The privilege and responsibility of being a science journalist

(An edited version of this was delivered as a speech at the 2016 Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival)

So I’m a huge nerd, both in the writing sense and the science sense.

In highschool, I used to write essays … for fun. I used to read books about science, purely for the delight I took in learning about the world and universe we live in. I lived and breathed David Attenborough documentaries. I collected rocks until the seams of my pockets gave way (and I still have them all too). I listened, fascinated, as my medical parents discussed their day over dinner.

So imagine my joy when I discovered there was an actual career that combined both of these things. I discovered this quite by accident when I was editor of the student newspaper at the Australian National University. I wrote a column about some new cinema projection technology that was being used at the university, and the thought sprang into my head ‘what if I could do this all the time?”.

And here I am, two decades later, a full-time freelance science writer.

There aren’t many of us, it’s worth pointing out. An obituary for science journalism in Australia was published two years ago. Some question whether there is any future for it at all, in this era when scientists are doing Ask-Me-Anythings (or AMAs) on Reddit; when research organisations and universities are producing their high-quality, well-written magazines to tell their own science stories direct to the general public; when there are so few in-house science journalists in the mainstream media that you can literally count them on the fingers of one hand.

In that sense, being a science journalist is a privilege. I’m lucky enough to be able to do this because I’m a freelancer, so the science journalism work that I do is spread across a lot of publications and it is subsidised by the science writing work I do for those very organisations and universities I mentioned earlier.

It’s also a privilege because I absolutely love writing about science. Isaac Newtown said, “if I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” As a science journalist, I would say if I have seen further, it is by peeking over the shoulders of giants and asking “what does that do?”, or “what happens if you mix those things together?”, or “why did you do that?”

And it is some privilege. What other profession allows you access to just about any laboratory in the country, or even the world; gives you the remit to ask any question you want; and to learn in a couple of hours what someone has worked their entire life to discover?

And the variety! In any given week, I could be writing about the death throes of the oldest known star, born in the fiery aftermath of the Big Bang – or the discovery of the oldest fossilised human poo. I might be privy to the very first results of a trial of a new anti-cancer drug that sees people with just months or even weeks to live, still going strong four years later.

I might also be writing about when science and scientists get it wrong: when pressure or ego or money drives researchers and companies to fake results, use unethical methods, conceal information about side effects.

And this is why I believe being a science writer also comes with considerable – and growing – responsibility.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, when talking about the demise of journalism in the US, pointed it was a fantastic time to be a corrupt politician, because there were so few journalists and newspapers left to hold them to account.

While the situation with science isn’t quite that grim-sounding, the same principles apply. With so many researchers and scientific institutions now communicating direct to the public, to policy makers, to funders, we need science journalists to be doing to that science what a political journalist – or any other journalist, for that matter – does for their subject, which is to ask the hard and the right questions.

And in science, those questions can be a matter of life and death. We’ve seen this recently, with the furore around statins. These are drugs to lower a person’s cholesterol levels. They are very good at what they are supposed to do, they are relatively safe – with all the usual caveats – and they have been embraced by modern healthcare with the sort of enthusiasm that pharmaceutical executives dream about.

The statins story is incredibly nuanced. It’s not as simple as saying anyone with high cholesterol should take them. Nor is it as simple as saying that we’ve got it wrong, and no one should be taking them, or that the side effects outweigh the benefits.

Unfortunately, a lot of these nuances were missed in some of the public discussion and coverage around statins. As a result, a significant number of people on statins decided to stop taking them. Perhaps some of those people didn’t need them. But some of them did.

The same thing happened with hormone replacement therapy for post-menopausal women. A huge study published its results, suggesting in some women, the risks of HRT outweighed the benefits. The resulting coverage caused panic amongst women and doctors.

But again, the nuances of that study, its limitations and its significance, were lost in the black and white, simplistic coverage. The result was that a large number of women stopped taking a drug that might have reduced their risk of certain health conditions. As with statins, some of them shouldn’t have been taking HRT in the first place (which was a story in itself) but some of them should.

Health is one area where we need journalists with experience on the beat, who can read a scientific paper, who understand research statistics, who know which experts to go to, and what resources are reliable.

Another area is environment reporting. Humanity is at an environmental cross-roads, and the decisions we make now as a society will have profound, potentially catastrophic repercussions for future generations. And yet our political leaders try to censor science, dismiss the research, ignore the looming iceberg. This is why we need good science journalists. Who else would reveal that our own government is trying to cover up the dire state of the Great Barrier Reef’s health, or ignore advice on the environmental impact of mining projects.

If you look at the finalists for the Australian Museum’s Eureka Prize for Science Journalism over recent years, you get a glimpse into why we need science journalism. This year, one of the finalists was a team reporting on the so-called ‘Ebola with wings’ – this epidemic of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis that is ravaging a nation on our doorstep: Papua New Guinea.

Science journalism occupies a weird space at the moment. It’s journalism, that’s for sure. But many also place it under the umbrella of science communication. In Australia, we have an organisation that represents science communicators, which for the time being, includes science journalists alongside media/PR people for research organisations, science museum experts, science educators, scientists who communicate, and a whole host of other sub-specialities that share the commonality that we all are talking, writing, teaching or presenting about science.

But I believe the genre of science journalism rightly occupies its own space.

To be a science journalist is to understand how science works; to know that there is no such thing as proof, and that what is accepted as doctrine– like that cigarettes are good for your health and eggs are bad – can be totally and utterly reversed as studies are done, new results are found, and new understand emerges from those results. It is to understand the role that science and scientific discovery plays in society, and the impact it has on so many aspects of our day-to day-existence.

But science journalists are not, and never should be, an unquestioning cheer squad for science. Sure, we can get carried away with excitement about the discovery of the Higgs boson and gravitational waves like everyone else – and to be honest, that’s the part I like the best. But even amidst that excitement, we are still asking those same hard, good questions, looking for the fudged data, looking for the justification for those billions of dollars invested, challenging the researchers to explain the conclusions they see in their data.

As our lives become more dependent on technology, as we advance our understanding of the genome and how to alter it, as we interact with our environment and planet in ever more intimate and large-scale ways, as we face more and more choices in how we control our health and our appearance, we as a society need to be equipped to make informed decisions about what we want, and what we don’t want. I believe science journalists have an important role to play in helping to build a more science-literate society and that’s a cause I champion constantly.

This is the responsibility of being a science writer, and it is the privilege. And I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

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