The importance of good science journalism

The Square Kilometer Array, subject of last year’s Physics Journalism Prize winning article. Credit: SKA Organisation.

Is science journalism a dying trade? I know the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh fears this is so – he told me so when I met him at the Science Museum Dinner last year – because it doesn’t bring in the paying (or viewing) customers in the numbers the media needs to make it pay. Hence we see Newsnight, for instance, recently making its science editor Susan Watts redundant. Science loses out to more ‘populist’ strands.

However, not everyone wants to see science journalism wither on the vine. Last year the IOP and STFC jointly inaugurated their Physics Journalism Prize – explicitly designed to inspire the next generation of physicists by encouraging journalists to grapple with often complex topics and help spread excitement about the subject. This is not about newspapers (or broadcast media) hyping up stories of new cures for cancer or, closer to the heart of physics, headlines screaming about how the ‘God particle’ will change everything and solve the ills of mankind. This prize is about detailed, sober and accurate reporting of genuine developments in our field, yet explained in a way that is accessible to the non-specialist. It is a challenge, but one to which it would be good to see more people attempt to rise.

Last year’s winning entry by Anil Ananthaswamy, was originally published in New Scientist and described the plans for the Square Kilometer Array and why it will prove such a powerful radio telescope when it is built in the outback of Australia (with companion antennae in South Africa). This prize is not aimed at the up and coming or enthusiastic blogger, but is deliberately targeted at the professional writer. Someone, indeed, such as Ananthaswamy, who is not only a consultant at New Scientist and writes for National Geographic, but is also the author of the book The Edge of Physics, whose blurb describes it as “the story of our quest to understand the universe, as seen through the eyes of a traveller”.

This week the winner of this year’s prize was announced: the US-based Cynthia Graber, for her essay on the possibility that electricity has a key role to play in regenerative medicine, and specifically the regrowth of limbs. Her piece, which appeared in the online journal Matter, is based on the work of Tuft’s professor Michael Levin, a rather maverick scientist who holds a joint computer science and biology degree, but who nevertheless appears to be making startling progress in his work on the tadpoles of Xenopus laevis. (This frog is the vertebrate equivalent of the fruit fly Drosophila in the insect world, or Aridopsis thalaniafor plants, not least because of its close evolutionary relationship with humans.) The article had a nice mix of history, science, applications and the personal life story of Levin. For me, as one of the judges of this year’s competition, it stood out for its interesting blend of hard fact and connecting narrative, with the science all explained in an easily accessible style.

This was my first foray into judging writing at this level, and I had been asked to join the jury as the IOP’s representative (and as someone who also was presumably considered reasonably literate through my own blogpost-writing). I joined last year’s judges of Terry O’Connor (representing STFC, and the panel chair) and Martin Ince (Chairman of the Association of British Science Writers), along with newcomers – like myself – Imran Khan (from the British Science Association) and Alison Goddard (editor of HEmagazine and former journalist at the Economist). So what did I think about the process?

Well, firstly, there were only around 20 entries. Is that all the publications in physics that their authors felt were worthy of consideration? A slightly disappointing number, we felt. Only one of these was not in print medium but a TV broadcast of some 25 minutes duration. I actually found it hard to judge how such an entry, which by its nature must have involved a significant team to produce, could be compared with print entries, but I was assured that the script and angle would have been determined by the journalist in point. Secondly, there was no doubt that the Higgs boson was the news story of the year. Fair enough, I’m not going to dispute this, but it was disappointing to see such a narrow range of topics being discussed in the entries we read. I almost wondered if the fact that STFC was a co-sponsor of the prize meant that the journalists felt their contribution had to be related to STFC-funded science, so heavy was the preponderance of essays on dark matter and particle physics.

Maybe that was one reason why unanimously we voted for the refreshingly different topic in the article by Cynthia Graber as our number-one read. Given my own background in biological physics it was particularly pleasing for me to see such interdisciplinary science, physics and biology coming together, written up in such an enticing manner. Let no one doubt that the role of physics in many of these complex biological problems is important and may not infrequently be crucial. The 2005 EPSRC International Review of Physics remarked ‘the Panel expresses concern that that this drain of physicists active in biophysical research out of physics departments, will limit the exposure of UK physics student to one of the fastest growing cross-disciplinary developments in modern physics’.

The 2008 RCUK Wakeham Review of Physics likewise commented on the weakness of biological physics in the UK’s Physics departments, noting:

– concern remains as to the health of physics departments in terms of the selectivity that all but the largest have exercised with respect to their research portfolio…

– it is essential that students continue to be exposed to areas iof the subject which are particularly applicable in the 21st century such as biophysics/medicine….

– physics students in many departments get regrettably little exposure,if any, to modern soft matter physics and biophysics.

These problems about our departments are of course for practicing physicists, especially those who head up curriculum review teams, rather than for the general public for whom Graber was writing. Nevertheless, the two are not unconnected. Physics at the interface with biology should not be seen as maverick, or biology as ‘not something physicists should explore’, as I myself have in essence been told not infrequently in the past.

However, even more than looking at the specifics of this winning piece, we should all be aware of the importance of science journalism for taking the subject we love out to the general public and to putting difficult concepts into words and imagery that can be accessible to anyone interested. We need to celebrate, not only the clever ideas themselves but that there are those out there able to convey the love of physics to those who never felt that love when exposed to the subject at school. I hope next year we will see a larger number of entries covering a wider spectrum of physics problems (and solutions) as testament to the fact that physics journalism is alive and well.

 

Athene Donald

Athene Donald

Professor Dame Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College. Her research is in the general field of soft matter and physics at the interface of biology; she has published over 250 papers in these fields. In recent years she has become heavily involved with policy issues, ranging from chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee to chairing the Scientific Advisory Council of DCMS.She served on University Council (2009-14) and was the University’s Gender Equality Champion (2010-14). She is currently a member of the Scientific Council of the ERC and a former Trustee of the Science Museum. As well as various prizes from the IOP and Royal Society, she won the 2009 L'Oreal/Unesco Laureate for Europe award.
Athene Donald
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