Russian Youth in Search for Science

“I read your article and I didn’t quite understand what ‘star density’ means”, a good friend of mine, Sasha, told me last week. She’s a very intelligent girl, we studied together at the Moscow State Linguistic University. But linguistic education in no way provides you with scientific insight, and, unfortunately, in most cases neither does secondary school in Russia.

That’s what I was thinking about when I decided to create a science section in my newspaper, Akzia. We are a biweekly general interest newspaper for people aged 18–30, distributed for free in 11 major Russian cities. “How come we still don’t have a science section?”, was my instant thought in late 2006, when I was conducting a series of interviews with young Russian scientists for a cover story.

Science is not popular enough among young people in Russia — it’s much “trendier” to be a manager. There are too few popular scientific media outlets, and you can hardly find any science programs on TV. In most cases, science in schools is so boring and incomprehensible that those who are not naturally good at it graduate without knowing the difference between viruses and bacteria. As a result, pseudoscience thrives, newspapers print horoscopes, and TV runs Uri Geller shows.

These were the arguments I used to persuade my fellow editors to create a science section. In less than a year, my editor-in-chief told me: “You have one page for it, in every issue”.

That’s when the most difficult part began. What was our task — to educate? To inform? To teach? To entertain? What did our readers expect from us? How to do science journalism for young people at all?

It was pretty difficult to create a new section out of nowhere. One thing I knew: I wanted science to look sexy. I wanted to publish interviews with young Russian scientists to show how cool it is to be smart as they are. I was going to write about all the possible opportunities for our readers to get closer to science and to take part in it — like going to a science festival, or to a new science exhibition, or to a popular scientific lecture. And I wanted to present science news in a way that any schoolboy would understand. At least to give it a try.

One of the biggest challenges was finding authors. My idea that only young people should write for a youth newspaper quickly melted away: There were simply not enough young science journalists out there (at least not that I would know about). At Russian universities, there is no such discipline as “science communication”. This means that science journalism is done either by scientists or by regular journalists, or, quite often, by ex-scientists who have become journalists. Fortunately, it turned out they can write for a youth newspaper. And I was lucky enough to have some of them write for us.

Another challenge was, and still is, informational graphics. My colleagues insist that it be in every issue, except for the cases where it wouldn’t fit in at all. Our designer Nikita Kachaev, who, unlike me, has a scientific background, helps me a lot with setting it up. Still, I think we’re not good enough at it yet. Science informational graphics should be more complex and comprehensible at the same time, and it should definitely be more fun.

Since 2007, we’ve written about recent developments in science (nanotechnologies, testing AIDS vaccine, preparing a flight to Mars); popular scientific projects on the web (www.eol.org,www.periodicvideos.orgwww.sixtysymbols.com); interviewed one of the youngest people to receive a Nobel prize (Brian Josephson) and one of the first young scientists to be a winner of a newly-instituted Russian president’s award for young scientists (Alexandr Kuznetsov). We promoted the International Year of Astronomy and its events that each person can participate in.

At our editorial meetings, I’m still being criticised for some articles being too complicated. But I’m trying hard to make it understandible — at least for my ex-fellow-students like Sasha. My own lack of scientific knowledge even helps me with this: I never write on things I don’t quite understand myself, but when somebody who understands it well writes about it for me, I can easily tell what’s too “nerdy” in the text.

After the WCSJ 2009, I came up with the idea to write about the new Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum in London. It struck me by a new level of openness to the public and a completely innovative way of communicating with visitors — all the things we were told by an inspired employee on a short tour, during the gala-reception we had there. It seemed like the Darwin Centre was going to be a real museum of a new age, a must for visiting. The only problem — it’s a bit far from Moscow… But well, we write for modern smart open-minded globally-thinking young people, and London is, after all, just three hours away by plane.

The promise of entrepreneurial journalism

Philadelphia Magazine recently named Jim MacMillan Philly’s best “Nuevo Journalist”. In other circles he is known as Philly’s best unemployed journalist. MacMillan, a veteran of the Philadelphia Daily News and a Pulitzer Prize winning AP photographer, has recently finished a model that he hesitatingly calls “entrepreneurial journalism”.

Entrepreneurial journalism differs from freelance journalism in that it is a self-funded, self-publishing model. MacMillan recently wrote on his blog: “Launching careers in the new media landscape may be brutally difficult, just as they were for my friends and I, who developed our own freelance careers by working up to 80 hours per week, often for 30 or 40 days straight in the 1980s. If you couldn’t cut it then, you might not make it now.”

