From the perfect job to an endangered species: the demise of science journalism and why it matters

Australian science writer and broadcaster Leigh Dayton wrote a blog post about the demise of science journalism for Croakey, the Crikey health blog, which sparked a lot of discussion. Please chime in with your comments.

I used to have the perfect job. As The Australian’s Science Writer and later also Editor of the paper’s professionally oriented health section, I was paid to talk to interesting and important people about interesting and important ideas.

From gene patenting, embryonic stem cell research, polar exploration and climate science to environmental toxins, human evolution, cosmic evolution and the now not so elusive Higgs Boson, it was all my bailiwick.

I wrote across the paper and loved every minute of it, that is until an editorial change – inspired by the Global Financial Crisis and the Newspaper Financial Crisis – put me and my round at the bottom of the newsroom food chain. Little wonder I was restructured out the door last September.

So my perfect job doesn’t exist. And not just at The Australian. The shake-up of the media has led to a shake-out of science reporters worldwide. My perfect job doesn’t exist anywhere.

As Christopher Zara wrote earlier this year in the International Business Times, science journalists are tumbling out of jobs in the US. He cites telling statistics. In 1989, there were 95 newspapers with weekly science sections. Today there are 19.

The UK is experiencing a similar decline, as science writers get pushed from their perch in the daily papers to make way for cheap general reporters and teams of online staff. The Guardian is the exception, keeping its science coverage intact.
In Australia we were reasonably, if not generously, served until recently.

The Sydney Morning Herald had not only long-time Science Editor Deborah Smith – who took redundancy the week I left — but also Nicky Phillips, now sole science bod. Bridie Smith remains at The Age as Science & Technology Reporter and Claire Peddie covers Science and Environment for The Advertiser in Adelaide. Then it gets thin on the ground. Aside from the ABC, the electronic media is a science wasteland.

This worries me greatly. It’s not just because I’m pushed into a career change, but because science, technology, environment and medical research are at the heart of many important current events, issues and dust-ups of today.

Experienced science reporters cover the bases from astrophysics and zoology. They know the players, the issues and the nuts-&-bolts of the scientific method. They can tell a genuine break through from a beat-up or even a stuff-up. Remember the ill-fated faster-than-light neutrino discovery? Lots of breathless headlines worldwide; few considered stories; plenty of red faces.

Most of all, science journos see how science impacts current events. Their round isn’t just funky fillers and creature features gleaned from journal and university press releases. Their slowly vanishing specialty brings intellectual depth and breadth to news.

But this isn’t how editors and producers view the round. It’s an extra. It isn’t sexy. Real journalists do politics, business and economics. Doubt it? How many men are science reporters? Exactly.

So who’s replacing science specialists in the mainstream media? For the so-called discovery stories general reporters do their best with press releases and wire copy does the rest.

When a story takes off, though, political journalists generally muscle in. That’s fine. They’re an intelligent and capable bunch. But the result can be superficial. It’s the equivalent of sending me to cover internal Cabinet disputes or Coalition policy shifts. I’d get the obvious points but miss the context and complexity. Important issues and implications would go unreported.

Consider the recent extreme weather events. Where was the in-depth discussion of Australia’s preparedness for coping with more of same, courtesy of climate change? The submissions to the recent Senate Inquiry Recent Trends in and Preparedness for Extreme Weather Events barely got a mention.

What about the surprise Federal Court decision upholding the validity of patents on the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2?

The decision was covered extensively. There was mention that women might have to pay for breast cancer diagnostic tests and that Cancer Council CEO Ian Olver called for a change to patent laws.

But there was little discussion of what those laws are, how they’re applied to human genes, recent legislative reviews or implications for fundamental research and innovation, let alone alternative approaches to managing emerging knowledge.

Same with Julia Gillard’s announcement that the government will commit A$504.5 million to establish up to 10 Industry Innovation Precincts to boost the nation’s output of globally competitive innovation and industry. The papers covered big business’s loss of the R&D tax break and a few details of where the precincts would be located.

So why is successful innovation even an issue? How and why have successive governments struggled to boost it? Not a peep.

It sounds naive but how can we have a functioning democracy with a poorly informed electorate? You get my drift.

• On Twitter: @leighDayton

Why the World Needs Better Science Journalism

If you regularly do a Twitter search for the words “science journalism,” like I do, you’ll be amazed, amused and sometimes shocked by the amount of bashing science journalism takes in the Twittersphere. It shows that not all science journalism is created equal, and it’s a sign of the times, really: Not all journalists who write about science are actually science journalists. They’re general journalists who were — willingly or out of necessity — given a science story to cover that day.

