Research and Media Network

Bringing people together to improve communication of research findings

In our earlier discussion, members of the network have identified the following significant obstacles to effective knowledge sharing and science communication:
1. Low priority/low interest in science by media
2. Low focus by government on science & its communication
3. Need for better training of science communicators
4. Gap between scientists and journalists
5. Lack of planning for science communication
6. Low scientific knowledge among journalists
7. Poor communication by science community
8. Cultural and political opposition to science
9. Lack of political will to support science communication
10. Language barriers, especially English being dominant
11. Lack of scientific literacy among the public & policymakers
12. Poor framing of science stories – lack of relevance to audience
13. Use of complex language
14. Poor writing/communication skills among scientists
15. Scientists fear of media distortion
16. Bureaucratic and legal obstacles to communicating science
17. Scientists discouraged from communicating by their managers
18. Science communication seen as a ‘waste of resources’
19. Scientists wanting to keep knowledge to themselves
20. Difficulty in translating science into local languages.

What are we going to do about them, colleagues? Let us have your suggestions.

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It is great of you to start this discussion my friend. I think by brainstorming these issues we will all be able to improve our work considerably.

Going through the points I realized that one thing that would help with many problems is getting scientists and science journalists together. I think locally, there should be events to bring them together so they can both better understand each other. This way scientists, by learning more about the science journalists' work, will be more appreciative and more open when they are asked for support. It will melt this "distrust" they have towards the journalists.

It will also build up trust and respect between both parties. It will bring an understanding that they are both on the same side rather than opposing sides. If scientists understand that the journalists are the most effective way of making their work known, they would appreciate them and work with them.

This will also give the journalists a general idea of how to approach and talk to the scientists in ways to get them to ease their defenses rather than building up more.
You are doing things in a scientific manner and its really great Julian!!All kudos!
I am cocentrating on each and every points/obstacles and shall come one by one on each.
MEANWHILE lets hear other friends what they say!!!
Dialogue is key. After giving a talk as part of a panel on science communication at the Society of Conservation Biology conference last year many scientists commented that they had not understood the pressures and restraints that science writers are often under... ie we don't write those dumb headlines.

On the other hand, too often we journalists only talk to scientists when we are on the hunt for a story or a quote. Informal off-the-record chats can go a long way to building a relationships and understanding.

As for the mainstream media's myopic focus on conflicts, sports, politics, and celebrities --- well that's a much tougher problem to come to grips with
Very nice topic, Mr. Juliac C.
From myself I would like to add some words on this issue. It is concerning point 6 Low scientific knowledge among journalists
I don't have so much information about Europe and USA and talking only about countries of the former USSR, and some Eastern Europe countries. Of course there is a bit of low scientific knowledge among journalists. But one of the important problems that brings much troubles with it is a problem of narrow specialism. Many journalists specialize only in one field of a subject. Some call themselves "environmental journalists" but they're engaged in research directly for ex. water problems or agricultural problems. Of course they are very competent in this field. But at the same time they absolutely forget about for ex. energetics and climate. And not well informed about that. But we see that water problems are closely connected to power energetics which connected to agriculture and many others. Everything is connected to each other. And good journalist must have idea about everything connected to environment if he calls himself "environmental journalist".
And scientists in their turn have idea about their subject. I mean when you see a physicist, even if he's a nuclear physicist he is well-informed about quantum mechanics and dynamics.
That's my opinion based on my own experience.
It is a very thoughtful and importance contribution, Natalie. Scientists are, of necessity, specialised and usually highly focussed on a very particular question or field. Journalists, on the other hand, serve many audiences including the largest of all, the general public. As a journalist I have often regarded myself as holding many pieces of the jigsaw - but it is the scientists who make the pieces, not I. My role is to assemble them into a larger picture, for both the public and for scientists. Hence, I believe the two professions are in fact highly compatible, although they tend to have little to do with one another and both hold aklarming stereotypes about the other which cloud their relationship. But to solve big problems we need both the big society-wide picture that journalism affords and the exceptional focus on detail of science, do we not?
In Indian context I found relevant these three points:
3. Need for better training of science communicators
4. Gap between scientists and journalists
12. Poor framing of science stories – lack of relevance to audience.

In addition, I would like to add, on the contrary while there is little science coverage by the media, you would found full pager stories on tech industry. There are dedicated technology news portals and publishing houses, where as science is limited to government sponsorship. This scenario is driven by business. With companies like Texas Instrument and ST Micro having strong presence in India, media provides ample coverage. I am a technology journalist, I get at least 5 press invites every day from the tech industry, but got only one from ISRO in ages. So, business is driving much and then there are not much invention/innovation taking place in India thus no science coverage.
I've found this thread very interesting. Although I am not a journalist -- I'm a political scientist with an interest in science and science policy -- the comments made above certainly speak to my experience as a consumer of science and science writing -- and as the son of a research scientist (my dad works on DNA structure).

