Q&A: Why WCSJ2019 will be great

Olivier Dessibourg
Portrait of Olivier Dessibourg Copyright: ©LeaKloos

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  • The five-day event promises to be inclusive, says the chair of the organising committee
  • Speakers represent a mix of those from the global South and global North, making it inclusive
  • Many field trips are also available, making the event adventurous

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The 11th World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ2019) in Lausanne, Switzerland, is about three months away. The event held every two years is a flagship project of the World Federation of Science Journalists.

As science journalists from around the world prepare to attend this riveting five-day event that starts on 1 July, SciDev.Net interviewed Olivier Dessibourg, chairman of the organising committee of the conference to unravel what is in store for attendees.

What are some of the things so far done to ensure the success of this august global science journalism event?

Firstly, and most importantly, we have secured the presence of a tremendous number of high-quality speakers, from different walks of life relevant to the work of any journalist covering science. We have speakers covering journalism and editing, science and technology, the sociology of science and ethics, science policy and science democracy, and media tools and technologies.

All of our speakers will make WCSJ2019 an indispensable event, full of discussions, debates and workshops. I want to stress that this is a conference for all journalists, from pure science journalists to generalists for whom science and technology increasingly impinge on their beat.

Secondly, we have raised funds to offer about 110 travel fellowships to colleagues from 55 countries around the world. We have also managed to bring a lot of geographical diversity to our list of speakers.

This will ensure that WCSJ2019 is a truly global conference.

“There will also be new and talented young speakers, bringing fresh dynamics to the nowadays complex world of journalism.”

Olivier Dessibourg, Organising Committee, WCSJ2019

What are some of the things that you believe will give this conference an edge over the previous events?

Each World Conference of Science Journalists is unique and has its own specificities so it may be unfair to compare them. What I can say is why WCSJ2019 will be great. *Apart from the excellent programme itself, we have worked with the region, in Switzerland,  which is rich in science, to build a strong scientific programme enriched by over 30 field trips. *Also, we have more than 50 [email protected] opportunities to discover the amazing breadth and depth of science on the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and University of Lausanne campus, and to meet the scientists and discuss their latest experiments or upcoming papers. These go beyond the scientific offerings of previous conferences, and we hope it will tempt many journalists in search of fascinating and original science stories to come to Lausanne.

How will the selected speakers achieve divergent and captivating deliveries?

We will have senior science journalists from major worldwide media such as the New York Times, Washington Post, New Scientist, MIT Technology Review, Swiss Television and radio RTS, BBC and Le Monde, to name a few, who will share their insights, skills and experience.

There will also be new and talented young speakers, bringing fresh dynamics to the nowadays complex world of journalism, not only the science variety. These include people such as Nina Fasciaux, the European ambassador for the Solution Journalism Network, and Uzodinma Iweala, a medical doctor who is also a writer and journalist, and founded a magazine in Nigeria. He now heads the US-based Africa Center in New York.

How do you plan to ensure inclusivity in terms of the interests of both the global South and North?

Science journalism simply defined – bringing science results to the public and debating them in the media in the most correct, relevant, independent and societally useful way – is an activity that is similar on every continent. Each region has its own particularities, and of course the media world has many facets, particularly in the age of the internet and social media.

Many sessions will therefore address general challenges useful to any journalist while the programme also includes many sessions and workshops dedicated to nurturing good journalism in the global South, helping freelancers from developing countries to pitch their stories to editors representing established media brands and enabling them to enlarge their networks.

For example, a full-day pre-event workshop will be organised on science journalism in French-speaking countries, with a strong focus on establishing links between science journalists from West Africa and French-speaking science institutions in the global North. For those same participants, some sessions of the programme will be simultaneously translated into French. There is also another pre-event workshop to be held in Spanish for Latin American participants. We’ve worked hard to make our programme really inclusive.

Could you give us a summary of the field trips lined up for the event?

The theme of WCSJ2019 is Reaching new heights in science journalism – a play on words referencing the spectacular view of the Alps that participants will have from the conference venue, as well as our Alpine Consortium of three science journalists’ associations from Switzerland, France and Italy that came together to organise the conference.

Thus, many of our field trips will take place on – or even in – the mountains. Have you ever dreamed of walking on a glacier? Or of sleeping in a 90 per cent energy autonomous mountain hut? Maybe you’d like to visit the heart of the biggest wall-dam in the world? Or travel to 3500m to reach the highest research station in the Alps accessible by train, inside the Jungfrau, one of the Alps most famous peaks?

There will also, of course, be opportunities to descend into the tunnels and caverns housing the world’s largest particle accelerator facilities at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, also called CERN. If any of these appeals to you, then WCSJ2019 is an event for you.

“The programme also includes many sessions and workshops dedicated to nurturing good journalism in the global South.”

Olivier Dessibourg, Organising Committee, WCSJ2019

Along with the mountain field trips, we also have field trips going to Swiss science institutions, many in nearby Geneva or Zurich, to French institutions in Paris, Lyon and Grenoble, to Genoa and Ispra in Italy, to the European Astronauts’ Centre in Germany, and even to places as far afield as the laboratory of the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, Jordan or St Petersburg in Russia. So, whatever your scientific taste, we have it covered.

Are there some challenges that you had to work really hard to overcome as the host?

Organising WCSJ2019 comes with a number of challenges ranging from the big ones such as raising funds to secure a venue and support a programme involving some 220 speakers to the minutiae of answering personal and sometimes hard-to-solve questions about travelling from remote places in the world. It’s all part of this great adventure.

How instrumental have been the different organisational components such as the committees in achieving the overall conference objectives?

Organising such a global event is an enormous task. It has taken us more than two years. We first established a bidding-committee made up of five main working groups covering the programme, fundraising, side events, logistics and communications. Once the Lausanne bid was successful, we turned those groups into sub-committees of the organising committee, each composed of many people. Overall, about 30 people are involved in the sub-committees in some capacity.

The programme committee is most definitely of central importance: its main tasks have been to select a group of 15 distinguished journalists from around the world to serve as committee members, launch a call for session proposals. We received 646 applications from which we selected about 45 to be turned into parallel sessions. We are working on the accepted proposals to ensure relevance to journalists from any part of the world, making sure the geographical distribution of speakers is as broad as possible.

Another non-trivial task of the Organising committee was to raise the 2.5 million Swiss francs (about US$2.5 million) to cover the costs of the conference, mainly to invite and bring all those speakers to Lausanne. To make it all work, the continuous and common efforts of many dedicated people is essential.

We’ve been fortunate to have a great team, and the result is going to be a great conference. It’s my pleasure to invite journalists, science communicators, scientists and indeed anyone who cares about quality science journalism to join us in Lausanne in July for what promises to be a uniquely stimulating and enriching event.
Q&As are edited for length and clarity.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.

* Corrections:

*An earlier version of this article had indicated that the organising team had worked with the European region. This has now been corrected to show that they worked with the local region in Switzerland.

*The Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne that was inadvertently omitted in an earlier version of this article has also been inserted.