scientifically proven (even though environmentalists ask us to believe so). It is a current yet contentious topic, which I chose for my presentation to an international workshop on “Pesticides and Global Health: Research, Collaboration and Impact” held at the Department of Anthropology, University of Durham, UK, on 10 – 11 February 2015.

This workshop launched Pesticides and Global Health: An Ethnographic Study of Agrochemical Lives — a research project funded by the Wellcome Trust and hosted by Durham University.

In my presentation, I explore the topic from the angle of public perceptions, which are largely shaped by what appears in the media. This has been problematic since mass kidney failure in Sri Lanka has been compounded by what I call a ‘mass media failure’.

Most of our media have failed to understand, analyse and report adequately on this public health emergency. Instead of helping affected people and policy makers to work out solutions, some journalists have become amplifiers of extreme activist positions. This has led to alarmism and policy confusion.

What is to be done? There are no short-cuts to the scientific investigation process which must follow – that means further research is needed to find definitive evidence for causative factors. That could take a while, given how people are exposed to multiple environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors.

But meanwhile, the welfare of those already affected by the disease and their families needs to receive greater public support. Environmentalists trying to score points from this tragedy overlook this vital humanitarian aspect.

A few excerpts from the presentation below. See full presentation above.

Advocacy journalism is fine; activist journalism is questionable

Advocacy journalism is fine; activist journalism is questionable

We need Lankan media to be more reflective, less accusatory

We need Lankan media to be more reflective, less accusatory

Spare a thought for today’s policy-makers who must think and act on the run…

Spare a thought for today’s policy-makers who must think and act on the run…

 

 

 

 

 

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Belling the ‘Policy Cats’: How Can Communication Help? Talk to PEER Science Conference 2013

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at PEER Science Conference 2013 in Bangkok, 3 Oct 2013

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at PEER Science Conference 2013 in Bangkok, 3 Oct 2013

How to ‘Bell’ the policy ‘cats’?

This question is often asked by researchers and activists who would like to influence various public policies. Everyone is looking for strategies and engagement methods.

The truth is, there is no one sure-fire way — it’s highly situation specific. Policy makers come in many forms and types, and gaining their attention depends on many variables such as a country’s political system, governance processes, level of bureaucracy and also timing.

Perfecting the finest ‘bells’ and coming across the most amiable and receptive ‘cats’ is an ideal rarely achieved. The rest of the time we have to improvise — and hope for the best.

Good research, credible analysis and their sound communication certainly increase chances of policy engagement and eventual influence.

How Can Communications Help in this process? This was the aspect I explored briefly in a presentation to the PEER Science Participants’ Conference 2013 held in Bangkok, Thailand, from 1 to 4 Oct 2013.

It brought together over 40 principal investigators and other senior researchers from over a dozen Asian countries who are participating in Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) Science program. PEER Science is a grant program implemented by the (US) National Academies of Science on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and in cooperation with the National Science Foundation (NSF).

I spoke from my professional experience and long involvement in public communication of research, especially through the media. I referred to key conclusions of the International workshop on Improving the impact of development research through better communication and uptake, held in London, UK, in November 2010 where I was a panelist.

I flagged some key findings of a global study by SciDev.Net (where I am an honorary trustee) which looked at the different contextual settings within which policymakers, the private sector, NGOs, media organisations and the research community operate to better understand how to mainstream more science and technology evidence for development and poverty reduction purposes.

I like show and tell. To illustrate many formats and approaches available, I shared some of my work with LIRNEasia and IWMI, two internationally active research organisations for which I have produced several short videos (through TVE Asia Pacific) communicating their research findings and policy recommendations.

PowerPoint (with video links embedded):