So here are some thoughts: concerning Mohammed's point, yes, I think there is a serious problem of trust at times. Especially when the science is new and not very "user-friendly", scientists are often afraid that journalists will distort their findings (and especially possible implications of those findings) for the sake of a good story. For example, when scientists started doing research on recombinant DNA, some journalists described that research as possibly dangerous and questionably moral -- with the result that many scientists didn't want to tell their stories.

As to Natalie's point about journalist overspecialization and scientists' general knowledge of their field, in my experience, it's actually often the reverse -- that scientists know just one very specific thing -- or at least SAY they do -- and are hesitant to speak about areas outside their area of expertise. And the same thing is often true when talking about social, political, and ethical implications of scientific discoveries -- they don't want to go there, either because they don't feel competent to discuss the issue or for fear of being misunderstood by "uninformed" journalists and other generalists. No wonder that many scientists conclude that talking to the press is a "waste of resources" (no 18), esp. as such discussions will not get them tenure, promotions, etc., and may just get them in trouble with their bosses, departments, and peers.

As to Swapnil's comment about the dominance of tech and industry information and stories over science stories, I couldn't agree more. And I think that can really distort how we understand (and report) science and technology, particularly when it has economic connections and consequences.

A couple of final thoughts and comments. Regarding points 8 and 11, (cultural and political opposition to science; lack of scientific literacy among the public and policy makers), I think these are really big problems in the USA (my country) today. After all, this is a country where something like 40 percent of the populace does not accept the theory of evolution (!), and where the Bush administration has regularly and deliberately sought to prevent scientists from publishing findings that contravene or contradict its own beliefs and policies. And that, of course, makes science journalism all the more important! And I think it also offers an opportunity for constructing a better and deeper relationship between scientists and science journalists -- since the government is so radically muzzling and distorting scientific findings, science journalists can serve as a conduit by which those findings and their implications are made available to the public.

Just my 2 cents...

As one who keeps alternating between into shoes of a scientist (most of the time) and journalist, I can comment on Steve's opinion.

These days scientists are in institutions and bound by the rules and regulations which may prohibit them from talking to press. In givt. system, it may be due to policy and in pvt. due to economic implications. And this is not only if they are dealing with defence or space research. Besides, getting into lime light by talking about science to press seldom does good and this is putting it euphemestically (forget about helping in promotion, tenure or other such benefits) . Peer- reviewed journals are the standard mode of communicating in research and usually other practice is frowned upon. besides, scientist also like to have a claim on the finding by publishing first. In these days of intelllectial property rights, things have other implications too.

Research still being largely govt. funded in many of places, the govt. policy (whosoever understood that?) can't be violated. Hence one would rather be on the cautious side.

The journalist's difficulty is also understandable. Even a scientist in one field finds oneself totally ignorant in the other. How can a jornalist undrstand all without talking to them. But then there has to be a clear undrstanding what part is 'educating', what part is to be quoted and what part is not to be. But I read somewhere that there is nothing like 'off the record' while talking to a journalist!

The journalists also have to stick to the ethics of confidentiality and get over the lure to have a bye-line on the front page by sensationalising or projecting big claims. From my own experience, I can say that the damage occurs through inadvertant (lack of understanding of subject, failed memory, unclear communication by scientist ) as well as deliberate/ mischievous journalist, distortions, or disrespect for confidentiality.. Most of the journalists consider it below dignity to show the write-up to the scientist even where the matter is highly technical. I admit, it's not always feasible to meet but atleat one can talk over phone. At times, scientists also talk about their work being the 'first report' where differences from the previopus reports are actually inconsequential. The fine differences cited may get ignored by journalist leading to dispute over claims. Whosoever was at fault, no amount of errata can undo the damage done and 'post- mortem' can only damage the scientist/ govt. employee. How'd one go on explaining to each one one's view point especially to innummerale bosses ?

It's a problem of human nature, so difficult to solve. There is no substitute for ethical behaviour from both sides. The old practice of giving a written statement (though not always practical), which should ride over the what is registered in memory, or spoken in lapse , would be helpful.
If there were a new cheap gadget which makes washing of clothes possible without much expenditure , if there were a medicine that were a sure shot cure for cold (leave aside cancer or AIDS), if there were a cheap vehicle which moves fast enough with water as fuel , or if it tells you why there wa that unusual glow in the sky the previous night, any paper would print and readers would read. In other words, every one would read about things that make their life better, happier or, at times, appeal to their natural curiosity (not to be ignored).

