Science news in crisis

There’s a fascinating piece at the science reporters’ blog at Nature, In the Field: ‘AAAS: Science journalism in crisis?’ The story has a mix of sad news leavened with just a bit of optimism. The bottom line is that, with newspapers suffering badly from the economic crisis, many are cutting budgets for their science reporting.

A panel at the AAAS meeting was inspired when CNN announced last December ‘to axe its entire space, science and environment unit.’ Christine Russell, a former science reporter for the Washington Post, now president of the US Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, reported that ‘the number of dedicated science pages in US newspapers has fallen from a peak of 95 in 1989 to 34 in 2005, and is still dropping–with a big shift toward consumer and health reporting in those remaining.’ The piece at In the Field discusses the shrinking space for science news at the Boston Globe and the accompanying shrinkage of the science reporting staff.

I’ve leveled a fair bit of criticism at science writing on this blog, but the unfortunate thing is that as the field becomes less professional, less practiced, it’s only going to get worse. So many of the science issues facing the public — genetics, neuroscience, climate science, stem cells, energy policy, ecosystem change, nuclear proliferation, developmental biology — are complex and require a pretty sophisticated set of analytical lenses to sort the significant discoveries from the dross. They aren’t the sort of science stories that your business reporter is going to be able to write astutely about (unless your business reporter was previously downsized when the science page was dissolved).

Increasingly amateurish science reporting will no doubt provide more howlers for us at, but it can’t be good for the public’s ability to really understand the crucial discoveries and challenges of the day. So much of the research that’s important right now increases the complexity of our understanding of the world that I’m afraid budgetary constraints will provide yet another force pushing for reductionary explanations in the public eye.

Fortunately, the upsurge in online commentary provides some counterbalance to the growing simplicity of science reporting, but the size of our public is so small that’s it’s discouraging at times. Initiatives like the Public Library of Science and open online access to so many academic journals make the science more available, but we still need a vigorous and expert public science journalism to sort through this research.

I don’t think I have any suggestions because I’m just not that optimistic that there’s anything to reverse this trend. It’s ironic because, even more now than during the space race, contemporary science is so inspiring, relevant and important to our lives. Sure, we got Tang and velcro and ICBMs out of Apollo program-related science, but now we’re looking at gene therapy, new sources of energy, and potentially life-changing discoveries in fields like brain sciences. When I think about it, I just can’t understand why these sorts of stories don’t help to move papers, but I guess that what’s makes me (unlike with most of our readers, I expect) in a minority…


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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

7 thoughts on “Science news in crisis

  1. It’s always astounded me how a world so dependent on science/technology for their quality of life, economic growth, and (in some countries, esp. the US) military supremacy, has such poor level of understanding in said science/technology and seems to have no interest in rectifying it.

    Here’s hoping things get better somehow…

  2. Could this be one of those cases for which people involved in higher education should take some responsibility? What I am talking about is the disappearance of the core curriculum that once included a healthy dose of science. I can still recall the unease I felt when talking with a student at Middlebury College (a good school) circa 1974, when I mentioned the possibility of envisioning the search for truth as an asymptote (a curve that approaches without ever reaching a limit), got back a blank stare, and asked the questions that revealed that the last math class this very smart person, who would graduate summa cum laude, took was algebra II. It was around that time, too, that I began to realize how many students were taking advantage of the every growing college-as-hypermarket-fill-your-basket-with-what-you-want freedom that, mea culpa, I wanted and enjoyed so much at the Honors College at Michigan State to graduate with no science classes at all. I contrast that education with the one my daughter got at the US Naval Academy, where, having chosen to major in English, she was not excused from the year each of chemistry, physics, and electrical engineering, the three semesters of calculus and the probability and statistics required of every midshipman. Why blame newspapers for not publishing on topics that our schools no longer bother to teach to anyone but those who will choose to specialize in them?

  3. If I (being in higher education) take some responsibility, do I get to blame everyone else, too? Can I blame my mom? I blame her for a lot…

    Look, I’m being facetious, but the point of this post isn’t about blaming anyone or anything. If you can read that post and think it’s mostly about blaming, more power to you; you’re even more screwed up about assigning blame than I am after twelve years of Catholic education.

    I don’t think we can BLAME universities wholly for decreasing science knowledge and interest any more than we can BLAME wholly newspapers (or secondary or primary educators, or Creationists, or Flatearthers or Cub Scouts). The way university required curricula are being affected by the increasing insistence that university students are consumers is a complex issue: I would LOVE to make my introductory class on human evolution a requirement for students, and I like to believe that they’d attend cheerfully and embrace the subject, but the reality is that my university is under pressure for enrollment, and if the little dears didn’t like it, it might affect our viability as an institution. And I also am well aware of the poisoned attitude that requirements often create toward educational offerings. Some of my colleagues must have had very thick skin to ignore the hate-filled, dull-eyed glares of the students who resented every minute of being in required science and math classes (or Latin or English or civics). They were made of sterner stuff than I am.

    What I meant to suggest in my post was that I find it sad, understandable and yet utterly impossible to comprehend that all the cool stuff happening in science right now isn’t being splashed across the front pages of papers. Of course, if people aren’t interested, and newspapers cut budgets (and people don’t have university or high school classes in science, and nonstop carpet bombing with news of Paris Hilton and Brangelina have damaged the collective IQ, etc.), I understand that science reporting will decrease. The fact that I loosely understand the causal chain of low readership leading to decreased reporting doesn’t help me to get the most basic fact: why isn’t science news?

    Clearly, firings of science writers is not the disease itself, but a symptom of a wider disease. The fact that I see the symptoms, feel the disease, and pray for a cure, however, neither assures that I understand the pathology or can prescribe the right medicine.

  4. “why isn’t science news?” – It is, on the internet. And to be honest the kind of people who are likely to be interested in science news do most of their reading on the internet (I suspect).

    So arguably (I know it’s not as simple as this), the decline of print science reporting doesn’t matter, because it’s all there online & generally better than it was ever done in the newspapers.

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