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 Neuroanthropology.net, 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…