Newsrooms are under pressure. Revenues are down, budgets are being cut, and journalists are losing their jobs. Sadly, it’s often the specialists whose jobs get axed, which is a bit puzzling. It’s with specialized content, not with general news, that magazines and newspapers can compete for niche dominance. Yet in the face of cuts, some media resort to churnalism, where press releases from the ever-expanding PR departments of universities and research institutions are published unchecked. Others make the journalists who are left behind pick up the beats — beats they’ve never specialized in before.

Yet, never more than today has the need for sound science journalism been so great.

Sure, knowing whether cows line up with the Earth’s magnetic field will probably not change your life, but climate change and electric vehicles will. Knowledge drives the economy of most developed countries and more and more developing countries; academia creates jobs and exports products like technological innovations and scientists. In the face of all this, people need trustworthy and critical science journalism now, and more so in the future.

For example, science has once again become a ball in the game of the upcoming presidential elections. Some of the candidates try to use medieval ideas about science to woo their followers. Since the book “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre, British doctor and critic of scientific inaccuracy, is not compulsory reading for high school students (it should be, by the way), we need journalists with a proper knowledge of science to separate fact from fiction.

Why science needs a specialty

So why should science journalism be considered a specialism? What sets it apart from general news coverage? For starters, just like journalists who cover economics or politics or sports, science journalists require a more than average knowledge of the field they’re covering.

Today’s multitasking journalists cannot be expected to cover all beats equally well. Their editors-in-chief will say that all journalists should be able to cover science; it’s a matter of asking the right questions. That’s partly true, but only a good understanding of the field you are covering lets you know what the right questions are.

Science requires a lot of explaining, since the metabolism of the human body or the workings of quantum mechanics cannot be considered general knowledge. It helps when a journalist knows the difference between an atom and a molecule, correlation and causation, knows what a p value, the placebo effect, control groups and randomized trials are. They should know that reporting on a phase one clinical trial is premature, that not everything that’s found in rats can be instantly translated to humans, and that most studies on diet should be taken with a pinch of salt.

A good science journalist reads the original scientific paper he or she reports on. Knowledge of the scientific lingo is a must. Providing context is another important part of the job; you have to explain to your audience what this research means. Most importantly, a thorough understanding of the process of scientific research is essential. People — including journalists — need to know that science is a never-ending quest; no result can be considered the final truth.

Although science journalism adheres to the same rules as any other kind of journalism, there’s an important distinction in the use of balance. It is considered good journalistic practice, some may even call it compulsory, to give the two sides to every coin equal attention in your story. Proponents and critics of a statement or policy get equal weight in general news stories. In science stories, balance doesn’t work. Of course, critics of a policy or research need to be heard, but they should get the weight they deserve measured by the number of scientists they represent.

A clear example is the broad coverage that critics of climate change have gotten over recent years. Some of those critics, many of whom could not be considered experts, got the spotlight for the sake of balance, even though they represented a small minority. Why is this an issue? Because using balance in science stories can give readers and viewers the idea that an issue is more controversial than it really is. An independent review of the BBC science coverage reached the same conclusion in a report that was presented this summer.

The need for specialized training

Stronger science journalism starts with more and better training — training of general journalists who cover the science beat, training of scientists and science students who want to venture into journalism, and training of science journalists to do more and better investigative journalism.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the be-all and end-all. There are plenty of journalists out there who will manage to bungle a science story even after an extensive training program. These journalists shall remain nameless, since I value their work as it provides me with fresh teaching material. But most journalists want to do a good job in writing their stories. It’s their name in the byline, after all — it’s not just the professional honor of the scientist on the line.

There are already a few excellent training programs in place.

The Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT offers journalists the opportunity to immerse themselves in a particular scientific topic. This will foster their ability to provide better and more in-depth coverage of these fields in the future. MIT also organizes boot camps on specific topics like food, medical evidence and neuroscience.

Particularly in developing countries, where scientific discoveries and technological innovations are having more and more impact, training science journalists is key. Think of disease control, agriculture, water management, renewable energy sources, and battling the consequences of a changing climate. The World Federation of Science Journalists, representing 41 associations of science and technology journalists all over the world, recognized the need for journalists in developing countries to cover these topics. They started a mentoring and training program called SjCOOP (Science journalism COOPeration) in 2006 for journalists in African and Arab countries, and the program has been a success. SjCOOP entered its second phase last year for another three-year training program, and is planning an expansion to the Asian and Latin American regions.

