I’ve had a few professional titles over the years, and a few unprofessional ones too (Office Monkey in the 1995 student newspaper office being a notable one), but the one that has always been there and I hope will always be there is science journalist.
I’m very proud to be a science journalist and I love my job, but why do I choose to write about science and medicine?
This question has been asked quite a few times over the past few days at the Australian Science Communicators conference – not just of me but of the entire collective of science communicators. Why is it that we are so passionate about communicating science?
I can’t answer for everyone else, but after some consideration and debate, I’ve concluded that there are several reasons why I have focused my career on communicating science.
The first is that I love science. I’ve never hid my nerd credentials but rather proudly display them at every opportunity.
I find scientific research and scientific discovery fascinating. I love what it enables me to learn about the world/universe we live in.
There are an infinite number of extraordinary stories going on around us at every level, from the proteins that look like two-legged walkers from Return of the Jedi stomping around your cells, to the softly undulating perambulation of the velvet worm, to the screaming galactic drama of a supernova.
Science and scientific discovery lets me into those worlds and tells me those stories and I’m almost always entranced by them.
The second reason I write about science and medicine is that I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of science literacy in enabling us to make informed choices about things that have both big and small impacts on our lives.
Climate change and immunisation are two issues I hold strong beliefs about because I have a decent understanding of the scientific research exploring these areas, and that research has convinced me beyond all reasonable doubt that man-made climate change is real and dangerous, and that immunisation saves lives – billions of them – and the benefits far outweigh the risks.
It’s not about the science telling us what we should do. I believe it’s about knowing what the research says about the impact of rising greenhouse gas levels, about the fossil fuel reserves we have left, about the big picture climate trends, about the human immune system, about how it deals with infection, about how disease patterns have altered since widespread immunisation … and then making our own informed decisions with that knowledge in mind.
Those are pretty big decisions, but the same applies to a myriad of smaller ones we make every day – whether to take paracetamol for a fever or ride it out, whether to buy wholegrain or white bread, whether to plant native or introduced plants in our garden, whether to buy organic produce or not, and why.
It’s not that you need to be an expert on everything, but I believe that a reasonable level of scientific literacy equips people with the means to at least make an educated, informed guess, and therefore choice.
The third reason I love writing about science is that scientists really are an amazing lot of people. Many of them dedicate their entire lives to one single question without knowing if it where it will lead. A researcher could spend ten years working on a problem only to arrive at an answer which might well be the scientific equivalent of “Meh”.
Yet they persevere with passion and every once in a while that passion delivers something world-changing. In the meantime, they just keep plugging away and even if they do end up with a shrug of an answer, they have still made an important contribution to the sum total of humanity’s knowledge. And for that, I salute them.