Building sustainable partnerships with the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ)

Lessons learned from the 10th World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ2017) in San Francisco.

Organizing the biennial World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) is always a hectic undertaking for both the host organizers and the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ). Two crucial questions are inevitably raised: where to find the funding and what will be its environmental and social impact? Therefore, it should be within the WFSJ’s mandate to set high professional standards, not only for the science journalism profession but also for the events we organize.

Clear and Transparent Partnerships

Organizing an international event with partner organizations, whether they are corporations, not-for-profit organizations or governments, is essential to its success. Without them, organizing our World Conference would just not be possible.

For WCSJ2017 in San Francisco, corporate funding was generous and unrestricted. However, at the same time, strict funding conditions needed to be in place to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. Therefore, host organizers developed very useful “sponsorship” guidelines.

Building partnerships is always a balancing act. And as a non-governmental organization focusing on science journalism, the WFSJ needs to manage sponsorships transparently to avoid any potential conflict of interest. Even if we do it right, there still might be an “appearance” of conflict of interest. And that is why our partnership rules need to be crystal clear and transparent.

“The challenges of sponsorship are not limited to conferences. Sponsored content and advertorials are omnipresent online. The funding reality threatens the independence of journalism,” said Rosalind Reid, executive director of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and co-organizer of WCSJ2017.

Today, most science journalists are freelancers working for multiple outlets. However, many simply do not have the financial means to participate in international conferences. This is contradictory because if freelancers want to keep up with the latest professional developments and gain new skill sets, they simply need to network and participate in events such as the World Conference. And networking and skill development are notably an integral part of the WCSJ programming.

“Faced with this situation, the organizers of WCSJ2017 decided to seek multiple funding sources to keep the registration fee low, provide travel grants for overseas journalists, and provide independence to the Program Committee as it developed the program,” said Ms. Reid. Those funds included private industry funds. In working with industry, she said, WCSJ2017 organizers adopted a policy of being clear and transparent on rules of engagement and making sure that those rules were respected.

Environmental and Social Practices

The biggest environmental impact of any conference is surely air travel, but also food waste and meat consumption. The main venue for WCSJ2017, the Marriott Marquis in San Francisco, has one of the highest waste recovery rates for hotels in the USA. The California Academy of Sciences, where the WCSJ2017 welcome reception was held, also followed eco-friendly guidelines. Of course, we must continue this excellent work through reducing printed handouts and individual local transportation, by favoring local suppliers, choosing venues with waste-reduction practices, avoiding high carbon footprint menus, etc.

But with the undisputable scientific evidence on climate change, science advocates for even much stronger carbon reduction policies and individual carbon footprint reduction. Most of us are traveling for our professions, and WFSJ carries out its mission through events that have an impact on the planet. Therefore, as individuals and as a community we are all challenged to be responsible citizens.

To lower the effects of our travels on the climate, the WFSJ is ready to discuss with funders to support carbon offsetting through earmarking funds in our project budgets. Consequently, for the upcoming World Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, the WFSJ is fully committed to working with the WCSJ2019 team to developing a sustainable plan to encourage attendees to reduce their carbon footprint. This item will be on the agenda of our next Board meeting as well as during WCSJ2019 committee meetings.

It might take several conferences to change our societal practices, but we are proud of what we have already accomplished. As climate change science believers, the WFSJ is taking a clear stance on positive action supported by science.

Another issue that we need to be aware of is to make sure that staff and employees working at our conferences receive fair wages, and the best possible benefits and working conditions in the host country. To make this possible, our current corporate social responsibility policy should be a more powerful tool that includes a component with precise social guidelines.

Developing Sustainable Conference Guidelines

Organizing a World Conference requires the support of valuable partnerships that ideally always result in a Win-Win situation for both the partner and the conference host, and consequently for the science journalism community. Through such engaging partnerships, all stakeholders will be reinforcing their missions. And when the WFSJ’s mission is reinforced, the entire science journalist community benefits.

But we can always do better. The lessons learned from the WCSJ in San Francisco will be helpful in shaping clear and transparent guidelines on partnerships, as well as the environmental and social issues we face when organizing events, such as the World Conference. Therefore, the WFSJ and the WCSJ2019 host organizers are fully committed to setting limits on direct partnerships of program sessions and thus avoid any influence on the programming.

The new guidelines will eventually also serve our 57 Member Associations in helping them to create Win-Win agreements with their own partners when organizing a local, regional or national event.

Article by Anne-Marie Legault
WFSJ Interim Executive Director