Part of SjCOOP was the development of the first online course in science journalism. It’s available in seven languages and open to anyone. The online course covers topics from finding and judging science stories to reporting on scientific controversy and policies to dealing with statistics and social media.

Reporting on science takes skill. The tools to teach these skills are available. We need more universities to offer graduate degrees in science journalism to train the next generation of reporters. We need science to be a regular part of the curriculum in journalism schools. We need editors-in-chief to give their journalists the opportunity to take science journalism workshops.

We need this because the need for science and technology coverage will increase — on the front pages, in the economy and business sections, in the science sections, and in the angry Twitter sphere.

This article was originally published on PBS Mediashift on 29 November 2011.

The investigative journalism skeptic’s manifesto

I’m an “investigative journalism” skeptic. And I’m right until the promoters of investigative journalism prove me wrong.

Let’s start with the latter. Associating “investigative” with “journalism” is almost equivalent to slapping “artistic” on “films.” It’s tautological. Good films are necessarily artistic as much as good journalistic pieces are naturally investigative. Therefore, those who insist on making the distinction have to justify it as we, the skeptics, invest our doubt-infested minds in less “investigative” endeavors.

Because of this (false) implication of distinction, I’m skeptical of so-called investigative journalism. If “investigative journalism” required a distinct set of skills or approaches, one would have an easier time accepting a distinct term for it. But it does not.

An “investigative” piece is a feature story with an asterisk — an asterisk denoting that that “feature story” was different from regular ones in scope but not in kind.

Ask the two journalists who penned what is probably the most important “investigative” series of stories ever written (those that uncovered Watergate and forced a president to resign), and they are unlikely to use the term, or at least to use it comfortably.

In an interview, Carl Bernstein (one of the two Watergate reporters) said he, unlike “a lot of people” was not concerned about the “state of investigative journalism,” noting that newspapers like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post (where he used to work) continue to do excellent reporting and serve public interest.

Then the legendary reporter goes to the heart of the problem with “investigative journalism”:

“What bothers me… [is that] there’s a little too much nostalgia about maybe a golden age of ‘investigative journalism’ that never really existed. You know, The Wall Street Journal still does some terrific things. It’s a question of having resources committed over a long period of time to knock on a lot of doors, to talk to a lot of people, and have a management that is committed to that. And the real question is whether we’re going to have enough such managements on the old platforms and the new so that this form of very important work can flourish.” [Italicization added.]

So there we have it. It’s about more time and more resources to “knock on a lot of doors” and “to talk to a lot of people.” In other words, so-called investigative journalism is what good reporters do anyway but on a larger scale, if provided with time, resources, and backing from management.

Thus understood (as a special breed of regular journalism rather than a different beast), “investigative journalism” used to be called something else that is more accurate: long-form journalism. The latter term highlights what Bernstein talked about — namely, that that type of in-depth and often long features are only about doing more of what feature writers do, not about doing something altogether different.

The problem with the term, however, goes beyond its inaccuracy. It’s a red-herring. It may convey the wrong impression, especially to aspiring reporters who are making their first steps in journalism. I’ve seen this myself in a recent training program for science journalists in Beirut, Lebanon. Because of a single session on “investigative journalism,” at the end of the five-day meeting everyone was determined to do investigative pieces.

No problem with that — except that it may be unrealistic and thus counter-productive. First, how many publications does the world have that (like, for instance, the New Yorker does) lets its reporters go on several-months journalistic treks to come up with in-depth accounts? Not many. Second, public interest is probably as much served by the daily trickle of serious features as by twice- or thrice-a-year pieces of “investigative journalism.”

Finally, investigative journalism (as is often the case with anything we turn into a fetish) is becoming a cottage industry of sorts. As more funding agencies and donors discover “investigative journalism” and start to channel some of their money into training programs and seminars about “investigative journalism,” all of a sudden “investigative journalism” experts are sprouting all over the landscape.

For this cottage industry, it amounts to a blasphemy to say that all so-called investigative pieces are feature stories with more doors knocked and more people talked to. That industry is hurting journalism because it distorts the essence of the craft — as simply based on regular listening to and reporting from all kinds of people (in power or not).

