Friday, 30 March 2012

Journalists and scientists debate about science communication

Science communicators are the link between the general public and scientific knowledge, they not only report about scientific findings but often shape people's opinions towards ethical, economical and political issues concerning science.

The stereotype of a scientist regarded as someone who is isolated and can not convey information in an understandable manner is still present today in the general public. On the other hand, scientists that participate in the media are not regarded seriously among their peers (scientists too have their own stereotypes).

Yet, the best science communicators have often been scientists, in the area of physics for example,  Richard Feynman was keen on popularising physics, he wrote books aimed to the general public and published his lectures for undergraduates, in the late 70s Carl Sagan co-wrote and presented the documentary series explaining the history of astronomy in Cosmos: a personal voyage, today the physicist Brian Cox frequently collaborates in BBC documentaries about physics.

Although universities and research institutions often have media offices that do press releases, media coverage and provide contact between scientists and journalists, scientists rarely have direct contact with the general public. In the last years, major scientific founding bodies such as The Wellcome Trust are making an effort encouraging scientists to communicate their work to non specialised audiences.

On the 13th of March The Royal Institution hosted a debate between scientists and journalists regarding science communication. The speakers that night were:
  • Alok Jha, science correspondent of The Guardian,  
  • Alice Bell, who teaches part time Science Communication in the Imperial College and also works for the BBC
  • Ed Yong who is an award winning science journalist
  • Chris Chambers who is a neuroscientist working in Cardiff University 
  • Ananyo Battacharya  chief on line editor of Nature News 
  • Fiona Fox chief executive of the Science Media Centre 
The talks covered mainly the job and role of science journalists and although I personally think there are some good science journalists, it was no surprise to find out that science communication is usually done by non-specialised journalists with a tight agenda and little time to do research on the topic they are writing about. Here is the video of the debate that followed the talks:

Alok Jha: Science and the Media - Discussion from The Royal Institution on Vimeo.

Today in the science section of The Guardian, James Ranson has published an article following the debate of the Royal Institution Should science journalists read the papers on which their stories are based?

James Ranson sent a survey to science journalists asking them how often did they read the original scientific paper they were discussing in their articles. Only journalists that claimed they did read the original scientific papers responded to the survey. Consenquently, when reading the Guardian article, the impression is that this is a general practise among journalist, yet when listening to the debate that took place in the Royal Institution on the 13th of March, it is clear that this is not the norm.

How can a journalist not consult the main source of their articles? How long can science journalists remain unspecialised? How can concepts that are not fully understood be properly communicated? How many stories can a science journalist cover properly in one day?

Science does not belong exclusively to scientists, it belongs to all. How long should scientists complain about bad science communication before doing something about it?

I would love to know your opinion about science communication, whether you are a scientist or not.

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