By Paige Brown
This post originally appeared in From the Lab Bench, a Nature network blog, on May 16, 2011.
Counter to trends of cutbacks for science coverage in newspapers and newsrooms over the last few years (examples include The Boston Globe and CNN), and to the excitement of science journalists nationwide, there DOES remain a high public interest in science. What’s more, this interest is not static … it seems to be growing. But if our nation’s “Big League” newspapers are cutting back on science coverage and freelance budgets, where do the American public turn to satiate their hunger for reliable scientific information and news on public health and medical breakthroughs? Perhaps they might turn to their local scientist, a trusted friend versed in the language of cancer prevention therapies, pharmaceutical drug trials, quantum voltaic energy solutions, or novelty molecular imaging techniques. Easier said than done when, alas, only 18 percent of Americans know a scientist personally (Woolley 2005). A public poll this year asked surveyed individuals to name a living scientist (so Albert Einstein didn’t count). The overwhelming answer (among the only 37 percent who could even name a single living scientist): Steven Hawking. Enter Discovery Channel’s new series “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking,” full of black hole mysteries and the what-ifs of time travel and extraterrestrial intelligence. I suppose we can make a good guess as to where the public is coming up with their nearly unanimous answer … That’s right, their televisions.
A poll of the Maryland public, released this May during a forum on science journalism hosted by Research!America, Pfizer Inc., and the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism revealed that nearly two-thirds, or 66 percent, of surveyed Maryland inhabitants want to see, read, and hear more news coverage of science and research. This news coverage includes that on television, internet and websites, newspapers, radio, magazines, and social media (e.g., Facebook and Twitter). We ask: who does the public want bringing them their information on science news, related policies, and impacts on society? A majority want the scientists themselves. The only people the majority of us trust more than scientists are members of our medical community and our military (Research!America Feb 2007 Public Opinion Study).
So what are we doing to bring the voices of scientists to the public? What are we doing to help scientists translate into simple language both the facts AND the uncertainties pertaining to their work? There is even more public trust in the scientific community, and more (~65 percent) public distrust in elected officials, than just five years ago, as determined by recent polls in Maryland. The American public trusts and wants scientists and medical experts to be advising our political representatives. With that great trust comes great responsibility. More scientists need to be reaching out to the American public, in transparent, plain English communication. And let’s face it, such outreach endeavor is not as easy as it sounds. It’s well known that good scientist does not equal good communicator. Laying aside egos and scientific jargon, let those of us better at and enthusiastic about communicating reach out to the people whom we are intended to be caring for with our medical research and advances in diagnostic technologies, the people who make much of our research possible in the first place.
In a time of reduced public exposure to science through our familiar newspapers and favorite news channels, where do scientists and science writers/journalists turn to in order to spread news of groundbreaking research and lessons on science education to the lay audience, to the American and International public? The answer increasingly involves the internet, websites, and social media, and requires some out-of-the-box thinking in order to spread credible information and promote public trust in the scientific community. Scientists’ and journalists’ joint efforts will be needed to help the pubic understand, as “hot” experimental data is tweeted across the country in seconds, that published results are not absolute truths which progress in a linear fashion toward the advancement of human health and climate change solutions, but instead are the working products of validation and continuous retesting of scientific hypotheses. The answer to public science education invites intimate collaborations between scientists and science writers/journalists, between scientists and TV producers, and asks scientists to become new voices in the larger community through forum discussion, writing, blogging, and tweeting efforts aimed at non-scientist audiences. Many universities are beginning to look towards the convergence of science and journalism degree programs, populated by writers who enjoy covering science and public health related issues, as well as scientists who realize they have passions and talents outside of the physical laboratory (the niche I currently find myself in).
I am very excited to be entering the realm of science journalism in such an era as we are now entering, already deep in the age of the Internet. The age of the human genome and now the epigenome, heritable patterns of gene expression governed by factors that affect access to the underlying DNA sequence. The age of Twitter and instantaneous spreading through social media and the blogosphere of not just hot-off-the-press, but increasingly hot-out-of-the-lab research. Indeed, the public is often not waiting to read scientific and public health news in print form (I enjoy my hard copy version of Nature magazine simply because I am a giant nerd, and those rich colored gems of scientific knowledge comfort me when I sit down for a TV-couch read.)
Yet there are problems associated with the way science news coverage, and indeed perhaps all news coverage, is changing. As the spreading of news through mass media grows in sophistication with the advent of blogs and tweets, the risks of information distortion and widespread promulgation of misinformation also increase. Scientists and science writers, bloggers and tweeters alike have a responsibility to clearly delineate what we know and what we DON’T know according to current scientific knowledge in all fields of study (Gardiner Harris, reporter, The New York Times). People tend to “cluster around anomalies” in public health findings (Mr. Kevin Klose, dean, Philip Merrill School of Journalism, University of Maryland), for example spreading a report showing marked absence of lung cancer or related diseases in individual life-long smokers, or a report of reasons why climate change is nonexistent. The lightning-fast spread of both fact and opinion over the internet makes this “anomaly effect” even more of an issue for members of the scientific and medical communities who want and need the public to recognize widely accepted scientific truths, for the sake of our health and our environment.
I, and surely many other scientists and science writers likewise, accept the challenges in front of science journalism in the Age of Technology. I am here to say, my passion is communicating scientific truths, as I find them, to my broader community. Americans are literally telling us: We want more science. So we have to find new ways to bring it to them. I am a scientist by trade, but a writer by heart. Here is to jumping outside of the box.
Paige Brown is currently a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. She also holds an M.S. degree in biological and agricultural engineering from Louisiana State University, where she plans to return in 2012 to pursue an advanced degree in journalism. Paige is the author of the popular science blog From The Lab Bench hosted on Nature Network. Although a scientist by trade, she is a writer at heart.