Should science communication societies like the Canadian Science Writers Association limit senior roles to journalists

Photo from a David DiSalvo article
Photo from a David DiSalvo article

In Canada and the USA, the role of media based science journalists in societies focused on science communication vs. people who write about science (scientists, public information officers, bloggers) is currently under debate. Contrary to the idea that truth and integrity will suffer with an open door policy, I expect that impartiality and “truth” in science writing will be improved if non-journalists are allowed equal access to science communication organizations and societies.

Some background: I’m a Professor in the University of Calgary. My job is to create new knowledge and to teach (mostly graduate students). I need grants to do what I do. Given the shortage of funding in Canada, I spend a most of my time applying for grants to do my work.

For good reasons, there is a growing requirement to undertake “Knowledge Translation”. Agencies are encouraging scientists to take a more active role in communicating what they discover. KT in my field could be working with clinicians teaching them about new discoveries in MRI. It also includes reaching out to disease based societies and to the general public. Big research grants have been turned down when this KT portion is underdeveloped. KT is also a growing portion of my annual report. Not only do I list my papers and students, but also what activities I do that fall under a communication heading. Since I enjoy communicating, this isn’t a hardship. My biggest reason for committing my time though, is that regular people pay my bills—mostly through their taxes. We, as scientists, need to let people know what has been discovered and, equally importantly, what remains to be discovered. Why do science!

I’m excited being encouraged to reach out. I want people to share my excitement about discovery, and I hope that by doing so our society will become more engaged. OK, this is a tall order. I aim to engage one person at a time and I assure you, there have been wonderful moments when I’ve been able to change a response from “huh?” to “wow!”

I’ve been asked if I’m a science communicator. After replying with what I do, I’ve had both a “yes you are” and “no you aren’t”. I was puzzled. Surely if I communicate science, regardless of my job, I’m a communicator.

Ahem, this is sacrilege, according to some. Why?

Mainstream, or media journalists were the founders of many science communication societies. In the good old days, these people dominated the science communication environment, both in skill and in numbers.

Things are changing. Everyone with access to a computer and the internet can set up a blog site and do science communication. One notable communications group include those that make press releases for universities and other research organizations. It is the clear job of these people to make the discoveries sound amazing, groundbreaking, game changing and unique. Scientists themselves are doing more communication.

So, what is the problem? As well laid out by the President of the CWSA, Tim Lougheed, in an email to the CWSA membership, there is concern that some individuals, such as a public information officers (PIO), are not bound to the same high standards of academic journalism and so may mislead people with inappropriately positive press releases. I would add that scientists may also distort their own work for their own benefit. In addition, those with products to flog or agenda’s to support could actually lie about their findings.

If the CSWA allowed everyone who does science communication an equal role in the society, then, according to Tim Lougheed, members are concerned that “the CSWA would lose credibility as a touchstone of journalistic integrity.”

An important point was made by Tim–that the CSWA played a significant role in highlighting the muzzling of scientists by the last government. Only an independent journalist could have worked against that mandate. Unfortunately, this is not a clear reason to protect journalist roles in the society. I’m sorry to have to point out that I know journalists who would not speak out because they held federal grant funding in the area of science communication. What would have happened if they had been President of the CSWA during this period? I could also imagine a situation where a journalist works for a publication with an editorial view that could reduce the impartiality of the journalist. Just by having a journalist at the helm, does not ensure an unbiased or unfettered leader.

I agree with the problems. But I disagree with introducing protectionism. Be careful about labeling people within a group as universally having a lack of integrity. As a scientist looking at the field of science journalism, I am often appalled by the extent that media journalists will happily buy into the “groundbreaking” jargon, writing headlines and text that are clearly aimed at improving readership or being “click bait”. One has weak legs to stand on when describing media journalists, as a group, of having a higher level of integrity than any other science writing group.

For these reasons, I strongly disagree with limiting the role of members in the CSWA. I think the main argument is unfounded.

On top of that negative argument, I have a positive one. We need to work together and to learn from each other. People who are doing press releases for universities are often just rephrasing what the scientist themselves have written. The scientist, in turn, often sees the publicity as a good way of improving their annual report or the justification section of their next grant. All of us need to find a way to guide the general public to accurate and unbiased science based information.

If we put these communicators in the same room through chapter meetings, the annual conference, emails etc, and truly get to know the goals and limitations that each group has, then the results will certainly be better communication. If enough scientists and PIO’s hear the concerns of journalists, perhaps press releases will be more appropriately tempered. The scientist may learn better writing skills and the PIO’s may feel more empowered to obtain clarification from the scientist. Journalists will have more access to members in all aspects of science communication—which gives them more opportunity to find stories and to fact check. Working together will promote a common good.

Perhaps instead of targeting a group, the CSWA should focus on how the constitution and mandate of the society could be written to clarify the role of the society and its officers, to write in an obligation of impartiality and the option of abstention if an officer is restricted by pressure from their own work.

Also, the society president is elected by the society, which puts some limitation on the individual. Don’t make this a two tiered organization.

I only see benefits to inclusion. I, for one, look forward to working with the CSWA, and learning from media journalists, as my career evolves to include more science communication.

Let’s learn from each other instead of putting up artificial barriers based on emotionally driven perceptions of who has more integrity.