The opportunity of a spare place on the EUSJA trip to Berlin for Science Week and the Falling Walls conference came up with less than 24 hours' notice, which is why I was sent to take advantage.
The trip included around 20 journalists from across Europe: I spotted people from Spain, Finland, Russia, and Estonia on the first day, when we were given a tour of three of Berlin's scientific establishments.
Tatiana Koenig, the managing director of the Falling Walls Foundation, explained at the outset that Berlin's mayor made the decision a few years ago to embrace digitization as an area of research funded in partnership between government and industry. These are some of the early results. This is the first year of Science Week, which is being built around Falling Walls, now in its eighth year. It's held on November 9, the anniversary of the day the Wall came down and also, as several speakers noted, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the huge Nazi pogrom against the Jews.
The first day, we visited the European School of Management and Technology, Beuth University's Neuroroboticcs lab, and the Berlin Technical University. The first, an industry-funded program marrying technology and business, has taken over what "in the Eastern times" was the state capitol building. One programme, GTech@@, allows start-ups to locate on-site for a year when they're established and ready to scale up, and provides access to business expertise and MBA students to help them make the transition.
The Neurorobotics lab was, for me, the most interesting: a robotics project that is taking a novel approach. Instead of focusing on a computer to run the robot and process the data the robot receives from built-in sensors, the project is removing as many sensors as it can and building to use the lowest amount of energy. The Myon robot we saw can autonomously rise from a squat on the ground to stand up, swaying slightly (as humans do, too, thought we're usually not aware of it). When one of the researchers took it by the wrists and moved backward, it took a few hesitant steps forward, like a small child.
Finally, the Technical University showed off its work on 3D printing; it has partnered with the Egyptian Museum to produce copies of the pre-restoration version of Akhnaton's statue; with the local zoo to copy a beloved bear's head; and is working on scaffolding for human tissue to grow individualised heart valves. Finally, the evening reception at the Natural History Museum, focused on bio@@ for
sustainability, pointing to the diaosaur skeletons dominating the room as examples of why this work is essential for our own survival.
We were offered a choice of activities for the second day. These included Falling Walls lab, where young scientists and researchers present three-minute summaries of their ideas; Falling Walls Venture, a similar event for start-ups; a day-long discussion of RNA medicine; and another on DIY/citizen science. I opted for the least sciencey-sounding of the group because it sounded like the subject I knew least about: the day-long discussion, "The liberal order under siege?" at the Aspen Institute. Everyone was conscious this discussion was taking place on November 8, election day in the US. I couldn't help feeling that most people present were part of the group that populists are rising to oppose: the general tone was that the liberal order that has prevailed since 1945 and that the EU was created to preserve was indubitably right. A broader view came from a couple of sources. First, Jozsef Czukor, a former advisor to the Hungarian prime minister, who described his political experience as bipolar as he tried to communicate both with the more liberal urban population and the rural population that feels it's losing its life and livelihood. The rhetoric surrounding Wallonia's resistance to the Canada-EU Trade agreement, painted them as backward and a minority that deserved to be ignored, when the reality is that the livelihood of millions was under threat. The second was Ian Kearns, who has campaigned for political office in Britain and argued that the liberal order cannot survive without addressing the legitimate grievances of populations for whom it has not worked and who see banks being bailed out and countries bankrupted.
The third day was the Falling Walls conference itself. This slickly organized event was made up of four sessions of four speakers, each of whom was limited to 15 minutes. Topics included merging the fight against climate change with the fight against slavery; understanding the human microbiome; farming robots; and understanding radicalization. The talks should be online, and are worth hearing, although I found that on subjects I knew something about (cyber security, especially) the talks were too shallow to teach me anything new. Discussion happens separately, on staged forums in a space so loud and crowded that participants use a microphone and a receiving audio device with headphones, and there were arrangements for press interviews to pursue topics in greater depth. Falling Walls goes to some effort to invite journalists every year, and I'd say it's worth the trip, particularly if you're looking for ideas for new topics to write about.
Wendy Grossman, is a member of the ABSW Executive Board and a freelance science writer
Are you an aspiring science journalist? If so, would you like some free bespoke careers advice from journalists in the national media?
If your answer is “Yes!” to both questions, then you cannot afford to miss an exclusive event organised by the Association of British Science Writers on Wednesday 2 November.
A stellar array of correspondents, editors and writers from the UK national broadcast and print media will be on hand to give you some one-to-one personalised advice about how to make it as a science journalist.
The event will take place from 6:30 pm in the relaxed setting of an upstairs room at The Yorkshire Grey Pub & Kitchen (2 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8PN).
Admission is free to members of the Association of British Science Writers, and £5 to others. There will also be an opportunity for students attending (who are currently not members) to then join the Association for a specially discounted price of £15 (£5 off the usual price).
If you would like to attend please complete the RSVP form, if you are a non member you will be required to pay the £5 fee through this form.
