December 1, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

UK Conference of Science Journalists
25 June 2012
The Royal Society, London

“I think every writer, every journalist, every scholar, should tell you where he’s coming from before he tells you what he knows.”

This is how Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at NYU, began his keynote speech. He went on to detail what he called ‘wicked problems’, and discussed how we might go about solving them.  As one twitter user pointed out, he seemed to possess a unique ability to speak in entirely tweetable snippets – making him an instant hit with the attendees of the 2nd UK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ), held at The Royal Society on 25 June.

The UKCSJ is organised by the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW). This is only the second year this conference has been held (the first in 2010), and this time the organisers decided to try to strengthen their connections with student science writers across the country. The editorial team of I, Science were offered a free place, and with this help Douglas and I were able to attend and meet a ‘Who’s Who’ of British science writers. We took along copies of our past issues to display.

Credit for photo goes to @hapsci, editor of @ausciencemag. We forgive her for cutting off one of our beautiful issues, as we didn’t have the foresight to take a photo ourselves…

The programme was well thought out, but conflicts of interest often meant having to leave one session halfway through in order to catch a few minutes of another (Douglas being particularly guilty of this!). Due to this, I missed the sessions involving two Imperial College lecturers, Felicity Mellor and Ehsan Masood, but you can see information on those here and here.

The first session of the day for me was ‘Offbeat science stories’. This featured Andrew Jack (Financial Times), Lisa Jardine (HFEA), Mark Henderson (Wellcome, formerly The Times), and James Randerson (The Guardian), all discussing how journalists can explore the wider context of science in order to find stories, including politics, business, and history. Predictably, Henderson spoke enthusiastically about how politics is often overlooked in science reporting, urging writers to anticipate stories that may be hidden in other fields, for example how altering to UK immigration laws had detrimental effects to science (see here).

Jack focussed instead on reporting, maintaining that regardless of its source, as long as a story is relevant and has the potential for beneficial applications, it will be covered. I didn’t quite see why Jardine was included on this panel; she spoke at length about how a particular history of science story she was championing (the finding of a missing book of Royal Institution minutes) was covered only by The Guardian and ignored by the rest of the press. It didn’t add much to the debate, and I ended up half-wishing I’d attended ‘Computer assisted reporting and data visualisation’ instead. However, the Q&A was useful and perhaps the most interesting part of this session – a continuing theme throughout the day.

The second session was ‘Narrative in science writing’, featuring Tom Levenson (MIT), Richard Fisher (New Scientist), Manjit Kumar (author of Quantum), and Alok Jha, (The Guardian). Levenson and Fisher were really interesting and spoke well, Levenson on the aspects of characterisation and meaning (e.g. in a narrative not all your characters have to be human, something that is particularly true in science), and Fisher spoke about structure and plot, explaining the differences between a news piece and a feature. Again, one of the speakers I saw as a strange addition – Kumar explained how the inspiration for his book had been the famous photograph of the 1927 Solvay Conference. This appeared to be really the only thing he said, and his time speaking just felt like a none-too-subtle plug for his book.

How many can you identify?

After lunch, the next session was ‘What can journalists do to uncover scientific misconduct?’. This featured Ginny Barbour (COPE), Peter Aldhous, (New Scientist), Steve Yentis, (Anaesthesia) and David Nicholson (Wiley). I found this session really interesting, as I know little about the peer review system and even less about different forms of misconduct. All of the speakers had great input and discussed how peer review could be improved but still workable (e.g. scanning every figure of every paper for manipulation just isn’t plausible, even if it would be much more accurate). A question from the audience labelling science journalists as “cheerleaders for science” didn’t go down too well with Aldhous, and sparked some interesting debate about where the journalist should stand between scientist and public.

The final session was ‘So you want to write a book?’ with Peter Tallack (The Science Factory), Carl Zimmer (Author), Richard Lea (Guardian Books), and Anjana Ahuja (freelance). This was a great insight into what publishers and agents are looking for in book pitches, and gave me a good idea of the actual process of writing a book and the dangers of self-publishing (something that makes book reviewers suspicious!). The issue of e-books versus print also came up, and though Tallack and Lea admitted that print figures were falling, both had a surprisingly optimistic view for the future.

After this long programme, there was a final plenary session. This was my favourite part of the whole day, and neatly tied all the themes together. It featured Connie St Louis, (ABSW and City University), Alok Jha (The Guardian), William Cullerne Bown, (Research Fortnight and Research Europe), Jay Rosen, (NYU) and, my surprise favourite, Evan Davis (BBC Radio 4).

Credit goes to @Hlmartin83 for this photo.

St Louis and Davis argued over explanatory versus investigatory journalism; Davis fought the corner of explanatory and analytical journalism, saying that it’s become undervalued in the newsroom for favour of heroic scoops and investigatory journalism. This point is rarely mentioned and I feel that it’s a really important one, particularly in science writing. The panel also tackled the idea of showing copy to sources, with Davis and Rosen agreeing that showing an article to someone who knows a lot more about the subject than you can’t really be a bad thing.

The day featured very intelligent, broad, enjoyable and thought-provoking discussion. Predictably, there was a lot of tweeting (with the tag #UKCSJ), so for more information about the day head over there to see some of the debates. If you happened to attend too, please leave your comments and add to this review!