After taking a buyout from the Daily News late last year, MacMillan took it upon himself to dismiss claims that you can’t do journalism all by yourself. Before taking a position teaching convergence journalism (multimedia, multiplatform journalism side-by-side with journalism fundamentals) in Missouri, there were two questions MacMillan asked himself when he initially took on his experiment. First, there was the issue of the audience. He just left an organization with a circulation of 100,000. Currently, he has 52,000 followers on Twitter.

“In terms of number of followers, I’ve done some work to cultivate them from groups where I can form good relationships,” he said during a conversation we had a few months ago.

Second, there was the issue of salary. MacMillan cites the book What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis, a online media advocate, as inspiration.

“Dollar for dollar you make very little off your blog, but you can use it for leverage for other better paying opportunities,” MacMillan said. “Can you pay your bills by being an entrepreneurial journalist? You can, but maybe not directly.”

Jarvis was quoted in a Philadelphia Weekly article about MacMillan called “Can Jim MacMillan’s iPhone Save Journalism?” as saying, “what he did isn’t extreme at all but will be the norm as most of us will have the tools to share news as we witness it—even live. The tools will be simpler and everyone in newsrooms should be learning from them and using them.”

Throughout his experiment MacMillan has found that the importance of a good story reigned supreme regardless of the media or journalistic model.

“If we could not write, tell, or spin a good story, most of us would be out of jobs,” Macmillan said. “But in new media, the methods by which we spin that story have altered.”

Even the idea that you should write short for electronic media has turned into a 140 character and link post (ideally it should be less than 140 characters to allow for the ReTweet).

Electronic media is also a very visible media, of course. The use of graphics and video has become increasingly cheap and easy in the past decade. The creation of the Flip video recorder has turned many of us into fledgling authors.

As the media continues to reinvent itself, regardless of how you choose to tell the story, it’s the story that inevitably is the most important element; I doubt that will change.

Where does science end and business begin?

Where does science end and business begin? That’s a question I ask myself on a daily basis in my role as a business reporter at The Scotsman, Scotland’s national newspaper. While my day-to-day work involves writing news stories and features for the business pages in the paper, I also contribute to Saturday’s science and environment pages – so I always keep an eye out for tales that could perhaps work in both contexts.

AlphaGalileo also appears to be interested in this topic – the European research news service is about to launch a business news strand because “the connection between research and wealth creation is fundamental to creating a knowledge-based society”.

The science and business question is also popping up again and again in the public policy arena: as the recession puts a squeeze on the Treasury, politicians and civil servants are keen for universities to demonstrate how their scientific research benefits taxpayers’ everyday lives – and how their work can be commercialised.

Scotland’s universities and research institutions have an enviable record when it comes to both teaching and scientific study; as a nation, we always punch above our weight when it comes to academic papers published per head of population and other standard measures.

Now it would appear that the support we give to our researchers to commercialise their ideas is also being used as a yard-stick. In Canada, Ontario’s provincial government has been studying the model used by economic development agency Scottish Enterprise to invest in emerging technology companies.

Government investment will match payments made by small-to-medium private sector investors in return for an equity stake in the companies being supported. Scottish Enterprise said that New Zealand’s government copied the model back in 2006.

As well as the co-investment fund, other Scottish models also seem to be paying dividends: one example comes in the form of BigDNA, a company based near Edinburgh, which is developing a method for delivering DNA-based vaccines using bacterial viruses. Its development began with “proof of concept” funding from Scottish Enterprise, followed by an enterprise fellowship for its founder, Dr John March, paid for by Scottish Enterprise and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

BigDNA is now taking on more staff and we wait to see if it can break through the development barrier and into full-scale production – a tough task for any company. Another Edinburgh-based firm to watch out for is ImmunoSolv, which recently signed its first distribution contract for a pair of kits that identify and remove dead cells from laboratory experiments, speeding up efficiency. The firm also benefited from “proof of concept” funding and a “Smart” development award from devolved administration in Scotland.

While all of these developments make for good business stories, it’s important for me not to lose sight of their science credentials too.

And the difference between the two? I have to judge these business-cum-science stories on their merits – a story can’t just make it into the paper because it has science in it. The tale must be subjected to the same rigorous rules we would apply to any other story, whether it be in sport, the arts or politics.

So if the story concerns the launch of a new company or a big development for an existing firm then it will make a good business story – and if it’s an interesting piece of science without an immediate commercial benefit then it would probably sit more comfortably on the sciences pages. But each story must contain something “new”, the fact at the very heart of any newspaper.