After consulting members and discussion on the ABSW email discussion list the following submission has been made on behalf of the ABSW to the Science and Technology Committee science communication inquiry.
For further details of the inquiry:
The ABSW is a UK membership organisation set up in 1947 to promote the public good by improving general access to well-informed writing about science and technology, including scientific, but not practitioner, areas of medicine. It is the oldest body of its kind apart from the National Association of Science Writers in the US, and has nearly 300 members.
We work in a number of ways, especially by the provision of training and networking for members, the holding of professional development events, and running the UK’s national prizes for science writing and journalism. This note sets out some of our members’ key concerns as they emerged from a recent consultation. It does not reflect the full views of our membership, who between them share a wide range of opinion and insight.
Our members do their work in a wide range of ways. Some make radio and television programmes; others write books (over 100 of them in one individual’s case); others work mainly online and in print. However, our concern here is to emphasise the importance of a specific area of our work, front-line science journalism, rather than the profession as a whole.
Science journalists carry out a vital yet sometimes under-appreciated role in the communication of science to the public. They are not simply conveyors of scientific information, but also act as guardians of the public interest. They have a unique role within the broader body of science communicators because they are independent from the individuals and organisations that perform science. This means in turn that they have a wider remit than the science public relations profession.
While science journalists play an important role in informing the public about new developments in science, including any implications for society, they also have a responsibility to the public to scrutinise both scientists and their work critically. This watchdog function is also a service to the scientific community (although this is often not appreciated) because it helps to expose and discourage wrongdoing and bad behaviour by scientists.
The climate for science journalism in the UK has improved in many ways in recent years, for example by the establishment of a range of (usually) Masters-level courses in science communications. However, science journalism has also been exposed to the same pressures as other areas of journalism, particularly in traditional print and broadcast media. Greater pressure on budgets, largely due to a decline in revenue from advertising and other sources, has led to cuts in staff, including science correspondents and editors, in many newspapers and broadcast news organisations. Nevertheless, most, but not all, UK national newspapers still have at least one science news specialist on their staff. At the same time, a number of new digital news organisations have appeared over the past few years and have hired science reporters.
Changes in the consumption of news, particularly online, mean that audiences can be more selective about which stories they read. While stories about science, health and technology are often rated as relatively popular in surveys of audiences, they can be easier for a casual reader to miss online than if they appear in a printed newspaper or feature on a broadcast news bulletin. Conversely, the interested reader online can reach a wider range of stories, in greater detail, than those who rely on print and broadcast media.
It can be difficult for traditional and new media alike to cover science stories if they do not have a dedicated science reporter. Science journalists often build up extensive networks of experts who can provide advice, insight and comment. This in turn allows more rigorous journalistic examination of a story. And they often have better background knowledge of key scientific issues than do general reporters.
Our members now feel that most of the science writing in British media is generally consensual and does not raise problematic issues. While a new scientific discovery is likely to be well-reported, difficult subjects are often neglected for lack of time and resources, in a media world where people are under pressure to be highly productive in terms of word counts rather than content.
Thus, we know that there is a growing sense of unease about the reliability of scientific research, typified by the increasing number of papers retracted from the scientific literature, and the new awareness that many scientific findings might not be as reproducible as had been imagined. These are stories that can only be pursued with time and effort, which are all too often at a premium in contemporary newsrooms.
In response to this pressure, the ABSW has set aside money to encourage original, investigative science journalism. To our disappointment, we have been unable to find suitable projects to fund, in part because even a major investigative scoop is not seen by journalists as a career positive.
This issue matters partly because science is important (we hope your Committee does not need to be convinced of this), and partly because journalism is important. It is now easy for scientists and science organisations to communicate directly with the public. Many of our members work for scientific bodies that produce their own high-quality scientific publications, and we welcome this development. However a research charity, or an individual scientist with a blog, does not have to tell uncomfortable stories. They write about what interests them, not about what is important, and have no incentive to write anything critical about things that did not work or which show them in a poor light. So the growth in these forms of publishing, which to reiterate is welcomed by the ABSW, needs to be balanced by resources for independent journalism in this field.
In addition, our members note that scientific institutions and organisations themselves are making increasing use of their ability to control the way news is reported about their activities. For example, both the recent Planet 9 paper and the A-LIGO observation of gravitational waves were initially revealed only to a select group of trusted journalists, not to the world at large, despite their global interest. We would very much like to see this practice replaced by general journalistic access to any major story. This very basic research is, of course, paid for almost entirely by the taxpayer around the world. It should be recognised that stronger media management by scientific organisations and institutions can make it more difficult for science journalists to scrutinise the actions of scientists critically, potentially undermining the public interest.
There are many organisations that communicate science effectively. The job of science journalists, however, is to scrutinise developments with a critical eye. Just as wider society is best served by the work of this committee in critically examining the workings of government, it is, we hope, also served by our talented and skilled community of science journalists holding the research community to account. Science journalists are independent and are provide a valuable civic service by helping to ensure that scientific organisations, individual scientists and the work they produce is ethical, offers value for money and promotes the good.
