Offbeat science stories - Review 2

The temptation to scour journals and publications for stories has always been there in science journalism, however an increasing number of publications during the past ten years has created an overload of ‘news’. At least, that is the feeling of James Randerson, environment and science news editor at The Guardian and chair of this meeting. But what can be done? Where can we find the smaller stories that so frequently slip under our radar?

Mark Henderson, head of communications at the Wellcome Trust, spoke about the importance of science within politics. Out of 650 MPs, only one has a background in professional science. Could this not lead to the mismanagement of science, and surely a lack of appreciation of science as a problem-solving tool must mean that science cannot be deployed effectively in politics?

Henderson went on to explain about the immigration cap, and how this has had a serious affect on the number of international students and thus on funding for universities in the UK. The use of a scientific approach and mindset within politics is absolutely necessary, stated Henderson, who proceeded to analyse methods of testing crime rates and education, and explained how currently politics and science are working against one another, not together.

Andrew Jack, pharmaceuticals correspondent for the Financial Times, claimed that application is the best thing about science journalism. Application will say whether something will deliver. He also argued that the obsession with publications has gone too far: “The most important research must be relevant, not just for publications”.

Academics need to get the public on their side, otherwise, the public’s view of the scientific community as elitist will continue to grow, he said.

The final speaker put a new angle on the session. Lisa Jardine, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, came not with an opinion but a story.

In 2006 Robert Hooke’s missing Royal Society minutes were found in an attic in Hampshire, and of course the Royal Society wanted them back. The story was pitched to science journalists across the country, in the hope of igniting a public campaign to get the documents returned. Takers? None. The story never ran, however after speaking to a friend the story got a two and a half minute slot on the Breakfast show. The result was huge interest from the public and £500,000 was raised to buy the records back, so why did the story not run? Lisa pointed out during the question and answer session that people are only interested in celebrity culture, and when compared to “Katie Price’s interest in IVF” editors and publishers will never choose a story like this.

It is a shame that this is the way, but the wide range of topics discussed inspired many questions from the audience. With business, politics and history all being discussed under the heading of science journalism, hopefully some listeners will be inspired to search more widely and go actively hunting for their next story.

Daniel Sharpe, UKCSJ student scholar