But developments in science are usually incremental and unless presented with a suitable background, context (where this little step fits in the big picture) and with utility or significance for the reader elaborated, readers are not appreciative. This demands writers with good, broad background in science and having attractive writing skill. This is not a very common combination. Add to it the difficult-to-comprehend scientific jargon!

So the foremost thing is to have writers who can write what people would enjoy reading because they find it interesting and useful. It is extremely important to attract people with good science background and flair for writing and interest in it.
Effective science communication requires a multi pronged strategy to address the obstacles as compiled and raised on the forum by Julian.Positive efforts of concerned govt may a go a long way and creating ample career opportunities in science communication could attract young talents who presently do not see any promising future in most of the countries in the field.
Scientists should be trained in art of science communication while journalists must orient themselves towards at least the basic understandings of science and its methodology.Both are the two faces of but same coin i e science communication and need orientation training and refresher courses on above stated disciplines on a ti continuous basis.
Efforts like such could brighten the prospects of science communication in many countries of the globe.
I do not come from a strictly science background but my experience is in projects related to conservation and integrated management of natural resources. In this field we face the same problems with communication as faced by science. The success of a lot of our work depends on exposure to the public and the politicians/decision makers. The involvement of the press in our work is crucial and has a lot of added value. We, however, always faced and are still facing almost the same issues described above in a lot of interventions. Stories/interviews etc… given to the press have been distorted sometimes intentionally and sometime due to lack of understanding. We had to resort to written statements and sometimes force the journalist to show the interviewee the final text to be published and sign on it before printing. A lot of damage had been done by articles published with erroneous information that we became reluctant to go to the press and became very prudent. The journalists wanted to mix environment with politics to the detriment of environmental conservation and management. Journalists published unsubstantiated info just for the scoop and the buy-line.

In instances were professional integrity and open dialogue existed, the relationship worked like magic. When the journalist and the project staff took the time to discuss the issues to reach a mutual understanding, the results were magnificent and the impact was tremendously positive and beneficial.

I liked the ideas and discussions above and they do reflect reality, the problem is they seem to have stopped although a root cause analysis was done by Julian and a few good propositions were presented. Were I come from we take the root cause analysis and try to find solutions to the problems and issues presented. This network is a great place to come to action and I thank Mike for it. Let us move forward with some solutions there are millions of dollars being spent on projects and are going to waste due to problems that have been identified by researchers a long time ago but have never reached the decision makers. Maybe some of this money can be spent to bridge the gap between research and the real world through the help of the press world. Some people are trying to solve these issues and I offer this announcement to all the Italian speaking members here. Please check this link out, it might be of interest to some. I hope we can move forward to the benefit of this world.

This isthe new call for participants to the training course concerning the environmental communication methods (journalism) organised by "La Nuova Ecologia", the magazine of Legambiente.
The course is opened also to people from the Mediterranean Countries.
Submissions, with curriculum, have to be sent to the following address within the 20th of July 2007:
by e-mail:,
or by fax to 06/45430943,
or by post to EDITORIAL LA NUOVA ECOLOGIA, Via Maria Adelaide, 8 - 00196 Roma

Moreover, students interested to scholarships have to send a letter with the personal yield (or relative) and the composition of the familiar nucleus. For the selected foreign students, scholarships to cover the registration costs are guaranteed.

Thank you very much for your precious support,
Romina Bicocchi
International Department
tel +39 0564 487711
fax +39 0564 487740

in partenariato con


Corso EuroMediterraneo
di Giornalismo Ambiental e Laura Conti - VII� Edizione

Roma, 1 ottobre � 1 dicembre 2007

Dal 1° ottobre riparte l�avventura. Nel suo genere l�unica in Italia . Organizzata per il secondo anno in partenariato con INFO/RAC-MAP, il Centro per l�Informazione e Comunicazione del Programma Ambiente Mediterraneo delle Nazioni Unite, l�iniziativa si terrΰ a Roma presso la Casa Internazionale delle Donne.
Il corso, tenuto da giornalisti specializzati e docenti universitari , θ rivolto a giornalisti pubblicisti e professionisti, interessati ad approfondire le loro conoscenze in materia. Ma θ aperto anche a laureati o diplomati interessati alle conoscenze di base e alle tecniche dell�informazione ambientale.
Per l�edizione 2007 sarΰ formata una classe di massimo venticinque studenti, fra italiani e stranieri, provenienti da paesi appartenenti all�area del Mediterraneo.

