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Public Relations And Effective Communication By Research Institutions in Uganda

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Would the world be a better, or even a different, place if the public understood more of the scope and the limitations, the findings, and methods of science? The Bodmer Report (1985), attempted to answer this question and suggested that if those in positions of responsibility had a better understanding of what science and technology can achieve, British industries would be even more competitive. A better understanding of science would significantly improve the quality of public decision-making because decisions made in light of an adequate understanding of issues are likely to be better than decisions made in the absence of such understanding. Public Relations (also known as public affairs especially in civil service) practitioners in scientific institutions by virtue of their positions, are expected to contribute to society by developing relationships with the target publics and foster an understanding and support to science by helping to align scientific studies with the needs of society (Gruning and Gruning, 2001).

This chapter will deal with the Historical background of the study, Theoretical Perspective, Conceptual Perspective, Contextual Perspective, Problem Statement, Purpose of the Study, Research Questions, Hypothesis of the Study, Scope of the Study and Significance of the Study.

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Historical Background to the Study

When European settlers arrived in Australia in the eighteenth century, harsh conditions welcomed them: the soils were poor that crops refused to grow, the seasons were strange, the climate was difficult – this was the earliest driver to science communication. Scientific inquiries were made and phenomena explained to the public so they could adapt to the new environment. In 1945 as the Second World War waned, President Roosevelt posed a question to Vannevar Bush, the Director US Office of Scientific Research and Development: “we have seen what science can do for us in war, but what can science do in times of peace?” ¬ Bush explained that science could mean more jobs, abundant crops, higher wages, improved standards of living and assured means of defense against aggression. The war changed everything. In Australia, as in other countries, new industries emerged, employment patterns shifted and people moved to towns. Soon after governments set demands that restricted scientists from discussing their findings on either commercial or military basis. The post-war government and industry protected their scientific findings from getting into the hands of their competition. However, this position was vehemently challenged by many scientists including David Rivett who viewed these restrictions as an impediment to the free exchange of ideas. David and the like mind were soon labeled unreliable by politicians.

Years later, three interest groups emerged: the politicians needed to justify the astronomical expenditure in science. The scientist had to communicate benefits of their studies to prepare people for imminent change and also pitch for more funding. And the public needed to know funds were wisely spent and feed curiosity. This saw the establishment of the Radio Science Unit to elucidate and popularise science by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), science museums later cropped up and Universities are presently churning out specialists in science communication (Toss & Jenni, 2017).

Ndlovu, et al., (2016) reveal that researchers at the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe prioritise peer communication and pay little attention to the public, policymakers, and popular media. However, they are quick to point to lack of communication incentive by the university and censoring sensitive findings as constraints to researchers’ interest in engaging with the public. Consequently, from this study, seventy-three (73) percent of the researchers at the university preferred communicating through conferences, with seminars following closely at 69 percent. General public platforms like the media were the least favoured. However, in a more recent study blames colonial and repressive regimes for the sluggish take-off of science communication. Plessis (2017), partly blames the colonial and apartheid political systems in South Africa for importing a westernised science culture that led to the neglect of a comprehensive approach to the field of science communication. She indicates further that scientific knowledge was exclusively shared amongst the ruling elite class, excluding the indigenous communities. For long, studies were conducted in the interest of the minority ruling class over majority citizens, therefore, it is only of recent that studies are being conducted to overcome animal and plant diseases affecting the locals and also assist exploitation of the natural resource.

According to Plessis (2017), while promoting modernity, the Afrikaners used professional associations, museums, botanical gardens, transport and communication systems as part of their political substructure. Press freedom was stumbled upon when the government prohibited the publication of information on atomic energy (Plessis,2017). The penalty for the contravention was a fine of up to R10,000 (£5,000) or twenty years in prison or both. However, with the coming of the African National Congress (ANC), the science and technology policy was altered through its South Africa’s Green Paper on science and Technology. Efforts by the National Research Foundation and the South African Association of Science Agency (SAASTA) were introduced to promote science in schools, host science competitions and programmes. The ANC government in furtherance established science communication within the university system and appointed two research chairs on science communication. The Department of Science and Technology in 2014 introduced a framework on science engagement with society to improve livelihoods by getting scientists to communicate with the public(Hester,2017).

