ISSUE FOUR (October-December)

Volume XIII 2022

ISSN 1751-598X

Published by Gavaghan Communications. 165 Longfellow Road, Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, HX5 5LG, UK


Issue FOUR (October-December) Science People & Politics. ISSN 1751-598X. Volume XIII (2022).


ITEM ONE. Coral and climate change.
Delayed from Issue one 2022. To Be Added.

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ITEM TWO Published 12th December, 2022 as HTML.
Science Communication. Three views.

Science Communication from the perspective of UK-based masters students of science communication, reporting and giving personal perspective of an event organised by the Association of British Science Writers.

Editor: Helen Gavaghan.

Deputy editor: Fred Pearce.

Editorial advisors

Professor Graham Dutfield.

Dr Ferdinando Patat.

Mr Fred Pearce (FRSGS).

Mr Martin Redfern.

Science, People & Politics is a technically literate humanities

quarterly aimed at scientists and politicians internationally.

Published by Gavaghan Communications. 165 Longfellow Road, Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, HX5 5LG, UK


Issue FOUR (October-December) Science People & Politics. ISSN 1751-598X. Volume XIII (2022).





On 17th October, 2022 the Association of British Science Writers held an event at The London Science Museum at which a selection of professionals in the field of journalism, broadcasting and science communication in print, on air and online spoke of their experiences in communicating science to the general public from the 1960s to the present day. Below are short accounts by three students taking an MSc in science communication at University College London (UCL). With a limit of 800 words imposed by commissioning editor, Helen Gavaghan, these are their views and their headlines. The students have not yet selected their thesis topics for their masters.

1960s enthusiasm.

By Grace Tyrrell.

The witness seminar began by considering the "celebratory era" of the 1960s, introducing Judith Hann (1942 - ), Louise Panton, Alec Nisbett and Lawrence McGinty.

Public understanding of science was immediately important. It was crucial to "explain [things] in a way that everyone could understand", said Hann.

In this period the narrative of science as "universal light" (1) came under scrutiny. That critical ethos was exemplified by Louise Panton's view that people were "beginning to question the enthusiasm for everything new". The focus of science communication was beginning to change.

With the Imperial MSc in Science Communication decades from inauguration, no formal training existed. Instead, the panellists spoke of how they learnt by doing. Many of the panelists during the day had a tertiary education in science, a requirement that is perhaps no longer necessary to transition into science communication.

It is arguably futile to explore what being a science journalist meant in this era without discussing the barriers of the era. Both Hann and Panton spoke candidly about the lack of female representation at all levels of television, as well as the sexism they experienced in the workplace.

Lack of female voices and representation had a huge impact on science communication at this time. The sexism that existed may have exacerbated the perception of scientific experts and science more generally given the male-dominated nature of the field.

Overall, the 1960s were "a time of radicalism in politics as well as in science", said McGinty. This was reflected in the science the panellists chose to communicate at the time, perhaps cementing the link between science and society.

Further reading suggested by Editor, Helen Gavaghan.
(1) Commissioning, copy and line editing. Helen Gavaghan.

Judith Hann. Broadcaster and writer.
Lawrence McGinty. Broadcaster and print journalist.
Alec Nisbett. Producer, director and writer.
Louise Panton. Producer and director.

The 90s Boom

By Dominic Sorrell

The witness seminar now moved into the late 80s and early 90s, and four prominent science journalists were introduced: Deborah Cohen, Tom Wilkie, Roger Highfield and Tim Radford.

This period marks an interesting evolution in the role of journalists and scientists in science communication. Scientists were now beginning to take public engagement more seriously.

In the Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology, Hans Peter Peters explains that journalism does not merely disseminate scientific expertise; it also plays an active role in creating the scientific expert in the public imagination.

This certainly rang true in the third session of the ABSW event. Tom Wilkie, former features editor of New Scientist and former science editor of The Independent, stressed the importance of having contacts whom he could trust, and who could trust him in return. The bond, therefore, between the journalist and the scientist is vital in the creation of the "public expert".

The 90s also marked a moment where scientific expertise was being challenged. Tim Radford said people were beginning to see "how authority could be wrong." Deborah Cohen described how she had made programmes that debated controversial scientific issues on the BBC.

This transition, arguably, set the tone for what science communication became. Science was beginning to be seen as fallible and deserving of criticism from the public. The role of communicators, therefore, is to ask difficult questions and to get scientists to engage with the anxieties of the public.

Deborah Cohen. Former editor BBC Science Unit.
Roger Highfield. Formerly The Telegraph and former Editor of New Scientist.
Tim Radford. Journalist and former science editor of The Guardian.
Tom Wilkie. Retired features editor of New Scientist and science editor of The Independent.

Though all three authors of this report are aware of the seminal Royal Society work of 1985, in which an ad hoc group under the chairmanship of Walter Bodmer FRS examined the Public Understanding of Science, I did not give them sufficient words to broach an evaluation of the quality and aptness in different eras of Bodmer's work. The incentive for the 1985 report, in the opinion of editor, Helen Gavaghan, was to explore how people and politics could be empowered to hold science to account.

Digital Turn

By Ciara Zhou

In the final session, the impact on science communication of the digital turn into the 21st century was discussed by four established science editors: Fiona Fox, Emily Wilson, Clive Cookson, and Helen Pearson.

The digital turn "brings technological innovations, enabling science communicators to compile and produce journals more effectively", said Cookson. It also promotes evolution of the profit model and the blurring of the labour division in the publishing industry. Most importantly, the digital world reduces the barriers to participation in science communication. As Pearson pointed out, "the electronic shift has brought about an expansion of people contributing to science journalism, and this essentially stems from the expansion of science itself."

This blurring of boundaries between experts and public shows how the dialogue between scientists and public became more equal with the digital turn. Wilson's view was that, "journalists used to be the mediator between experts and audiences." Now, "scientists are beginning to make broadcasts on their own". The digital turn is essentially a democratic transformation of science communication.

However, this democratic shift, said Fox, has also "brought with it misinformation, a decline of trust in experts and science, in areas as diverse as vaccines, climate change, and Genetic modification (GM)". Far more people have been empowered to be science communicators, but what are the consequences? How can we guarantee democratic engagement with the rise of disinformation? Science communicators cannot simply dismiss these concerns, but rather, they should aim to understand them, and they should find new ways to build fair and compassionate dialogue.

Clive Cookson. The FT
Fiona Fox. The Science Media Centre.
Helen Pearson. Nature.
Emily Wilson. New Scientist.

Published by Gavaghan Communications. 165 Longfellow Court, Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, HX7 5LG UK

Non-substantive corrections will be accepted until midnight 13th December, at which point this item will be considered finally published.