And every now and then, a story will only be complete or an angle fully explored through talking to more people and spending more time on research. So what do we call the result of such endeavors? Good old journalism.

Ira Flatow Makes Science User-Friendly

Through a popular nationally syndicated science talk program, Science Friday, host Ira Flatow spreads science news to a broad audience.  The podcasts of Science Friday have been downloaded more than 1.4 million times making it the third most downloaded show in American public radio.

Flatow was on hand at Duke University on Monday to keynote the Center for Science Education’s Showcase, an event of the North Carolina Science Festival.

His talk, “Science And The Media:  Talking Science In A Science Challenged World,” focused on the challenges of bringing science information to the public.  Despite the challenges, Flatow has an optimistic view that the public is interested in science and will seek out the information.  One challenge mentioned is that the gatekeepers of mainstream media shy away from science coverage.

“Science news works in the middle of all the other news that’s happening and we fight for space,” Flatow said.  “The scene has shifted, there’s so much junk going on.”

Flatow explained that the problem is not just on cable news, but is also a problem with mainstream media.  This is how NBC achor Brian Williams explained the estimate of the U.S. population turning 300 million:
The next night, Williams said, “There is, as expected, news tonight about that American milestone that we were just at the cusp of when last we spoke last night. This morning, at 7:46 a.m., and again don’t ask us how anyone figures this out….
This signals another trend in the media business, Flatow said, that the media is getting rid of science reporters.  He pointed to the CNN and Boston Globe layoffs.

“Science sections are becoming as extinct as dinosaurs,” he said.  “Because the money is not being invested in keeping the sections around.  The first thing a paper kills when it’s going under is usually the science section.”

One of the biggest problems science journalists face, Flatow said, is that the public doesn’t understand basic science concepts.  Science literacy is a much-debated topic.  U.K. researcher and blogger Alice Bell provided an overview of this topic on her blog through the looking glass.

Another challenge Flatow mentioned is that science journalists “face a population that doesn’t want to believe in science.”  The Journal of Risk Research recently released a study that found people chose what science to believe and not believe based on their own value judgments.

Flatow mentioned Barack Obama’s inaugural address where the President states that he’s going to restore science to its rightful place.  Flatow agrees with the President that science is just as important as athletics and should be regarded as such.

Scientists and engineers also need to be a part of the equation.  Flatow believes that there should be a communication requirement for science students.  “I talk to science students all the time and when you ask them what they do they can’t utter a clear phrase to tell us what they’re working on.”

People who are good at communicating science:

The visual elements of science make it cool and Flatow showed a few videos of scientists explaining science.  Many of the videos were taken from his website that is seeking out cool science videos that clearly demonstrate scientific experiments or concepts.

Ending on an optimistic note, Flatow noted that the access of the Internet helps removes the gatekeepers of mainstream media, “science is coming back into the minds of people,” Flatow said.  “We may be entering another golden age of science.”

ScienceOnline 2010

There has been so much written about ScienceOnline 2010 that for me to try to encapsulate in yet another blog post seems pointless. ScienceOnline 2010 was an “unconference” of folks dedicated to communicating science and science issues through the internet.  It was held at Sigma Xi headquarters in the Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

The best way for me to post about this conference is to point you to the vast amount of posts.  Perhaps you will discover a new blog to follow.

ScienceOnline 2010 Blog and Media Coverage:

I’m going to single out A Blog Around the Clock’s post Journalism at ScienceOnline 2010: He offers a fantastic reading list regarding science journalism.

Understanding scientific uncertainty

People expect a lot from scientists. Preferably ready-made, unambiguous answers, valid for eternity. But because of science’s critical character and rigorous reality checks of hypotheses, different scientists can give different answers to the same questions. If these questions concern cutting edge research, this is more the rule than the exception. Only after years or even decades of extensive checks do some scientific hypotheses make it into the handbooks of science, that are hardly doubted anymore. But even some scientific handbook might get overthrown after some time.

Furthermore, even the best scientists at the time can be terribly mistaken. When American physicist Charles Townes in 1951 started to think about microwave amplification by the stimulation emission of radiation – a maser, the microwave equivalent and predecessor of the laser – Nobel prize winner Isidor Isaac Rabi and Polykarp Kusch, who was yet to win the Nobel prize, told Townes that it was impossible and asked him to stop his research. Luckily Townes didn’t stop and developed the first maser only two years later, which won him the 1964 Nobel prize.

