The quick and the dead

About 180 writers, scholars, legislators and journalists involved in science and technology communication gathered 22 May in the Pacific resort of Acapulco to discuss for a whole day the challenges of our trade, and try to find mechanisms to convey our society the knowledge of science’s benefits.

Well, did we find them? Sadly, I think we didn’t. For a lenghtier summary of the seminar in english, please go here: http://bit.ly/DfAr3. In this post I’ll just put on my philosopher hat and try to figure out what happened there.

There were good intentions everywhere. There was enthusiasm. There was even a breath of some freshness. There was also a kind of low level buzz that murmured: “Haven’t we gone through this all many times before? Haven’t we?”

To be sure, I think this was the first time the summons came from two very different entities. The Foro Consultivo Científico y Tecnológico (FCCyT, http://www.foroconsultivo.org.mx/home/) is like a consulting body that gathers ideas from research and production communities and takes them to an upper body in order to formulate policies and programs related to scientific and technological research. And the Sociedad Mexicana para la Divulgación de la Ciencia y la Técnica (Somedicyt,http://www.somedicyt.org/) is more like a loose body of science communicators, both from media and from higher education institutions. Bot the FCCyT and the Somedicyt decided it was a good time to gather people from all over Mexico and lock them together in a room to discuss possible futures.

While I sat there, taking notes, recording what I could, talking to people, hugging old friends, making new friends and in general trying to get the idea of what this was about, I slowly realized not many of those present there were really ready to transform their day to day activities to adapt to the future. They were there trying to find how to survive the waves while still doing the same.

I’m growing restless, reading about the pressures and issues that science journalism is facing, for instance, in the United States (an excellent and recent take can be seen here: http://bit.ly/3bztG), but I saw that very few were actually concerned about what was going on there. Correction: the main guest, Pere Estupinyá, did, but of course he lives in Washington, works for the NIH, blogs from the MIT and writes for the Knight Science Tracker. He should know.

What I concluded at the end of the nice exercises we had there was that I was seeing the difference between quick individuals and slow organizations (this is not a critique of organizations, I’ve had my share of managing and I know it is hell trying to move ahead without sinking). Many good ideas came from many people: it’s difficult to have so many talents together and not to get the brain gears giving off sparks, but in general the tone was: ok, let’s put these ideas in writing, discuss them in one or two committees and then take them somewhere else, higher, for another round of discussions. Yawn.

I told the audience I wanted to instill fear in their hearts and brains so that they embraced collaboration and networking and crowdsourcing as a salvation from the abyss. Many just moved in their chairs waiting for me to finish, because I exceeded my time limit. Well, I did, but I’m not really that sorry because I felt like a kind of Cassandra, spelling doom and not being heard.

The point of the seminar was to try and find ways of getting science content to the public, of ensuring a correct appropriation of science and technology products by the public at large. What I feel came out was the perception that there needs to be a network of peers. Good. Now, who’s going to build it? And who’s going to assume some responsibility about it? Juan Pedro Laclette, head of the FCCyT, rightly said the forum had agreed to work with Somedicyt and to gather the writers and journalists. Another meeting? Sure: the FCCyT will help with half the cost, but the other half better comes from the Somedicyt or from another instance, perhaps the wished for journalists association. When? I really don’t know.

The fact is we do need to network; we do need to collaborate; we do need to work in teams, virtual but well built. We need to think about the future and to be ready to burn the bridges if need be to survive and thrive in the future context, whatever it brings. But I don’t know if the thrust, the push, will come from an institutional body.

From what I’ve been reading here, I know some countries in Europe, Africa and Asia have overcome obstacles such as these and have created powerful or at least well coordinated collective bodies. I think we might, could and should learn from others, but I can’t speak for everybody. I’m not even a member of Somedicyt (although Estrella Burgos urged me to send the application) so I’m not entitled to a collective voice.

But I’ll say this. I will personally try to plant a seed that might grow to be a group of science writers/journalists in Mexico. I’ll do my best to help and push and provoke and agitate the waters and push again. I know that in a few years, those who won’t move, wont’ change or won’t adapt, will be left behind. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen to us. So please help us, help me. I know we can do much, much better. And I know this is the place to ask. Thanks to you all.