Beware scientific fundamentalism
Science journalists should aim to be "informed critics" of science, supporting its values but wary of backing everything said in its name.
Next week, science writers from across the world will gather in London for the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists to discuss the responsibilities, challenges and threats facing their profession.
High on the agenda — at least for science journalists from the developed world — will be the declining editorial support for science writing as newspapers facing falling profits turn to "sexier" topics such as sport or celebrity gossip.
Science journalists from the developing world, who will be well represented thanks to support from development agencies such as the UK Department for International Development, also face limited editorial backing. For many, the support is not declining but was never there in the first place.
Perhaps more importantly, both communities must find ways to operate as "informed critics" of science — just as theatre critics endorse theatrical practice but not necessarily every performance.
A dual role for journalists
The role of the science journalist has two key dimensions. The first is to provide a narrative by describing scientists' results and their potential implications.
Here, accuracy is essential. This can involve acknowledging uncertainty — science journalists' first responsibility is to provide their audience with a reliable summary.
Equally important is the narrative's accessibility. The ability to turn complex ideas into simple words is frequently under-rated. So, too, is the ability to link scientific results to everyday concerns — a skill that is essential to making scientific ideas accessible to non-scientific readers.
The second key element is keeping scientific achievements in perspective.
Sometimes this means highlighting understated or ignored accomplishments. In the developing world, science journalists often play a key role in informing political leaders and decision-makers about ways that scientific research can help achieve social and economic goals.
At other times, keeping science in perspective may mean not exaggerating claims. This is relatively easy when the claims are clearly spurious — for example in the case of instant remedies for complex diseases such as HIV/AIDS, however "scientific" they claim to be.
But it is more difficult when apparently solid science is used to support claims that may not be entirely justifiable. This is especially true when the result appears to support favourable action, such as limiting climate change, combating pandemics or regulating new crops.
Here, the science journalist must separate substance from wishful thinking — a delicate and sometimes daunting task. The job can include communicating risk to promote speedy but appropriate action. But it does not mean causing unjustified panic. Some critics claim, for example, that Egypt's over-hasty decision to slaughter all its pigs in April this year was down to irresponsible reporting on swine flu (see Media and government to blame for Egypt swine flu chaos).
Making an impact
Next week's conference will discuss all these issues and many more. And SciDev.Net is proud to have played a small but significant part in bringing the world's science journalists to London to address them.
We were, for example, instrumental five years ago in persuading British colleagues to engage with their international peers from the World Federation of Science Journalists. More recently, we supported the successful bid to bring the federation's biannual conference to London.
SciDev.Net seeks to follow the guidelines for critical science reporting outlined above. Partly this is reflected in our commitment to report on the role of science in development in an "accurate, authoritative and accessible manner".
We insist that our contributors report on scientific facts and also on what they mean, which entails answering "why is the work important, and who is it important to?"
Only by seeking to answer these questions can science journalists provide policymakers and the public with the answers they need and make an effective impact on development.
Science journalists concerned about the developing world's fate should promote science through their work. But not just for its own sake or because they mistakenly believe that science holds "the key" to human progress or provides the lens through which such progress should be viewed.
Rather, the profession must report science and its implications accurately while being careful not to under- nor over-state its role in development. Steering a responsible path between the two, while remaining true to the traditions of the best science and the best journalism, is the big challenge ahead.