The purpose of Science, People & Politics
and how the eMagazine came about
by Helen Gavaghan
I did not set out to try to create a high-quality eMagazine: one which would be and remain freely available anywhere in the world, but that seems to be what I am now attempting to accomplish. It is very unclear to me whether I will succeed. Success depends on me attracting sponsorship, investment and advertising from people and companies who believe in the publication's aims or think they can sell to the publication's readers. In May - up to the 26th - the number of hits to the site jumped by nearly 50 per cent over the previous month's total to more than 2300, and this despite some kind of hitch that meant for 12 days the site was not recording hits - not even my own! Some 77 per cent of the hits in May were from the US commercial sector. More precisely: from the commercial sector, with a US domaine name extension.
The site started out simply and naively as my effort to extricate myself from a long period of unexplained illness. I reasoned that if I needed to create a CV, either for more self-employed work, or on contract, or in the employ of someone else the creation of a simple website was as good a way as any of reconnecting with the world of work. It was an uphill struggle but the exercise reconnected me to my work past and my work world. On impulse I decided that attending the British Association meeting for the Advancement of Science in 2005 in Dublin might help me to further regain my profession.
In this brief summary I am skipping agiley over difficult territory because it is not really central to the story of my current efforts to create a commercially profitable eMagazine that will showcase --- for free --- some fine work, and act as a vehicle for the advertising and commercial offshoots needed to pay for that freedom.
During the BA - as it is known to insiders, by which I mean science writers/journalists, and I am one, and scientists - I encountered my usual problem: how to report the science such that it is integrated with the politics, or how to use the science to interpret what might be one of the significant drivers of the politics. Arie Issar's article illustrates this point well.
My dream publication is full of such articles and takes science out of ghettos and thrusts it into the hurly burly of mainstream politics and international affairs. Instead of a House of Commons' committee on science and technology there would be a member responsible for exploring the science and technology drivers and implications on all issues sitting on each committee. From Northern Ireland to foreign affairs (forgive the UK centric language), politicians and journalists would be looking for what limitations or shaping influences science and technology might be placing on the ostensible politics of the situation. Basic questions would emerge: can the historical enquiries team in Northern Ireland really revisit 1800 unsolved murders amidst its larger task? Is promising to do so raising unfair expectations in a wounded society? What is the psychology of the situation?
Whilst at the BA I also found myself asking, as I frequently do, if I who have a science degree and have spent my working life talking to some of the world's finest scientists do not know all the arguments in science-related debates how do people who perhaps stopped studying science when they were 14 participate in the debates that shape their living and dying? I think that Science, People and Politics can play a tiny part in answering that question by giving information in plain English.
So - back to Dublin: due to a slight hiccup in the late booking process for my trip, but more probably because of my short temper with the booking agent, I found I was staying in a Hotel quite a long way outside Dublin. The resulting bus journeys gave me time to think. In essence the question is: what is more disempowering to and disrespectful of the human spirit and of a person's being than to expect them to live in a world they do not understand, where people speak in code or hints or allusion (which is how science must sometimes seem) and those with knowledge that is legitimate public knowledge hug it to themselves rather than making it available when they can? In fact I think most scientists do try to communicate their science, but there is always room for more ways of putting knowledge into the public arena - such as the TV quiz I have just seen - that can empower people.
As my mind played with this question, and found no insight or answers, I took it on a tour of the BA's sessions -- and for the science journalist these are a treasure trove of future contacts - and of various attractions. One undergraduate did much to clear my thinking on the issue of circular polarisation, for example. Perhaps I ought really to write that he did much to reassure me that with application I ought to be able to straighten my thinking about circular polarisation.
Prejudice, climate change, the solar sytem, nanotechnology: all were present and correct. The issues neatly presented. But still something was missing.
When IVF expert and then president of the BA, Robert Winston, spoke I realised what it was. The dog not barking was politics. Yet this is the human activity we have as societies decided is our vehicle for clarifying issues. We choose to elect representatives. Then we are rude about them. What do we want?
I have over the years had quite a lot of bother trying to sell book ideas that allow politics to be part of the story. Part of the story, not dominating the story. So I wrote my Winston commentary. Since I detest the word blog and, initially, for no other reason, and because I do not anyway know what "blog" means, I decided my commentary was the start of a new publication. I am grateful to my advisory board - old colleagues whose work I admire - for their support. Admittedly I did not know the difference between an ISSN and an ISBN number, but blinded by ignorance I was not deterred.
Next by accident came a film review, then Astronomy Now kindly let me post my unedited version of an interview with Martin Rees. Next by expensive accident, and to meet an urgent need for copy, I wrote about psychiatry and genetics today. Then came my review of my former news editor's book, and then Professor Arie Issar put pen to paper. His work has legs, as we journalists say. It is deeply depressing and surreal to see the homemade rockets and tanks lobbing their load across the Gaza strip. One can but hope that the combatants will read this soldier's tale, because Issar was a soldier, and who knows better what bombs and grenades do to soldier and civilian alike? He is also a scientist, and he has some truthes to tell to those with a desire to hear.
Next in my procession of starter articles, and in pursuit of my mission statement, came Professor Brian Bayly who approached me with his idea. It took me a long time to grasp what he might be saying, and I am still not convinced I have fully, but some decidely smart and informed people concluded his work was worth publishing in their own journal.
Which brings me to the cross roads of this article and the website as it is today. This is an eMagazine, not a journal. But even so it will not contain dumbed down science. There is room in the world for unapologetic science that nevertheless decentres the scientist as guru and for articles that strip away the stiffness of science as a done deed. I have known scientific papers in establishment journals, which shall be nameless, where one has had to excavate the entire bibliography before finding the fact on which the castle of argument, conclusion and conjecture was built.
What do I hope to publish? I do not know whether it is the tilt of the Earth's axis or carbon that is most accountable for climate change. I do not know what happens to the climate if the polarity of the Earth changes and impacts the ionosphere. I do not even know if that is an astonishingly "stupid" thing not to know. I have always been keen to say that lack of knowledge is not stupid, it is simply lack of knowledge.
The French are quite keen on nuclear power: how has power station design changed since chernobyl and Three Mile Island? Where will the waste go? These are among the issues I would like to ask experts to write about, but then I also want to know what makes a geologist turn to neurochemistry or a rocket scientist play the cello or an astronomer become a film buff. What is it like to open a new field of study or prove a hypothesis. Yes, books could be written about these things, but also articles can be written and published here, and if the quality is good enough to satisfy their peers, a patent lawyer, say, or a keen political critic then the readers will be satisfied and I might also get the revenue I need to keep the articles by some of the world's leading thinkers on line for free.
That is what I want to accomplish with Science, People & Politics.