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of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 30, No. 6      August/September  2004

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Meeting Review

Science Journalism
by Bob Garber

Bob Garber can be reached by e-mail at rg100@umail.umd.edu.

The Atlantic Monthly magazine hosted a panel discussion on "The Future of Science Journalism" at the National Press Club on March 2, 2004. The panel consisted of John Marburger, a physicist and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for the President; Bernadine Healy, a past director of the National Institutes of Health and now a writer for U.S. News & World Report; Erica Goode, a science writer for the New York Times; and Kyle McSlarrow, the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Energy. James Fallows, the national correspondent of the Atlantic Monthly, moderated the session

Fallows opened the discussion by asking each panelist to talk about how well the public understands science - is there a gap between today's scientific achievements and the public's knowledge and acceptance of these achievements?

Marburger began by saying the public is deficient in knowing what science is and how it works. The public needs to see a larger picture, and journalists should explain the ambiguities and processes of science.

Healy agreed that the public needs to see the ambiguities as the new science challenges the old and see that science is a part of society. She added that the public likes science when they can relate to it. Goode said science informs all topics for journalists and that the Times is understaffed in science writers. She spoke of the collisions between science and politics (and science and religion) throughout history. She said that science makes the world better and more confusing.

McSlarrow picked up on the thoughts about the long history of interaction between science and politics. He then mentioned his displeasure with a recent (February, 2004) public letter written by the Union of Concerned Scientists and signed by many notable scientists. The letter called for regulatory and legislative action to restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking. It was a protest against what they called "the Bush administration's misuse of science." McSlarrow said the UCS did a better job in writing the statement than in doing its research.

After these initial remarks the questions and answers did not proceed in any orderly fashion, and the panelists did not all address any one issue. But the subjects discussed tended to be the relationship between science and public policy, the public's understanding of science in general and of specific events, and the role of journalism in bringing science to the public.

Panelists made the following comments:

  • McSlarrow - The issue with worst coverage is climate change. The Bush administration is doing a good job in doing research and engaging in joint efforts. The facts have not gotten out yet.
  • Marburger - Science is never final. It's always an ongoing process. The Internet has been used to good effect in getting science to the public.
  • Goode - Journalists often fail to integrate all facets of an issue when telling a story. She noted that throughout history whenever the creators of public policy tell scientists where they should not tread, scientists always do. And that nowadays, when she talks to scientists, few of them talk about their research; they talk about how they present their work.
  • Healy - People like to follow science matters. They can't get enough health information. To her the subject that needs far more coverage is reproductive issues. She gave an example of journalism changing the way science presents itself. A decade ago the NIH was asked to produce guidelines for "embryo" research. When written they were never accepted because many people were against the idea of using embryos in research. When the same guidelines were later used for "stem cell" research they were readily accepted.

At the end Fallows asked the audience whether they were optimistic or pessimistic. Will the public be able to comprehend and accept future scientific events? Or can we expect villagers with torches and pitchforks moving towards Frankenstein's castle? The vote ended up fifty-fifty.

Bob Garber
Email: rg100@umail.umd.edu


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