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CommForge2 is the course website for LAIS423/523, Advanced Science Communication, at the Colorado School of Mines. From here, you can link to student sci-tech blogs, read about the course, and comment on current events and stories. Welcome!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Real Climate on Science Journalism

As you're no doubt beginning to see "Science Communication" can mean many different things to different people.  It can mean

  • The practice of scientists/technologists communicating with other scientists/technologists;
  • The practice of communicating science/technology to the public, or to certain segments of the public;
  • The study of how science/technology are communicated, or the practice of how they should be communicated;
  • An analysis of public understandings (or misunderstandings) of science and technology;
  • The study of controversial cases of science and technology communication or miscommunication;
  • The desire on the part of experts, organizations, or corporations to convince people to buy their products, or accept their studies, or give them "social license" to operate;
  • And probably some more that I'm not thinking of (email me if you see others, and I'll add them).
Another sub-area of science communication practice and study is science journalism, which is what today's post is about.

A few days ago, Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist who writes for the climate blog Real Climate, published an interesting post about science journalism.  The post details how scientists or research groups will frequently release a version of a scientific paper to journalists a few days before the paper is published in an academic journal, on the understanding that the paper won't be publicly shared.  This makes the paper "embargoed," and essentially it allows science journalists time to figure out how to report on the story.  From Schmidt's point of view, embargoed early release is a win-win for both the scientists and journalists.

But now, it appears, some journalists are being required to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which means they can't show the embargoed article to other scientists for feedback or verification.  Schmidt sees this as bad:  it limits journalists' freedom to fully understand a story, for one thing, and it also increases the likelihood that scientists' work will be seen as resisting an "open and self-critical process of inquiry."

A couple of thoughts:  this idea of the NDA for embargoed articles seems to me to be part of the increasing corporatization of academic science:  the fierce competition between research groups for funding and attention, for example, foments this sort of treatment of intellectual property.  It also can, in cases of controversial science and technology, increase the public perception that scientists are just greedy businessmen, only interested in research for the sake of self-promotion and funding, an attack that climate scientists like Schmidt are no doubt all too aware of.

At the very worst, it could amplify the kinds of "bad science" we saw in the Pons and Fleischman Cold Fusion case, which we'll discuss more later in the semester.

It also makes the work of the busy science journalist that much harder, and let's face it, with today's round-the-clock deadlines, shrinking newsrooms, and shrinking science "newsholes" (the space for science stories among all the other stories), they have it hard enough.

It could also be that this is another problematic outcome of the split some people would like to see between PR and scientists, which we discussed last week in class.  Having scientists or engineers communicate with the public or media can be so messy, difficult, or potentially litigious, some argue, that it is better to let professional communicators (i.e., public relations professionals) do the work.  But it seems to me that when scientists leave communication efforts to PR professionals, however well-intentioned they may be, you're going to end up with communication that looks more like a business and less like Schmidt's "open and self-critical process of inquiry."

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