The Uganda National Council for Science and Technology ACT does not fully empower the Council to take lead in communicating science with the general public. Function (b) of the ACT instructs the Council ‘to assist in the promotion and development of indigenous science and technology…’, while function (f) encourages dissemination of research findings through seminars, workshops, and journals (UNCST ACT, 1990).

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) research in Uganda started in 1992, and by 2015 six crop varieties had undergone modification to address a number of challenges, for instance, to address climate change challenges, maize has been modified to thrive during periods of drought. This means communities that are perpetual victims of harsh weather and hunger can alleviate food shortages. The popular apple banana has also been fortified with vitamin A and Iron; meaning pregnant women and child children will no longer experience such deficiencies because the bananas are easy to access and government can save money from the health budget. In other words, the GMO’s can help enfetter hunger and disease (Zawedde, et al, 2016). However, a number civil society organisations (CSO) have come up in arms against the introduction of GM crops in Uganda alleging they are harmful to humans and that they cause cancer. In February 2015, Action Aid Uganda an NGO with interests in agriculture embarked on an aggressive campaign against GMO’s, claiming to eat such foods could cause cancer (Ricketts, 2015). Farmers who are the ultimate beneficiaries of this technology have stayed away from the GM debate because, most probably, they lack the basic information on the technology. Information from the Uganda Biosciences Information Centre (a body in-charge of agricultural biotechnology communication) is available in form of factsheets is on their website and the research centres. Had there been a form of dialogue with farmers perhaps the situation could be different – maybe NGO’s like Action Aid Uganda would not misconstrue facts the way they did.

Theoretical Perspective

The Systems Theory is one of the most prominent theories in management. A system is a set of distinct components that together form a complex whole. The system can, therefore, be closed or open. Organisations are said to be using a closed system if they do not value feedback, and public opinion is inconsequential. Public relations managers in a closed-system concept practice the press agentry/publicity or public information models. A closed system requires the efficient production of quality information material without worrying about the impact of their work. An open system, however, relies on feedback loops to improve products and establish lasting relations with their stakeholders. This system is useful in managing either two-way asymmetric or two-way symmetric public relations, both of which are designed help the organisation deal with its environment (Gruning & Hunt, 1992). The theory is relevant to this study because it is from understanding the kind of systems at research institutions that will help the researcher appreciates the nature of public relations presently deployed by research institutions.

The Social Penetration Theory is a communication theory developed by psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor in 1973, the theory states that relationships begin and deepen through self-disclosure. In the beginning, people establish relationships by disclosing many simple, harmless facts about themselves through small talk. It describes the process of bonding that moves a relationship from superficial to more intimate. Altman and Taylor described the process of self-disclosure as peeling back the layers of an onion (onion model). The onion metaphor is useful in elaborating layers of personal information through interpersonal relationship to reach the core for the most intimate details. This theory can occur in different contexts from a romantic relationship, to social groups. Exchange of information is crucial to the development of relationships. Vital to social penetration is breadth referring to the number topics discussed and depth referring to the degree of intimacy. Public Relations is about building and maintaining relationships with the target public, this theory is thus relevant to this study because it essentially deals with building and maintaining long-lasting relationships but also crucial in evaluating effectiveness of communication as entails feedback for communication to be complete.

Conceptual Perspective

Standard and operational definition of independent and dependent variables: According to the Public Relations Society of America, Public relations is the strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics. Lattimore, et al., (2008) define public relations as a leadership and management function that helps achieve organisational objectives, define philosophy, and facilitate organisational change.

In the context of this study, public relations will be defined as the deliberate communication process by research institutions aimed at establishing mutual relationships with the target publics.

Griffin (1997) defined Effective communication as the process of sending a message in such a way that the message received is as close in meaning as possible to the message intended. While the American Management Association considers communication to be effective if it entails the ten commandments. They include: clear idea topics and receiver of communication, determination of purpose, and there must be feedback from the receiver.

In the context of this study effective communication will be defined as a communication intended to bring about clear understanding defined scientific concepts.

Contextual Perspective

All health-related research in the country is done at the three research institutions at Mulago, Wandegeya, and Nakiwogo, situated in Kampala and Wakiso district respectively. The study will, therefore, be restricted in the two districts because most of the respondents are domiciled within the mentioned geographical location.

