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Can journalists really know how science really works?

Continuing from an earlier blog post, Brian Trench closes his chapter by repeating a statement John Durant made identifying three kinds of knowledge about science that the public may or may not have, knowledge about:

  1. essential facts
  2. how science works
  3. how science really works

Trench follows this with “[...] journalists reporting science could help throw light on how science really works, [...]“.

While I take his point, I also have some doubts about how well journalists are able to do this.

Research science is one of those things that are largely learnt by doing, with some guidance. Doctorates are essentially apprenticeships.

It seems to me that unless the reporter has experienced research science first-hand, most won’t know how science really works. In my opinion most science reporters or writers are–with all the best intentions–stuck at level two of Durant’s knowledge scale.

An analogy for a journalist might be expecting a non-writer to really know what a writer’s or freelance journalist’s job is like, without sitting in on the job. I’m pretty sure that they’d say that all but close friends and family don’t really know.

I’m sure most of us can say this of our jobs!

Only a handful of specialist science writers have been research scientists. Most of those who have a university education in science, stopped at their undergraduate education and moved to science writing.

I’ve nothing against that. I’d rather see someone who studied science at university than not and it’s a logical point in a career at which to move to another interest, particularly given the effort that higher degrees involve.

However, there are considerable differences between an undergraduate education and research science, especially the first two years of undergraduate study. Undergraduates are still moving from understanding the output of science to the generation of new science. Post-graduates are grappling with the day-to-day reality of full-time research.

Having pointed out that really understanding science best requires having people who’ve “been there, done that”, I have to admit it’s one problem that doesn’t seem to have an easy solution.

One solution might be to provide internships that attach science writers to a research department or institute for, say, three months. In the USA, a good number of the larger research laboratories offer internships. A limitation of these, is that the interns won’t be within the actual research laboratories or attached to particular research groups for any real length of time. While they’ll learn a lot and some of the feeling of the overall endeavour will rub off, they are unlikely to get a good feeling for the work itself.

Another approach would be to encourage to scientists who wish to write. At least two problems surround this approach.

Firstly, most scientists simply lack the time to learn the ins and outs of the media on top of their already time-and-a-half day job!

Day or weekend courses are one solution. For example the University of Otago has previously run some short courses. These are certainly a help, although they are limited by what can be conveyed in a short time.

Another approach would be to fund scientists to learn about working within the media.

It wonderful to learn that the newly-minted Prime Minister’s Science Media Communications Prize is aimed at promoting scientists to take up science writing. The selection criteria include “A strong background in science practice”, precisely my concern in this article. I started writing this blog article before this award was announced; it really is nice to see this award fit my prescription!

A second issue is that professional scientists get few, if any, career benefits from science writing beyond satisfying a personal ideal that they should communicate what the research tax dollar is spent on and fostering a keener and smarter public. The issues associated with this properly belong in another post, as they are more about the universities and research institutes than science communication itself. So readers, I’ll leave you here!


References

1. Investigating science communication in the information age: implications for public engagement and popular media. edited by Holliman, Whitelegg, Scanlon, Schmidt and Thomas (OUP 2009, ISBN: 978-0-19-955266-5).