Simply said, science communication made easy

by | May 1, 2017 | Wineland, Business and Marketing

The wine industry relies on cutting-edge technology to compete internationally. The transfer of scientific research and technology is important for application in the industry.

 “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” This famous quote by renowned physicist Albert Einstein highlights two key aspects of explaining a complex issue. Firstly, the one doing the explaining needs to have a good understanding of the topic. Secondly, communication needs to be adapted for a specific audience. Some audiences might appreciate a high level of complexity, while others will miss the point completely.

The wine industry, like all agricultural industries, relies on cutting-edge technology to compete internationally, making the transfer of scientific research and technology essential so it can be applied in the industry. This is where Winetech fulfils a vital role, given the various challenges faced by the South African wine industry. The most obvious challenges are currently related to energy, water, land ownership, sustainability and profitability, with an increasing focus on the latter in the global wine market. Countries such as Australia and Chile for instance have renewed and aggressive strategies to increase profitability and competitiveness globally.

But Winetech is not resting on its laurels. Instead, recent operational changes saw Winetech become more than just the administrator of industry research funds. It has also taken on the role of research partner and facilitator in the relationship between the researchers and the industry. These operational changes form part of an overarching industry initiative known as Wine Industry Strategic Exercise (Wise). Aggressive knowledge and technology transfer in the industry is one of the key objectives in the Technology and Innovation Framework, which in turn forms one of the six key strategic objectives of Wise.

And this is where Karien O’Kennedy comes in. Charged with knowledge transfer at Winetech, she’s a science communicator extraordinaire. “I’ve always had a huge interest in science, but I never saw myself as a researcher for the rest of my life,” she says. “I started out as a sales representative for Anchor Yeast, but soon realised I’m not a natural salesperson. I’m a scientist and the only way I was ever going to sell anything was by clearly communicating the science behind the use of the products.

“Being overtly technical, as scientists often tend to be, was not ideal as I was often confronted by glazed looks, followed by boredom. I was once even asked to wear a shorter skirt next time I visit. This forced me to learn how to communicate science in a more user-friendly way. It gave me great pleasure to sit down with winemakers and explain complex issues in a way they understood and as a result applied in the cellar.”

The other Winetech team members share Karien’s passion and are as competent as you can get, but there’s a steep hill to climb if the South African wine industry wants to slug it out with its Australian counterpart. Those wondering why the Australian wine industry is doing so well when it comes to extension should consider that the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) has, according to its latest annual report, a staggering 18 staff members charged with industry development and support, while we only have a handful.

Furthermore, research and extension levies that are paid to the AWRI by Australian wine producers are higher than those in South Africa and are closely matched by their government, which is most certainly not the case in South Africa. Also consider that all AWRI researchers, in addition to the extension staff members, also engage in extension activities. In other words, they give talks to the wine industry to share their research and its relevance and regularly engage in conversations with winemakers. The AWRI also offers researchers regular media training to enable them to better communicate with the industry.

Karien recently started her PhD in science and technology studies at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (Crest) with the aim of increasing Winetech’s competence in science communication. Marina Joubert, a prominent figure at Crest, is one of Karien’s role models. “Marina is currently doing her PhD in science communication and is highly skilled by virtue of her doing science communication for many years, including more recently for the Rooibos Council,” Karien says. “Besides working for Crest, she also has her own company that specialises in science communication and is the go-to person where science communication is concerned in South Africa.”

So how do agriculture practitioners gather information? There are mainly three ways:

  1. The first is through technical learning, which includes reading print material, internet sources and electronic newsletters, attending conferences and seminars, and doing short courses.
  2. Secondly information is gathered through social learning, which includes workshop attendance, study groups, field days, informal conversations with fellow practitioners and conversations with consultants and product and service suppliers.
  3. Finally there’s experiential learning where you apply something you’ve learnt through technical or social learning.

Karien gives an example of how science communication, applying the above principles, resulted in a positive change in the local wine industry. “When I started working in the wine industry, it was common practice to add 30 g/hl DAP to every tank prior to fermentation. Pretty much everybody did this and there was little deviation from this theme, regardless of YAN. The occurrence of H2S was simply remedied, although not always successfully, by adding more DAP. This was not a cost-effective practice as people ended up using much more than was actually needed if used correctly.

“At the time I was working for Anchor Yeast and it was decided to address this situation. I published a popular article about yeast nutrient management and we subsequently started discussing better nutrient management options with winemakers. Other suppliers came on board and within five years we saw a tremendous change in nutrient practices.”

While her article provided the basis for change, the most important work was the many individual personal visits and face-to-face conversations with winemakers, Karien says. As more and more winemakers started to successfully implement the new guidelines, social learning from each other brought about an overall change in practice in the industry. Another example of good science communication and practice adoption was the introduction of co-inoculation of yeast and malolactic bacteria (MLB) as an alternative to the sequential inoculation of MLB.

Winetech’s knowledge transfer vision is more one of knowledge exchange, where they hope to bridge the gap between theory and practice with various boundary-spanning activities. In plain English, Winetech, through its research management and science communication efforts, aims to get researchers, viticulturists, producers and winemakers to talk to and learn from each other.

Informed people make informed decisions, which lead to greater sustainability and profitability.

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