We are aware that this pressure on original, high-quality science journalism is only part of the story, and that other specialisms from sport to health suffer from the same syndrome. In addition, the ABSW is an active participant in science journalism globally. We held the World Conference of Science Journalists in London in 2009, and the 3rd European Conference of Science Journalists earlier this year in Manchester. We know therefore that similar issues to those we have mentioned here arise around the world. However, our members are especially conscious of these pressures as they affect the UK. We would be grateful if you could reinforce the case for independent, questioning science journalism in your findings, and are of course happy to answer any questions you might have.
President, Association of British Science Writers
The ABSW was saddened to hear of the death of long standing member Andrew Veitch.
Tim Radford, another long standing member of the Association, has written an obituary for the Guardian which we thought members might like to read:
As part of its ongoing work to encourage investigative science journalism, the ABSW awarded four journalism fellowships to fund attendance at this year's Centre for Investigative (CIJ) Journalism Summer Conference. ABSW member Wendy Grossman reports back.
For the 1970s generation investigative journalism has an identity problem. That is, many people tend to associate it with exposing fraud, pinpointing corruption, and bringing down governments and rich people. ABSW members therefore might logically ask, what does that have to do with science?
One of the most detailed - and to me, most useful - tutorials at this year's mid-July summer school run by the Centre for Investigative Journalism (www.tcij.org) extended across four sessions in which longtime journalists Luuk Sengers and Mark Lee Hunter (www.storybasedinquiry.com) methodically worked their way through the stages of building and researching a story: hypothesis, timeline, scenes, sources, and fieldwork. Especially helpfully, Hunter explained how he organises and keeps track of the material he collects. The example they chose to illustrate their work? The possibility that toxic chemicals were leaking out of plastic pipes into drinking water. Doesn't that sound like science? (Their process for developing that particular story is written up in their short book The Hidden Scenario: Plotting and Outlining Investigative Stories, which you can acquire from the CIJ website. From their own website you can download, for free, The Global Investigative Journalism Casebook and Story-Based Inquiry: A Manual for Investigative Journalists.))
Other classes included numerous tutorials on various technical tools for data journalism: Excel; Access; R and RStudio; OpenRefine (taught by Jonathan Stoneman, who appeared at the 2015 ABSW summer school); graph databases; and even some bits of Python coding. For case studies the data journalists used to show the potential, one, presented by a journalist working for Greenpeace, studied the allocation of fish quotas in the UK, finding that only three companies own ost of the UK's fish.
Other speakers included veteran reporter James B. Steele; Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermeyer, who led the extensive Panama Papers investigations; Hajo Seppelt, the journalist who broke the Russian doping story; Duncan Campbell on computer forensics; and many others. Some workshops focused on getting the best out of a particular service, such as Companies House, which has opened up free access to its data, and offshore finance. Finally, the former policeman Neil Smith discussed using open source - that is, public - data sources; his website (www.uk-osint.net) is full of valuable links.
Probably many people's image of investigative journalists is confrontational, ferreting out secrets by asking people questions they don't want to answer. While that's true, what became clear at this event is the vital role of documents in establishing the truth of what's happening. You are, as Steele, Hunter, and Sengers all said, in a much stronger position if you can go to the source you've identified, show them the documentary evidence and say, "This is what happened, right?" instead of "What happened?"
To do that kind of work, as many speakers said, contacts and interviews are still important, but even more so is an appetite for finding and absorbing detailed documentary information; all sorts of treasure troves are kept that hardly anyone eever looks at and whose keepers are thrilled when someone expresses a genuine interest.
The ABSW has been trying to encourage encourage interest in investigative journalism, first by offering a grant to aid members who need time and resources to tackle specific projects, and second, by offering scholarships to this year's CIJ summer school as a good place to pick up skills, resources, and ideas. Often, when all we see is the results of a lengthy investigation, it all looks simple, which is probably why so many people think such work is about finding the right contacts and nosing out secrets. The value in CIJ's sessions is that enormously experienced people are willing to show their work - the how - so that others may continue and extend it.
So far, the number of meembers applying for either has been disappointing. Yet, as I hope the above has shown, although you may never be the person who's approached with a giant data dump like the journalists who worked on the Panama Papers, investigative skills are ones that ought to be valuable to every science journalist. Developing a hypothesis, breaking it down into facts that can be tested, then reassembling the pieces into a piece of truth - isn't that what both scientists and science journalists do?
Good investigative journalism - even good investigative *science* journalism - is being done in all sorts of places outside the traditional media, from NGOs to tiny cooperatively funded start-ups such as the Bristol Cable and Scotland's The Ferret, both of which presented their progress at this year's event. These are skills that, as veteran investigative reporter James B. Steele says, will always be valued.