Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Science communication, anyone?

In my readings over the past few weeks I have encountered a few articles directed at scientists describing the complacent attitude of reporting science stories to the media. This may be due to inefficient or misinformed reporting on the part of the scientist or the media, which would be unknown to the reader. An article I read today in “NewScientist” titled “Not all that it seems” (28th July 2007) highlighted this problem once again, describing a story where a reputable newspaper described the discovery of a new gene to be the cause of restless leg syndrome (apparently the actual existence of this conditions is disputed, which is news to me). This reporting was incorrect on the journalist’s part. Anyway, the point being is that the newspaper article was misinforming the public. Another example, closer to home, occurred when a colleague of mine recently identified a new mutation thought to be responsible for a disease which was quite significant to her field of research. The state and several local newspapers published this story with each article being reported differently but accurately. The main gist of one article in particular was correct but there was a line which read something similar to this: “The gene was responsible for attacking a part of the protein”. This statement was incorrect and could never be correct for any matter. First of all, genes don’t attack proteins and secondly, the gene is what encodes the protein ie. the gene is the precursor of the protein. I’m not sure what happened to the lines of communication between the scientist and the journalist in this case. This may be an obvious question but shouldn’t the scientist have read the final result before it had been submitted for publication? A couple of days ago, I read another article in “The Scientist” (“Special feature: How should scientists sell science?”) addressing this issue and even setting up an online survey to get a scientist’s perspective. The article ended with this statement.
With your help we can gauge how the life science community and people who have an interest in life sciences feel about the issue of framing science, and add to the growing debate that could help shape the future of science communication in the media”. ("The Scientist")

There seems to be a missing link between information being passed on from the scientist to the media. To bridge the gap, a scientist not only needs to be able to relay the important messages to his or her colleagues but also the general community at a suitable level that is also truthful. It’s is highly important to keep the public informed on scientific findings; after all, research is publicly funded in a lot of cases and progress in fields of disease research for example is highly encouraging to hear about. In addition, addressing the public on a lay level gives the scientist a different level of understanding and reminds them of the "big picture" which is often forgotten or overlooked because of the specific nature of research.

Unfortunately, this mis-reporting has been on-going for too long now. Fortunately, a new breed of journalists are emerging: there is an increase in jounalists who are also researchers or have expertise in the medical field. In addition, i recently discovered that not only is my own university offering science communication as an elective in a science degree but there is a science communication degree which encompases both journalism and basic science.

PS: A few weeks after writing this post, I had the opportunity to talk to a media consultant of a large medical research institute. One of my questions to her was regarding the misinformation of science in the media and how it could be avoided. She replied by giving me the one reason as to why this occurred: The time delay which occurred for the media to write an article and subsequently get it proof-read by the scientist was too time consuming. If this practice was to occur it would be impractical given the competition between media organisations to report breaking news. She also said that this practice could not be avoided and it was the responsibility of both the scientist and journalist to relay and exchange information as accurately as possible during the interview.

NewScientist, 28th July 2007, page 5
The Scientist, 30th July 2007

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