“I would love to go to jail for science journalism!” A report from ESOF2018

ESOF2018 in scorching hot Toulouse revealed disparities. While science journalists almost burned from critical engagement, scientists stayed rather cool about their jobs and societal concerns. WFSJ Board Member, Wolfgang Goede, reports on the first three days of the largest science conference in Europe.


The journalistic pre-conference, organized by the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations (EUSJA) and the French Association of Science Journalists (AJSPI) along with the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), was fully dedicated to critical reflection, reporting and sharpening of journalistic tools, underpinned by the free conference newspaper with the headline “Critical thinking on top of the Alps”, which referred to the 11th World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ2019) in Lausanne, Switzerland (1-5 July 2019).

DYING INSECTS – “MORE PROOF NEEDED?”

The opening session of the 5th European Conference for Science Journalists (ECSJ2018) in the vast plenary hall of the County Government filled with some 250 participants addressed the dependence of European regulatory agencies in the light of the glyphosate controversy and intense lobbying pressure. Bernhard Url, director of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), was in defence for being too lenient with the industry, not transparent enough, what he rebutted with severe underfunding of the EFSA.

Stéphane Foucart, a science journalist with Le Monde, referred to the catastrophic death of insects and bees, which according to his investigations is due to chemical compounds which never should have entered. It’s a disaster, Foucart said and asked: “Do we need more proof?”

CENSORSHIP AND CORRUPTION

In another session, the president of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), Mico Tatalovic, raised the question of science journalism in increasingly authoritarian contexts. Outstanding on this panel, for their courage and articulateness were two women, Olga Dobrovidova from the Russian Science Communicators Association and Evin Baris Altintas, Turkey’s Platform for Independent Journalism. Both countries are increasingly anti-science, deny climate change. Censorship in Russia works with intimidation and government suggestions to journalists which people they should talk to. Negative aspects are not welcome.

In Turkey, evolution was excluded from school, and when asked how far she can go Altintas responded: “You’re always at a risk, don’t try to think about it.” Leave or stay is a paramount question, but having to decide “I’d love to go to jail for science journalism”, she said. However, some parts of Europe are not much better off, as panellists from Croatia and Bosnia reported. Corruption is a factor in public life as well as in science.

HOT OPENING CEREMONY

In contrast to this transparency, which revealed sizeable conflicts between science journalism and governments and their institutions, the ESOF conference tried to be much more diplomatic about these issues. The opening ceremony in Toulouse’s Congress Center Sports Palace was a well-orchestrated show with beautiful artistic elements. In between, it featured some 20 speakers who addressed and discussed new horizons in key topics of ESOF2018: climate, ageing & health, future of work, artificial intelligence AI.

“Climate change is here”, was not only expressed by speakers but was also felt in the sweltering heat inside the palace with many guests using the printed materials as a fan. The moderator led elegantly through the three-hour program, obviously also suffering from 30+ degrees Celsius temperature: The back of her blouse was open and only later on buttoned.

WHICH NEW HORIZONS?

As to new horizons: When Airbus industry managers celebrate reduced airplane emissions, the city’s mayor praises the new metro as a deterrent to using private cars, these measures are neither new nor cutting-edge and should have been challenged. The same when Seema Kumar, Vice President of Johnson & Johnson and a large financial contributor to ESOF and other conferences, points out that since the 1900’s our life expectancy has risen by 50 percent.

What about mental health and the fact that 15 percent of the population suffers from mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, burnout? And will the robot behind the pharma executive soon take care of the sharply increasing number of needy elderly folks? All these topics are highly controversial and need to be debated.

“EUROPE IS NOT THE CENTRE ANY MORE”

Critical questioning could have added more pixels to the picture – and not let Christiane Woopen, chair of the European Group on Ethics, get away with the statement that her studies into the field of future work are not finished yet, which led her to talk about commonalities. Last but not least, that France’s famous mathematician, Cédric Villani, did not contribute anything really new and interesting on AI could have been checked and corrected before he got on stage.

Honour who honours deserves: Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation scored with his narrative how centuries ago poor Europe with openness and curiosity became a major player in the world. “Prosperity and democracy depend on science,” he said, but “we are not the centre anymore”. Do we “want a place at the table?”

INVOLVE THE PUBLIC!

Europe’s struggle with its future was addressed the next day at the fishbowl discussion. “Bridging the gap between experts and the people” was going to look into new ways of science communication. However, some scientists flatly said they do not want to communicate with the public.

The most prominent participant was Venkatraman Ramakrishnan alias “Venki”, biologist and Nobel prize laureate, president of the British Royal Society. He advocated the “early involvement of the public in future technologies”. But could not exactly say which measures this will take. Again, science journalism could help to define them and bridge the gap with the mutual goal to strengthen science.


Article by Wolfgang Chr. Goede, Member of the WFSJ Board of Directors. He attended ESOF 2018 on a Nature grant.
Munich – 12 July 2018