Science and the Media: Background paper

IAP Programmes

Science and the Media: Background paper

Science has been and continues to be at the very core of progress and development. However, in recent times, there has been growing concern about whether the resulting technology is beneficial or detrimental to human progress. The development of genetic tests and therapies is a case in point.
A great deal of misunderstanding emanates from the fact that scientists have few constructive dialogues with the public. For the dialogue between scientists and society to be meaningful, we first and foremost must ensure that we have an informed public. Second, we must ensure that the scientific community improves its understanding of the public and its institutions, governmental and nongovernmental. Here the media have a crucial role to play and, in fact, can serve as a link, fostering better communication in both directions.
This is even more critical in developing countries where the role of the news media as a means of conveying objective scientific information to an adult population is not well established, and where it does exist, the roots of such communication efforts are shallow and fragile. Here, pressing social and economic problems, political instabilities, limited educational opportunities, minuscule public sector budgets confound the situation. Also limited training and even limited employment opportunities for journalists often mean that science and technology issues receive short shrift in the small number of independent outlets that do exist. The result is a population that remains largely unaware of the world of science and technology except for the "schooled" information that they receive during the course of their formal education.

If the news media in both the South and the North are to play this crucial role, it is important for the scientific community and the media to understand and respect each other's profession and responsibilities. It is imperative that the two groups learn to work together in a world that is becoming increasingly shaped by science and technology, with the common objective of creating an informed public capable of decision making on the basis of an understanding of scientific processes and knowledge rather than ignorance or superstition.
The Workshop that we propose will explore the potential for both scientists and journalists to enhance their communication skills so that they will be better equipped to play the important role in ensuring an informed and empowered public that can, interalia, challenge the way decisions are made about the development and application of science.

The InterAcademy Panel (IAP), a worldwide network of 76 scientific academies headquartered in Trieste, Italy, is seeking to improve interaction between the scientific community and the media through a two-step strategy designed to enhance the capacity for information exchange among member academies and to raise public awareness of the academies as sources of expert advice on matters of science and technology in their home countries.
To advance these goals, the IAP membership has agreed to organize a Workshop on Science and the Media whose major objective will be to give IAP members an opportunity to develop their media-relations capacities. Specifically, the Workshop will bring together journalists and scientists to examine ways in which improved relationships could help to:
(1) Increase dissemination of accurate and timely scientific information to the public.
(2) Raise public recognition of the role of science and technology in everyday life.
(3) Enhance the degree to which scientists make themselves and their scientific assessments accessible to the news media and public. This step includes improving scientists' understanding of the public's concerns, interests and both governmental and nongovernmental mechanisms.
(4) Improve understanding among journalists of the scientific process (for instance, by examining what distinguishes real science from pseudo-science) and how scientific discovery is based on verifiable evidence rather than authority.
(5) Exchange points of view between journalists and scientists on the best practice to follow when controversial inquires are conducted by the press.

The first and major stage of this project will be a Workshop scheduled to take place in Tobago from February 26-28, 2002. The members of the organizing committee are: 1) Paul Caro (French Academy of Sciences) 2) David Dickson (Nature) 3) Susanna Elliot (ICSU) 4) Brian Heap (Royal Society) 5) V. Krishnan (Indian National Science Academy) 6) Howard Moore (UNESCO) 7) Erling Norrby (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) 8) Harold Ramkissoon (Caribbean Academy of Sciences)-Chair 9) Boyce Rensberger (Director, MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellowships) 10) Daniel Schaffer (Third World Academy of Sciences) 11) Susan Turner-Lowe (U.S. National Academy of Sciences) 12) Morris Ward (U.S. National Safety Council).

The three-day Workshop will be designed as a training session for IAP members to enhance their skills in interacting with the media and disseminating scientific information to the public. Other related areas will also be covered. For example, to appreciate the challenges that each group faces, scientists and journalists must first understand each other's world, their diverse work environments and career expectations, pressures and goals. Therefore, the Workshop will include the following:
a) Plenary Lectures, including lectures by prominent scientists who have made concerted efforts to engage in public discussions of science and well-known science journalists who depend on scientists as primary sources of information for the articles that they write. Individuals from both the developed and developing world will be asked to speak.
b) Parallel Workshops focusing on such topics as (1) the experience of IAP academies with press bureaus and the experience of press bureaus with IAP academies; (2) the handling of breaking news stories and crises that have a scientific component (drawing on the recent controversy over mad cow disease in Europe and the AIDS emergency in Africa). Emphasis will be placed on the role that science and scientific viewpoints play in such fast-paced news stories; (3) whether science news writing is different from other news writing. Scientists often claim that their work presents different, more complex, challenges for journalists than for journalists assigned to political or economic news beats. Is that perception true? If so, in what ways? And what can be done to narrow the perception (or reality) gap between scientists and journalists? (4) issues of particular concern to scientists and journalists in the developing world, and (5) the role of Public Information/Relations Officers within Academies.

Phase II of the project calls for the creation of an e-mail list serve with a daily digest with the following objectives:
(i) to promote the ongoing dialogue amongst IAP Members and other Workshop participants.
(ii) to discuss hard-hitting issues of the day
(iii) to facilitate the exchange of experience and ideas.
(iv) to provide sources to journalists.

Each IAP member will be invited to nominate two persons, a scientist with an interest in public understanding of science and a science journalist to participate in the workshop. A mechanism will be established to ensure that qualified, independent journalists are selected for this opportunity with no suggestion of their being compromised by their selection by the member academy. The conference organizing committee will then select 50 participants based in part on regional considerations. Suitable participants will be:
a) Scientists who have some experience in writing articles for the media or serving as sources for science journalists.
b) Journalists and other persons associated with the media who are either full-time or part-time science writers.
c) Public Information/Relations Officers.
The 50 participants will comprise these three groups in approximately equal numbers.

The proposed methodology would focus on the selection of 50 suitable candidates (journalists, scientists and information officers), with at least 25 coming from developing countries. This group will be trained in the techniques appropriate to their role-dissemination of scientific information in the case of scientists and information officers and, in the case of journalists, independent coverage of science and technology that is fair and accurate. Following the workshop, its impact and progress will be monitored through e-mail questionnaires developed with the assistance of experienced scientists, science journalists and public information officers in both developed and developing countries. These questionnaires will be designed to determine if there has been any noticeable increase in meaningful interaction between the scientific community and the media that can be attributed to the increased knowledge and skills that participants gained in the Workshop.

Anticipated results are:
(a) Training of 50 participants.
(b) Creation of a Science Journalism Network, linked by e-mail.
(c) Development of a cadre of trained trainees who will then serve as trainers for subsequent regional workshops that we anticipate organizing based on what is learned at this Workshop.

(a) InterAcademy Panel
(c) Third World Academy of Sciences
(d) Nature magazine
(e) COSTED (Committee on Science and Technology in Developing Countries)
(f) ICSU (International Council for Science)

Date: February 26-28, 2002
Venue: Tobago

A committee will be established to monitor the progress and plan the organization of subsequent regional workshops. Participants in the first workshop are expected to play a lead role in the regional workshops.

While we realize that none of these measures would radically transform the relationship between science and the media, we believe that together they can mark a modest but important first step in helping to develop a meaningful dialogue between the two professions. The effort, moreover, would focus on building the capacity of IAP members in dealing with the media and would seek to extend the discussions to issues that are particularly significant to the developing world.