The story repeats itself with the development of the laser. Townes’ brother-in-law Arthur Schawlow, who was also to win a Nobel prize, had predicted that it was impossible to build a laser with ruby as a laser medium. The young Theodore Maiman wasn’t convinced and started his intensive research at Hughes Research Laboratories. The Hughes management however, trusting Schawlow’s prediction, discouraged Maiman’s ruby-research. Maiman stubbornly continued, and in 1960, this year exactly fifty years ago, he demonstrated the first laser…with ruby as a laser medium. The great freedom to doubt the thoughts of even the best scientists led Townes to the maser and Maiman to the laser. Uncertainty in science is a strong stimulus for creativity.

By better understanding the role of uncertainty in science we may better understand what science can and cannot offer society. Uncertainty in science has essentially three roots: in measurements, in data analysis and in models (both conceptual, physical and numerical). Scientists try to get rid of uncertainties as much as possible, but cannot get rid of all of them. Therefore, science is first of all a process that separates the evidently untrue from the possibly true. This is very different from the public perception that science is an encyclopedia of absolutely true facts.

Unfortunately, when people hear scientists saying they don’t know everything, they often conclude that they know nothing, or that one opinion is as good as any other, or that evident blunders in the IPCC-report make the whole report worthless. Uncertain science, however, is something different from bad science. There are degrees in uncertainty, varying from extremely uncertain to virtually certain. Hardly anything in science is absolutely certain. Watch below what physicist and Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman had to say on uncertainty: “It’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong…I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things.”



A big scandal is going on in Russia. An inventor with no scientific degree and no serious scientific publications may receive a huge part of taxpayers’ money allocated to the national program called “Clean Water”. The total cost of this program would be 15 trillion rubles (500 billion dollars), and the money can be spent to buy water filters created by the inventor, for them to be placed in Russian kindergartens, schools, polyclinics, and other public places.

The inventor, Victor Petrik, claims that these filters have a capacity to make almost any kind of water drinkable. But many scientists are skeptical about these claims.

In December 2009, members of the Science Journalists Club (an informal association of Russian science writers, of which I am a member) wrote an open letter to the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). They compared Victor Petrik to infamous Trofim Lysenko — unorthodox researcher in the Stalin era whose activities ended up in oppressing genetics in the USSR. In this letter, Petrik is referred to as a would-be scientific wheeler-dealer, and the management of RAS is called on to make a thorough examination of Petrik’s inventions. More than 90 people (including science journalists, scientists and all who care) signed the letter, and the list is still growing.

RAS’s management that at first didn’t seem to be willing to take any part in the scandal, had to react. Yury Osipov, president of RAS, asked the head of the academic Anti-Pseudoscience Committee, Eduard Krugliakov, to sort out the issue.

The issue, though, is not easy to sort out. Inventor Victor Petrik is strongly supported by the speaker of Russian Parliament — Boris Gryzlov. Gryzlov is even indicated as a co-author of one of Petrik’s inventions. The symbol of the Russian ruling party — United Russia — is there in the upper right corner of the official web site of Victor Petrik’s company (

Boris Gryzlov doesn’t only support Petrik in his inventive work, but also defends him towards scientists. The words our speaker said at one of the innovation conferences at the end of last month are probably the brightest political event of the recent weeks. “Unfortunately, many initiatives face obstacles in the form of the Russian Academy of Sciences or bureaucracy, Gryzlov said. I even know there is an Anti-Pseudoscience Committee at RAS. This really makes me wonder: how can they take responsibility and determine what pseudoscience is and what it is not? This is a kind of obscurantism”.

It is worth noting that this “obscurant” Committee was created by the Nobel Prize winner Vitaly Ginzburg to fight numerous fake scientists who appeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its present-day chairman, physicist Eduard Krugliakov, does his best to resist fake science in Russia. The Committee doesn’t have any means to prevent pseudoscientific activities, but it criticizes research and projects they consider pseudoscientific, and produces a regular bulletin “In defense of science”.

“I don’t think we should go back to the Middle Ages and create an inquisition,” Boris Gryzlov also said at the same day. Instead he probably implies it’s better to just try and give taxpayers’ money to Victor Petrik. Who, among other things, claims to have invented eternal batteries that take energy from the environment, ways to create precious stones, has discovered the secret of Stradivary violins, and so on. Another interesting thing is that, according to his official biography, Petrik was charged with fraud, blackmail, attempted robbery, etc. in the year 1984, and stayed in prison until 1989.

