The work of science journalists needs greater recognition as an essential precondition for transparent, responsive and accountable government.
Next week, several hundred science journalists from around the world will gather in Melbourne for the biannual World Conference of Science Journalists.
Much will be heard and discussed about how science journalists can inform — and, frequently, entertain — people with stories about scientific and technological developments. Equally important is their role in stimulating public debate in areas where science and technology can impact directly on the social and natural worlds, from stem cell research to global warming.
At the heart of many of these issues lies the key contribution that journalism can make to good governance. The concept of the journalist as a defender of the public interest is usually applied to those writing about overtly political issues, since it is here that the need for — and indeed the challenges to — a free press are often greatest.
But a growing number of political decisions, from allocating medical resources to promoting economic growth, have a scientific and technological dimension to them. It is therefore important to recognise the extent to which science journalism forms an essential component of a well-functioning democracy.
This has long been acknowledged in the industrialised world. But it is equally true of developing nations. Recent years have seen increasing recognition — both within the countries themselves and by the international agencies that provide much of the support for their development — of the ease with which such efforts can be undermined by autocratic rule, inefficiency and corruption.
Each can happen even when the trappings of democracy, such as free elections and parliamentary oversight, are apparently present. Creating democratic institutions is only a first step towards good governance. Countries must also operate effectively. And this requires monitoring at the grassroots.
The press has a vital role to play. Science journalists, for example, can focus public attention on problems in the governance of science itself. It was science journalists — not the scientific community — that exposed the fraud of South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-Suk.
Science journalists can also highlight government failure to meet public commitments in science-related areas. In China, for example, pressure from journalists has forced the government to take steps to ensure that biomedical researchers adhere to ethical standards (see Bioethics reporting in China: a case for bold action).
And in Malawi, media reports that the government was cutting back on commitments to increase science spending led to a reversal of the decision (see 'No progress made' on Malawi's science university).
Finally journalists can press for government policy to be firmly embedded in sound science. For example, South African journalists, working with activist organisations, played a key role in making the government accept that AIDS is most effectively controlled by directly combating the virus responsible for the disease, not by taking herbal remedies.
In these and other ways, effective science journalism can help ensure transparent, responsive and accountable governance. But several needs must still be met.
The first is for sound training in both journalistic skills and scientific principles. Enhancing these, particularly in the developing world, must be a core mission of organisations like SciDev.Net.
Demand for science stories must also be stimulated. One way of doing this is to encourage news editors to accept that science and technology are as important, and as potentially interesting, as football or sex scandals. These gatekeepers must also recognise that much essential research is being done within their own countries, and not restrict their science coverage to reports from international news agencies.
Researchers and scientific institutions have to embrace the idea that openness to public scrutiny is in their long-term interest — and should certainly be part of their social responsibility — even if it occasionally leads to short-term embarrassment.
Finally, science journalists need to support international campaigns defending the freedom of the press. This is essential if journalists' activities are to promote the growth of good governance, and thus lead to genuinely sustainable development, adequately informed by science and technology, across the developing world.