Uganda creates simple biosciences vocabulary to aid science communication   

By Christopher Bendana

June 26, 2019

Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) has created a vocabulary of simplified scientific terms to improve communication about the biosciences.

Working under the auspices of the Uganda Bioscience Information Center (UBIC), a NARO information hub of scientists and science journalists converged at Mukono Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute and translated some key scientific terms into simple English words.

For example, organism was baptized as “living things” while GMOs were renamed “improved crops and animals.” Chromosomes are now referred to as “a package of DNA” and confined field trials were simplified into “researchers’ gardens.”

The trait of resistance was renamed “fighter” and tolerance is now called “survivor.” Probiotics were re-named “enhancers,” while isolation was simplified into “separation,” precision to “exact” and trait as “feature.” The general release of a crop is now referenced as “available for public use.”

In this first phase, the team put emphasis on the common scientific words used in the biosciences. The next stage will focus on changing the words into local languages, said Dr. Barbara Zawedde, UBIC coordinator and the brain behind the program. Since Uganda has more than 40 languages, they will start with the six that are most commonly spoken: Luganda, Luo, Kiswahili, Acholi, Ateso and Runyakitara.

Zawedde said that developing a scientific “easy word” vocabulary is a first step toward making science communicators more effective by using terms that the public can easily understand. Scientists often use very complicated terminologies, such as genetic engineering, tissue culture and enzymes, which lay people interpret differently.

Communication gets even more difficult because many of the scientific words have no corresponding words in the local languages.

“The goal is to simplify how we communicate,” she said. “There is a need to form common English words which everyone can understand.”

Journalists, too, have not been spared the difficulty of explaining scientific words, especially those who broadcast in the local languages. It is common to hear local television anchors and journalists calling hybrid banana emere enjingilile — a direct translation of “fake food” — while DNA is translated as “bricks.

Denis Kyobe, a journalist with Bukedde, the largest local television station in Uganda, said the new vocabulary will make broadcasts better as all stations will describe the scientific words similarly and with ease.

Zawedde noted that the new vocabulary also will help science communicators working with NARO to deliver the same message to all their stakeholders, with no distortion.

“We have all agreed that our spokespersons will be delivering the same information,” she said.

Peter Wamboga, a science communicator in Uganda and 2015 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow, said the “simple word” vocabulary will help people understand science with greater ease, which is a first step toward improved acceptance of technologies like genetic engineering.

Winnie Nanteza, a communications officer at NARO’s National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) at Namulonge, echoed Zawedde’s concerns about the challenges of communicating complicated scientific words to the public.

And Dr.  Antony Bua, a scientist at NaCRRI, noted that the process of communication has been exacerbated by the absence of corresponding local language words for scientific terms due to the lack of documentation among the early Africans.

The rise of new fields like climate change and genetic engineering has also prompted scientists to look at better ways of communicating with non-scientists to facilitate the adoption and adaptation of new technologies.

But as scientists try to familiarize local communities about the new sciences, they typically use scientific words that are not common among ordinary folks.

Fields like genetic engineering, with its molecular background, have been the most difficult for stakeholders like farmers and parliamentarian to decipher as scientists struggle to have their research regulated in fulfillment of the Cartagena Protocol.