How does science communication in Latin America look like? Claudia Aguirre Ríos and Sergio de Régules highlight context-specific challenges, historical milestones, and scientific legacy in their guest article.
There are records of science communication activities in Latin America for at least 300 years.1 In the viceroyalty of New Spain (present-day Mexico), Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora advocated for the separation of astronomy from astrology, and in 1681 wrote a book on comets with the aim of allaying popular fears. In the 18th century, physician José Ignacio Bartolache briefly published a newsletter „with important news on Physics and Medicine“ for a lay audience, which explicitly included women. In Brazil, newspapers in the early 19th century carried science notes and even poems. In Colombia, in the late 18th century the works of José Celestino Mutis and Francisco José de Caldas started a great catalogue on Andean biodiversity that inspired and impressed Alexander von Humboldt himself.
During the 20th century, even as some countries in Latin America were under dictatorships (Argentina, from 1966 to 1973; Brazil, from 1964 to 1985; Chile, from 1973 to 1990; Uruguay, from 1973 to 1985; Colombia, even though never declared a dictatorship, has suffered under extreme-right governments since the creation of the Republic, in 1819) with broad negative repercussions on their social, economic, educational and scientific life, a strong educational movement attempted to keep critical thinking alive, as well as to guarantee some degree of inclusiveness, in particular, of indigenous populations.
One important milestone in rallying diffuse efforts towards science education and communication in Latin America was the creation of RedPop, the Network for the Popularization of Science and Technology in Latin America and the Caribbean, in November 1990, by a UNESCO regional bureau initiative during a meeting in Sao Paulo (Brazil). The aim was to give visibility, relevance and continuity to an innovative educational movement that arose in several countries in Latin America during the 1960s. The idea was not only to improve science education in schools, but also to increase scientiﬁc literacy. In many countries, however, the momentum of science communication fell short of what was needed to face the science and technology challenges of the 20th century.
The challenge of cultural diversity
In a region with typically deficient state education systems, science communication is often called in to serve as a complement, or even at times a substitute, to formal education in science, a role for which it is ill-suited2. Furthermore, there is the question of catering to audiences from a variety of cultural backgrounds, often speaking languages other than Spanish or Portuguese, the dominant languages in the region. And even before the practitioner encounters this problem, there is the difficulty of communicating research that was originally published in English, even when it was locally produced.
As in other parts of the world, Latin American science communicators have tried to achieve representativeness and inclusion in the past 60 or 70 years through the development of science centers, magazines, outreach programs in universities and content for traditional as well as new media, including science communication in indigenous languages.
Latin America is a melting pot. The many indigenous peoples of the Americas merged with African and European cultures to create a new world of colliding visions. This diversity of worldviews poses particular challenges for science communication.
This being said, acknowledging indigenous worldviews without imposing the views of modern science remains a tough nut to crack. One way to do it is exemplified by a program spearheaded by Tropenbos International in the Colombian Amazon. The program brought together researchers with local experts in plant and animal knowledge as peers. The aim was to systematize local knowledge, empower indigenous peoples, and improve environmental management. The collaboration has led to award-winning scientific publications.
Even if contributions to mainstream science from Latin America are scarce compared to countries with a well-established scientific tradition, they are not necessarily negligible3. These contributions are, however, almost invisible, not only to the wider world, but in the very countries of their origin. Several factors are at play here. On the one hand, Latin American society’s interest in science and innovation is historically lukewarm. Societal indifference extends to official policy: governments in the region do not see the need to invest in science and technology, and some have even actively attacked scientific research in recent times (Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Morales in Bolivia, and López Obrador in Mexico).
Showcasing the scientific heritage of our countries may help alleviate the type of scholarly prejudice discussed earlier, but, more importantly, it could help kindle in our audiences a sense of pride and of confidence in their people’s scientific creativity. One must be careful, however, to avoid a pitfall identified by French sociologist Clémence Perronnet. In an interview in the online magazine Actualité École de la Médiation, Perronnet warns that holding up for admiration models of scientific creativity in marginal societies could convey the idea that simply having the will to accomplish things is enough, as if there were no impediments to science and innovation in the region other than a lack of persistence.