When trying to understand why something like this would happen in Russia it’s probably worth to remember Victor Petrik’s words that he said at the XXI International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg in June 2008, referring to his inventions: “Don’t try to understand anything! It’s impossible to understand! As soon as you try to use knowledge, you’ll misfire… you’ll fail!”

When Science Journalism meets Citizen Journalism

This article was written by Chao-Ping Hong (Taiwan), a Master student in the science journalism course at Delft University of Technology. Her assignment was to write an opinion article about the influence of citizen journalism on science journalism. I hope her fresh take will inspire you.

Twitter, hyperlinks, comments. Type, click, and send.  Without doubt, the evolution of technologies has brought us to a new media era, one that says “citizen journalism.”

From climate change to nanotechnology, bio food to energy plants, citizen journalism is shaking and shaping the structure of traditional science journalism. When discussing the risks and opportunities of citizen journalism with regard to science journalism, we, as science journalists, should rethink the nature and objectives of science journalism. “Should we question whether there has been a paradigm shift in the dominant belief system?” asked Denis Ruellan in “To think ‘citizen journalism’”.

The answer would definitely be yes. In fact, there seems to be various critical challenges as well as opportunities when it comes to citizen journalism, where neutrality and objectivity are most often questioned and discussed.

But, as science journalists, we shouldn’t regard citizen journalism as a threat. We should see it rather as a reinforcement which will bring forth opportunities in the re-creation of science journalism.

Engaging Participation
When we look at science journalism from a communication angle, citizen journalism can certainly inspire public participation of science. Take blogging as an example. The gathered force of human powers is creating dynamic agendas to meet the public’s demand to learn, understand and talk about science.

“Blogs offer a diverse range of sources and contributing citizen commentators, which is not possible through modern corporate mainstream outlets”, said Dr. Linda Kenix in “Blogs as Alternative”. Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU, says in his weblog PressThink that blogging provides freedom of the press sphere, creating an “open” system to everyone. With the alliance of citizen journalism, science and technology information would become more closely related to people’s lives, initiating and engaging more participants in discussions of science.

Generating Perspectives
Furthermore, citizen journalism could easily crack down the “hard science” to a wider spectrum of topics. The variety of opinions in citizen journalism could place science in a more ethical, social perspective, whereas traditional coverage of science news is mainly focused on technical views and factual details.

At ethics forums, heated discussions and debates spark over controversial issues such as nanotechnology, life-science, robotics, etc. Also, through comments and real-time feedbacks, readers have equal opportunities to react to technology issues, such as the government’s change of policy in the regulation of CO2 consumption or implementation of nuclear power plants.

Our Roles in the Re-creation of Science Journalism
Citizen journalism is a rapidly growing phenomenon that will inevitable challenge the nature of science journalism. Thus, as science journalists, embracing citizen journalism and its opportunities also means that we have to adapt ourselves to this paradigm shift intelligently.

We will have to learn to encompass and also filter out various sources efficiently in the dynamic information era, be familiarized with different means of media (forums, blogs, etc.), equip ourselves continuously with scientific knowledge, and be fully prepared to meet feedbacks from enthusiastic readers.

Most of all, we should always be thinking and practicing the important elements: objectivity and neutrality, with open perspectives and passions in communicating science to our readers.

When science journalism meets citizen journalism, it’s time for us to seek the potentials and opportunities in the re-creation of science journalism.

Critical and smart 2010

“In this world of ours now, to be an informed participant in the great conversation of mankind is to have an alert awareness and understanding of what’s happening in the world.” In the video below the British philosopher A.C. Grayling reflects on the importance of being literate, and especially scientifically literate, so that people can think critically for themselves.

Science journalists help to empower people to think for themselves by reporting the knowledge and understanding from science about the world we live in, and to be critical of claims that are made in science.

Even though author Malcolm Gladwell seems to be unaware that mostly generalist journalists are surviving at the newspapers that are cutting staff, I hope he will be right when he says that “the role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.”

On behalf of the science journalism blog I wish our profession and all of us contributing to it a critical and smart 2010!

Leap into the Unknown Future

I remember the very first issue of Russian Newsweek back in 2004: it was about the Russian economy being an “oil junky”. For many years, experts have talked about the huge problems that Russia is going to face if it doesn’t build an economy based on something other than these raw materials. But only last year president Dmitry Medvedev started to talk more or less persistently about innovations.