LA STRUTTURA DEL CORSO Il programma di 9 settimane approfondisce aspetti scientifico-naturalistici, normativi e di comunicazione giornalistica: in totale 300 ore di lezione tra teoria e pratica. Sono previste borse di studio (integrali e parziali). Sono in programma visite guidate e incontri per la degustazione di prodotti tipici. Il percorso formativo si conclude con un workshop di 2 settimane. Lezioni: dal lunedμ al venerdμ, dalle 9,30 alle 12,30 e dalle 14,30 alle 17,30. Ogni studente lavora all�interno del laboratorio redazionale e redige articoli finalizzati alla pubblicazione di uno speciale del mensile La Nuova Ecologia. Al termine, ogni partecipante riceve un attestato di frequenza e di valutazione oltre a un cd con dispense e materiali dei singoli docenti. Dopo la fine del corso θ possibile partecipare a stage presso testate giornalistiche e uffici stampa.

LE DOMANDE Le adesioni, corredate di curriculum, dovranno pervenire entro il 20 luglio 2007 presso la Segreteria del Corso. Gli studenti interessati alle borse di studio dovranno inoltre inviare un�autocertificazione con il reddito personale (o familiare) e la composizione del nucleo familiare.
Per gli studenti stranieri selezionati θ garantita una borsa di studio a copertura totale dei costi d�iscrizione.
Julian has done a yeomen's service by raising these issues. It's nice to see others' take on that. I agree with Natalie that one has to take a comprehensive, synergitic view as things are inter- related.

In India, I feel, problems that are quite serious include:

5. Lack of planning for science communication though now there are govt. and non- govt. orgaisation taking initiative.
15. Scientists' fear of media distortion is real and I have experienced it as a scientist. Once bitten, twice shy. I have been an exception, though, and continue to change shoes.
16. Bureaucratic and legal obstacles to communicating science are there everywhere in govt. sector in the developing countries. In developed countries, it may be more in the private research sector.
17. Scientists are also discouraged from communicating by their managers (quite like 16). Some feel it trivialises science. There is also fear of distortion in dilution and I feel it does occur. It's closely related to the next point.
6. Low scientific knowledge among journalists is common and it can lead to serious consequences at times. All distortions (in fact most) are not deliberate. They also occur because of ignorance. No scientist can be an expert in all nor can a jouranlist. But the jouranalist should be critical and scientific enough to be able to get to the depth and extract substance. Usually it doesn't happen. In majority of cases in India, journalists have not had any training in science. As scienitists are decent and nice people so the beat is given to cubs very often!

Communicating science in regional language does pose a problem especially bacause primary material is mostly in English but things are changing. However, without background in science, jouranist will not be able to see the fine points, appreciate the big picture or relate the finding to common man. So either it's a dull and drab write-up which no one reads or it's a sensational piece with too much imaginaive streching. I have observed that most often the press release is what saves a reporter. He adds a few lines in the begining and writes the report borrowing the incomprehensible press release. I have also come across journalists who insist on talking to the speaker and produce exclusive copy but it's usually when the speaker is a well known or well placed scientist.

Scientists don't usually write for public as it doesn't bring them any credit (in fact, they should be lucky not to get discredit.) However, lack of skill in writing is also usually lacking.

Problems that are not so serious include:

8. Cultural and political opposition to science
9. Lack of political will to support science communication

Contrary to (perhaps) Western view, in India there has always tremendous respect for science and scientists. Even with so many stories about self- proclaimed gods, mystic happenings, people respect science. So there has always been support from public and political circles. But an average person always seeks entrtainment more than substance. Cricket, films and politics proide the much sought after pride, escape into a fantasy world and feel of power.

Media wrongly presumes that people don't want to read about science. An average person has curiosity. In India you can find people gathered in hundreds for no reason because there were some other already there! I have been able to engage people of all ages in scienific discussion for hours! I have seen people in villages discussing scienific news (in regional language) if it was interesting. May be when science is presented in a manner where a common person sees its relation to his life, science communication will pick up. May be more good science- students will also take up science journalism and quality will improve. For that, it also has to made somewhat lucrative career. This onus is on government and society also.

ACTION: Persuade scientists and jouranalists to come to a common forum and produce good, accurate, interesting write-ups. This can be done on periodic basis. New science is going to influence social fabric, economy, life of a common man, family relationships and balance, quality of life and people will love to read about them. How gene mapping will affect employability, insurance and relaionships, how new gadgets will change life style, how stem cell research will help the disabled or where is the humankind headed to? Everyone will love to read about them.



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