Friday, December 14, 2007

Notes on the 1st European Forum on Science Journalism

So, the time has come for me to tell you about the highlights of the 1st European Forum on Science Journalism that took place in Barcelona last week… There were about 250 people from all countries in Europe and so much going on, I don’t know where to start!

Perhaps I will start by the very beginning; the opening ceremony on Sunday December 2, at the CosmoCaixa Science Museum. I had not been there for years, since long before it was renewed in 2004 – it is really amazing, a very nice museum both inside and outside. Definitely worth visiting if you’ve never been there – and revisiting if you already have!

The forum itself started the next day, with the introduction of Quentin Cooper, from BBC Radio4, who fantastically livened up the two days of conferences. An important basic realisation of the forum was that “To be is to be perceived” – and pretty much all we perceive nowadays, we do through the media. So, it follows the importance of our* field. For example, Hans Peter Peters, a researcher and communicator from J├╝lich Research Centre, showed a few examples of occasions in which the media had made people familiarise themselves with science concepts – such as cloning during the Dolly years, or plaque tectonics during the ’95 Japan earthquake. But the media has not only a role in ‘educating’ the general public in science, but also in guiding policy makers.

Steve Miller, professor in science communication at UCL, was in charge of presenting the results of the Special Eurobarometer on Scientific Research in the Media. (He appeared a second time during the meeting, graphically explaining to the audience his last Nature publication about giant extrasolar planets, without a powerpoint presentation and using a balloon and an orange instead!). The results of the Eurobarometer were quite encouraging: most people do trust the media coverage of science and are mildly interested in it. BUT most people (and this was the journalists’ main problem, too) found science difficult to understand. So this is one of the bottlenecks, and as Steve mentioned more ‘News and views’ pieces in the specialised journals would be very useful to give journalists a better idea about the article they were reporting on. Other useful initiatives would be more educational science programs in TV; programs for journalists to spend time (e.g. 1 month) with scientists, in their labs; and media training for scientists, who mostly complained of a lack of support. In essence, trying to ‘bridge the gap’ and bring both communities closer together.

But according to Tim Radford, writer at The Guardian, there isn’t such a great difference between science and journalism. They both require the same process: your boss asks you to do something (or you have an idea), you research into it, you write it up, and you try to publish it!  (having been a scientists before a would-be-journalist, I can agree with that!)

We heard talks about science communication at very different levels. More than 1 billion people have access to internet nowadays, and there was a whole section dedicated to science in the internet, in which Sabine Cretella, from Wikimedia, called for all experts (scientists) to add or edit information about their subjects in wikipedia, which is, she said, “as good as its editors are”. We saw how to deal with science and children from Marc Goodchild, from the children’s BBC programs, who knows children learn through doing and who is betting for teaching science through consoles and other media the children like and trust. We also had the opportunity to see different ways to deal with the hot issue of climate change from TV stations from Sweden, Australia and the UK, where they took advantage of social networking and the knowledge that people generally only change their habits when their mates do. One website and one sentence I really liked from this session: and “We are the people we have been waiting for”!

Alan Leshner, the CEO from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), summarised what we learned at the forum by saying that “understanding the nature of science is more important than knowing the details”. People must understand what is scientific and what is not, what does it mean to do research, the scientific process, etc. These are the important concepts, and not the molecular details.

Finally, we heard some ’success stories from EU research’. Moderated by Patrick Vittet-Philippe, from the EC, we heard EU-funded researchers talking about their investigations into intelligent sensors integrated into textiles, smart safety technologies for safer road transport, the Noah’s ark project to save Europe’s cultural heritage from climate change, the Earth observation system CarboAfrica, and the TARA environmental observatory adventure through the Arctic drift.

This exciting forum was organised by the EC. And what are they doing for science communication? Well, first of all, any scientists getting EC grants for research must commit to communicate to the public and the media their results. And there’s soon to be a call for proposals for precisely the things that the forum showed are most needed: training the journalists in science and training the scientists in communication.

(… I might need both types of training ….! :)

*(allow me to include myself in this community I am just joining!)

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