I’ve just returned from Saint Petersburg, where I attended the Second All-Russian Youth Innovation Convention — the annual meeting of young Russian scientists and innovation managers, as well as not-so-young investors and officials who crave an innovation economy to be built in Russia as quickly as possible.

They have a point. The brain drain continues, even though the Russian government is trying to do something about it. Many young scientists still think they have way more opportunities in Western universities with modern equipment and decent salaries than they do here in Russia. To provide a stimulus for young people to stay and work in this country and to contribute into the “innovation leap”, Russian authorities initiated a program called “Zvorykinsky Project” in early 2008.

According to the organizers there are 10,000 people and 3,000 projects participating in this initiative right now. Young people are free to register their projects at the website (unfortunately it is in Russian only), and then they receive scores from other participants and get reviewed by experts. In a series of regional events, regional winners are determined and they take part in the final competition. Then, finalists in three categories are chosen: “The best innovative project of the year”, “The best innovative idea of the year” and “The best innovative product of the year”. Those three finalists are awarded 1 million Rubles (about 23 thousand Euros) at the end of the year, at the Innovation Convention I’ve just returned from.

During this two-day event in Saint Petersburg, there were plenty of lectures and seminars — from a thrilling lecture of the American physicist and futurist Michio Kaku about technical wonders of the future to some more materially-minded discussions touching on career opportunities. Along the way, several different awards have been presented to young researchers: the prize from Mercedes-Benz Rus for ecological innovation in the car industry, a youth prize from the Global Energy Foundation, etc.

The main feature of the event was an exhibition of the projects themselves: young people were positioned in two lobbies with their stands, demonstrating their inventions to the mass media and potential investors. Here you could see a new device for measuring people’s pulse and determining the condition of vessels; concrete that repells water and ice and consequently is never slippery; a fancy spider-robot; a “smart house” system that informs you of any technical trouble happening while you’re away; and many other interesting things. Upon talking to the participants I realized, though, that some of the ideas were not new and some had been developed not by them but by their older colleagues, but the overall impression was mostly positive.

My general feeling about this forum is, however, ambivalent. On the one hand, I’m really glad that it exists, because it helps young people to get funding, it stimulates their activities and gives them hope that they can work in this country and even get rich. 24-year old Yana Sanyagina, who developed the anti-icing concrete, says the governor of the Penza Region in Russia noticed her project and gave money for the first production lot. 25-year old Aleksey Zashikhin engineered a hydraulic particle separator, and thanks to the Zvorykinsky Project he got a big grant from ONEXIM Group — one of Russia’s largest private investment funds owned by tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov. There are a number of such stories, which makes me quite optimistic about the undertaking.

On the other hand, I’m really worried about this event being too political. One of the main creators of the Zvorykinsky Project and the Innovation Convention is Vasily Yakemenko, who is now the head of the Russian Federal Agency for Youth Affairs, but used to be the founder and the head of the infamous youth movement “Nashi”. “Nashi” is known for its clearly anti-western rhetoric and a paranoid suspicion about all liberally-minded people, including some most respected human rights advocates in Russia. (It is really amazing and scary how people aged 20–25, born in the era of Perestroika or even later, can now — again — think in Cold War terms.) So, this style of ridiculously exaggerated patriotism is unfortunately present at the Innovation Convention, too. But if a characteristic piety in front of the ministers had been anticipated, one thing really made it creepy. That was the title of the second day of the forum: “Enforcement” of Innovations. The only thing this phrase associates with in the Russian language is “Enforcement of Georgia to peace” — the official name of the Russian military operation in the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008. I can only guess if this was a deliberate cue or just bad linguistic taste.

“This year’s competition is very humane”, said Vasily Yakemenko at the press conference, meaning that all the winning projects are aimed at individuals’ well-being. The winners of Zvorykinsky Project-2009 are: Liliya Anisimova who developed a method of cleaning the soil from pesticides (“The best innovative project”); Marat Mukhamedyarov who came up with the idea of a drug to treat neurodegenerative diseases (“The best innovative idea”); and Ramil Rakhmatullin who developed a kind of artificial human skin that can be used in transplant surgery (“The best innovative product”). I really hope this competition will always be as humane and will foster peace innovations as opposed to war, be it hot or cold. And I guess if Russia stops being an “oil junky”, it will only help the cause.