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[MONTREAL] The head of one of Canada's leading aid agencies said yesterday (4 October) that science journalists have a "critical role" to play in informing communities and influencing policymakers in the developing world.

As a result, their reporting can have a "positive influence" in decision making within these countries, according to Maureen O'Neil, president of Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

O'Neil said that it can also ensure that the discoveries of scientists working in these countries are brought to the attention of the wider scientific community, whose interests tend to be focused primarily on research carried out in the developed world.

In line with these beliefs, she announced that the IDRC has decided to welcome applications for support for projects which will seek to strengthen science journalism in developing countries, particularly in the areas of training and course development.

O'Neil was speaking at the opening of the 4th World Conference of Science Journalists, which is taking place this week in Montreal, Canada, organised jointly by the Canadian Science Writers Association, the Association of Science Communicators of Quebec, and the World Federation of Science Journalists.

Science news, she said, was of interest to the entire world community, "most especially those of us working to address global challenges by generating and applying new knowledge".

Journalism — and especially science journalism — can therefore make a significant contribution to ensuring that communities and their leaders implement programmes and decisions based on the best data, knowledge and evidence.

"We are supporting this conference because we would like to ensure that the work of scientists in the South are recognised and put into practice," said O'Neil. "Their discoveries deserve to be given as much attention in developed countries as in the developing world."

In addition, she said, the citizens of developing countries need to understand and celebrate the work of scientists living in their own communities, and the ways that they contribute towards building stronger economies and societies.

O'Neil acknowledged that research findings were not always universally welcome, and said that it is "crucial" that science writers are able to tell both sides of a story, since citizen participation in debates over science and its applications is essential to solving local challenges.

"But the reality is that there are currently not enough opportunities to convey this message," she said. "International journalists don't generally report on the work of local researchers in Benin, Bolivia or Vietnam. That's why we are making a concerted effort to support and strengthen local capability in science reporting."

The Montréal meeting is being attended by more than 500 science journalists and communicators from over 60 countries.

Five countries — Australia, China, Germany, Italy and Spain — have submitted bids to host the next conference, which takes place in 2006.The results will be announced at the end of the week.

The IDRC helps fund SciDev.Net.