Offbeat science stories - Review 1

Chair James Randerson, environment and science news editor at The Guardian, introduced what would be one of the day’s recurring themes – that journalists should look for stories beyond the findings in the latest high-impact research papers. But what other stories are out there and where can they be found?

Mark Henderson, head of communications at The Wellcome Trust, former science editor at The Times and author of The Geek Manifesto, pointed out that politicians mismanage science and underuse the scientific method, creating plenty of potential stories. Examples are the immigration cap introduced despite its negative consequences for scientific institutions and the embryology bill proposed despite opposition from scientists. One good source of these stories is the evidence given to select committees and their minutes, which is all published online (and appears ahead of the reports).

Andrew Jack, pharmaceuticals correspondent for the Financial Times, said stories about whether research is useful for society or worthy of investment should not be considered ‘offbeat’. He is concerned that “the halo around scientific journals gives them more authority than is justified” because science can be flawed or overhyped. For drugs, he thinks our obsession with randomized controlled trials and mouse studies makes us miss out on other simple but important factors affecting a medicine’s usefulness, like its flavour or packaging.

Lisa Jardine, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and biographer of Robert Hooke, calling herself a “specimen” and not a science journalist, introduced a story that should have been picked up in the news but was not (except by Randerson), showing the limitations of editors with no science background. It was the 2006 discovery in an attic of lost manuscripts from Robert Hooke – a landmark find for British science history although its importance did not register.

In terms of finding ‘offbeat’ research stories, one audience member suggested journalists bypass press releases and look through journals themselves, to which Jardine responded that conferences are the truly fertile ground for stories.

Responding to the suggestion that journalists focus on ‘people stories’, Jardine voiced her concern that stories about celebrities getting IVF crowd out important safety information. Finally, the chief editor of PLOS Medicine expressed frustration that the media picks up sexy stories it can sell, not the best scientific papers. She said that her publication’s good papers are covered best on blogs. 

The consensus of the session was that science stories should not be a series of ‘breakthroughs’ and ‘cures’. The next steps are seeking out other stories and convincing editors that they are worth covering.

Catie Lichten, UKCSJ student scholar