Handling the climate deniers

It was one of those bombshells that sucks the conversation from the room.

“But now new studies say that climate change is part of a natural phenomenon,” a financial journalist hammered out in an email to me recently. There was a hint of a question mark at the end of the statement.

“Oh? Um… could you point me to the report you’re referring to, please?” I shot back, curious.

Sure enough, the source of this information was a column written in the financial magazine FinWeek by a retired newspaperman with decades of journalism under his belt. But he’d been reeled in by one of those dissident polemics about how climate change isn’t caused by humans (in this case, Ian Plimer’s book Heaven and Earth).

What started out as a popular book based on faulty assumptions and occasional bits of science that had been cherry-picked to support a specific view, was refashioned through the media machine to become “a new scientific study”. See how easy it is to mangle the truth?

The South African press has a few climate deniers surfacing from time to time, and you can understand why. Journalism training and newsroom convention push us to tell the dissident story: our job is to “balance” the story, to tell “both sides”, to represent the “dissident” view, give the “underdog” a place on the podium. We’re part of the democracy of ideas, after all. Censoring ideas is anathema to the discipline.

And let’s be honest, controversy sells papers more than the “boring old consensus” view.

Lack of scientific literacy is fundamental to perpetuating myths about climate change, because few journalists understand the philosophy of the scientific method and how to use this as a way to test what we know about the world.

So how do we know what’s true?

We’ve got two ideas here: the “consensus” view of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which says, in its Fourth Assessment Report, that most of the warming we’ve seen in the past half century has been caused by human activities.

Then there’s the “dissident” view, like Plimer’s, which says the carbon dioxide we’ve added to the atmosphere is miniscule, that the changes in climate we’re seeing are natural, and that the IPCC scientists are all part of some mass conspiracy to deceive the public.

So, who to believe? Maybe there’s some kind of “golden mean”, some middle ground where both sets of ideas meet a happy compromise. No.

The problem with wrapping our heads around the IPCC report is that the science is vast. It’s a compilation of work by scientists across multiple disciplines: oceanography, climatology, paleo-geography, ice core sampling, pollen residues, animal migration patterns, cloud formation… no journalist is going to have the skills to go back to the original data to check whether they’re correct.

So what’s the next course of action? My approach is more philosophical.

The scientific method is a tool that’s been devised to test how the world works. It’s a ruler we put alongside an idea to check that it’s straight. The process of observation, experimentation, subjecting ideas to review by peers, publishing in journals – these are steps in a method that tries to remove personal biases or deliberate frauds, and reach some kind of truth. It’s designed to be self-correcting.

Faced with both sets of ideas, let’s ask which underwent the most rigorous testing according to the toolkit provided by the scientific method: dissidents like Plimer, or the IPCC? Which provides the largest body of peer reviewed, evidence-based science?

Secondly, it’d require a truly cynical motive, for 2500 IPCC scientists, and n-number of reviewing scientists, who are leaders in their fields across multiple disciplines, and around the world, to conspire to produce a 3000 page document of deliberately fraudulent science. Believing that requires suspending belief to an extraordinary level. Wasn’t it the physicist Richard Feynman who said “be open minded, but not so open minded that your brains fall out”?

What’s the harm of perpetuating these ideas about climate change being bogus? Many politicians have said, unofficially, that they want the public to pressure them into making policy changes to tackle climate change – this’ll give them room to bring about legislation that would be so unpopular that it might otherwise jeopardise their short term political ambitions. But if the public doesn’t believe that the climate crisis is urgent, they won’t pressure government.

As journalists, we need to ask ourselves this: if the climate scientists are right, and catastrophic change really is just around the corner, what’s our obligation to society? And what’s the harm of perpetuating false ideas about the apparent non-existence of the climate crisis? Will we be responsible for lulling society into apathy, allowing it to continue fiddling while Rome (and London, and Cape Town, and Beijing, etc) burns?

It’s easy to be swayed by a lone author like Ian Plimer who says human-caused climate change is bogus – but strong or contrarian argument isn’t enough to make the claims true. It’s not even about whether or not most scientists “believe” that the climate is changing.

“What counts is the evidence,” writes New Scientist’s Michael le Page, “and the evidence – that the world is getting warmer, that the warming is largely due to human emissions, and that the downsides of further warming will outweigh the positive effects – is very strong and getting stronger.”

That, in the end, should be the plumb line against which we test these ideas for truth. And that’s what underscores all science writing.