Scientists have found a new use for social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter — disseminating their research findings.
Though the practice is yet to take root in East Africa, social media are fast gaining popularity among the scientific community in many parts of the world.
In Canada, for example, government research institutions, such as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which funds health studies; and Parks Canada that manages the country’s national parks and historical sites, have set up departments responsible for maintaining their Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr and LinkedIn accounts.
“Social media is a great addition to our storehouse of information,” Dariusz Buryzynski of the Science and Technology Cluster, which co-ordinates scientific and technological activities in Canada told the Canadian Science Writers’ Association 2010 conference held in Ottawa on June 5-8.
Besides posting snippets of findings and interesting historical information, pictures and video are also uploaded on these social networking sites.
During celebrations and events, Twitter feeds are posted.
This could soon be the case in Kenya as well, in an ambitious plan lined up by the National Council of Science and Technology, which advises the government on science and technology matters.
“We are considering Facebook and Twitter so that the young generation can take advantage of scientific information,” said Abdulrazak Shaukat, the council’s chief executive officer.
Currently, no research body in Kenya is involved in new media and scientific institutions including universities rarely update information on their official websites.
In many cases, this is due to the bureaucratic procedure of clearing information before it is uploaded.
Raphael Munavu, a chemistry lecturer at the University of Nairobi and a committee member at the Kenya National Academy of Sciences is among the few scientists willing to try out social media.
“Social media will ease communication of new scientific findings that are constantly being generated,” said Prof Munavu.
Many of his peers are however, concerned about the safety and integrity of the information on these sites.
They fear the facts could be distorted in the sites also known as new media.
“Information released to the Internet needs to be controlled; already there’s so much that cannot stand the scientific validity test,” said Richard Abila, the deputy director of the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute.
Dr Abila said scientific findings provided the basis for crucial decisions and it was important to safeguard their credibility and integrity.
However, with the raft of strategies that the NCST intends to put in place, safeguarding the information will no longer be a challenge.
“We are at the transformation stage but we will go through all stages and roll it out in the next few months,” Prof Shaukat said.
In Canada, institutions have put in place guidelines for deployment of information through new media.
At Parks Canada, for example, regulations are in place for each park and targeting each medium.
So far 50 videos showing different parks have been uploaded on new media.
Initially formed as a means of catching up among “young and trendy” friends, the social networking sites are increasingly being transformed into a marketing and communication tool.
By embracing the social networks, scientists stand to benefit by reaching a larger audience beyond the traditional peer reviewed scientific journals and specialised publications.