The three institutions are Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI), the Natural Chemotherapeutics Research Institute (NCRI) and Makerere School of Public Health. UVRI is a medical research institute founded in 1936, while the emphasis is on viral infections, research in communicable diseases in humans and animals is also part of their mandate. NCRI was established in 1964 to justify therapeutic claims from traditional medicine practitioners through applied research, it is based in Wandegeya, Kampala. Both NCRI and UNVRI are under the Ministry of Health. Makerere School of Public Health is a teaching and research institution located in within the precincts of Mulago National Referral Hospital but under the direct supervision of Makerere University a public institution. The study will focus on public relations efforts by state-owned research organisations mentioned above because of they are more experienced in carrying out research and are purely funded by government and therefore have an obligation to explain their work to the public.

Statement of the Problem

The United Kingdom (UK) Royal Society commissioned and adopted the recommendations of the Bodmer Report (1985) that aimed at improving public understanding of science. The Royal Society is an independent scientific academy of the UK and the Commonwealth, dedicated to promoting excellence in science. Bodmer, et al., argued that industry and national prosperity depend on science, devices used and work are created by science and technology and many personal and public decisions have a major scientific aspect. As such, understanding science was deemed important for individual citizens to participate in a democratic society, understanding the nature of risks and uncertainty is an important part in comprehending science to inform policy and for everyday issues in our personal lives. The report recommended that scientists should learn to communicate better with all segments of the public, media, parliament, civil service and industry. The royal society has since established platforms to aid public understanding of science, they include, science exhibitions, outreach, and awards to scientists communicating their research better to the public. The society further provides advice and guidance to scientific institutions on how to communicate science. The UK scientific organisations are thus encouraged to deploy open systems that encourage interacting with their environment thus embracing public relations to better communicate science.

Available evidence indicates that research institutions in Uganda deploy the public information model of public relations. Research institutions strive to inform the public through generating factsheets and statistic which they distribute at functions such as health and agricultural trade shows and their respective websites ( This kind of closed system does seem to enlist participative communication with the public, and therefore constrain public understanding of science.

This study will, therefore, suggest ways of incorporating a two-way symmetric model of public relations through an open system of management by research institutions for effective communication of science and engender public understanding of science. The study also hopes to find out how lack of proper communication by scientific institutions might be causing harm to the general public.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study is to establish the relationship between public relations and effective communication by research institutions in Uganda.

Specific Objectives

The study will be guided by the following:

  • To find out the effect of dialogue on public understanding of science in Uganda
  • To find out whether or not the intended message is the received message among community members in Uganda
  • To recommend a medium or combination of media that will aid effective communication of science in Uganda
  • To find out the effect of community engagement on public understanding of science in Uganda

Research Questions

  • What is the effect of dialogue on public understanding of science in Uganda?
  • Does the message reach the target audience as intended?
  • Can recommended medium/media aid effective communication of science in Uganda?
  • What is the effect of community engagement on public understanding of science in Uganda?

Hypothesis of the Study

  • The deployment of Public Relations in communicating science with target audiences would lead to better understanding of science by the Ugandan public.
  • Scope of Study

Content Scope: The study will be limited to public relations and science communication from scholarly publications that include books, articles, and online resources. The researcher will utilise conventional and digital libraries.

Temporal Scope: The study will be conducted and completed in twelve months. This is enough time for the researcher to engage with all the respondents. This time is substantial for the researcher to get to the bottom of the problem.

Geographical Scope: The study will be carried out in Wakiso and Kampala districts. All government funded health research institutions are situated in the two districts and therefore the study will also be restricted in these areas. The researcher’s area of interest is health research institutions, particularly at Nakiwogo, Wandegeya, and Mulago.

Significance of The Study

The result/findings of the study will be significant to the following categories:

  • Public relations practitioners in science and technology-based institutions will find the study valuable as it will suggest best ways of building and maintaining relations and effective management of the trust portfolio.
  • Public relations students and future researchers will find the study helpful and probably interesting to consider working with science-based institutions and help them in refining effective public relations strategies through further research.
  • And finally, research institutions will get to appreciate the crucial role of public relations in engendering critical relations with their strategic public.

Definition of Key Terms

Public relations: This is a strategic communication process that cultivates and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between science organisations with their target publics.

Science Communication: communication intended to bring about public appreciation of science.

Dialogue: is two-way communication that entails sending a message, get feedback and respond accordingly and appropriately.

Effective communication: a two-way communication process that involves one party sending a message that is easily understood the receiving end.

Community engagement: is a deliberate form of cooperation with communities within which an institution operates to either inform, consult, involve, collaborate or empower.


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