When a big news event happens, reporters are left scrambling to cover it. And when the big news event raises significant science questions, reporters are scrambling to find scientists who can answer them. For example, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, reporters with little or no previous experience covering science stories found themselves searching for experts on earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear power and the health effects of radiation exposure, among much else.
There’s a concerted effort under way to address one aspect of this problem in the United States through the creation of a Science Media Center (SMC). However, it faces a number of challenges and questions. Here’s an overview of the subject, including where things stand now for a potential SMC in the U.S.
I co-moderated a panel with Emily Willingham at the 2013 ScienceOnline conference that addressed the challenges of incorporating sound science into breaking news coverage. During that discussion, Mark Henderson of the Wellcome Trust mentioned the SMC in the U.K. (though they spell “center” as “centre,” naturally) as a good example of a resource that served both scientists and reporters well.
Established in 2002, the SMC serves as a kind of dating service, connecting reporters who have questions about specific scientific topics with scientists who are experts in the relevant fields. But that’s not all it does. The SMC also tries to identify significant news stories before they hit the headlines and to pass relevant information on to journalists. To do this, the SMC web site explains, “we send out quotes from experts, statistical analyses of scientific studies and factsheets, in addition to running regular press briefings on the latest hot topic.”
Since 2002, similar centers have been created in Japan, Canada and Australia, among other countries. However, the U.S. does not have one.
Less than a week after Henderson mentioned the SMC in the U.K., I found out that there is a committee exploring the possibility of creating an SMC for the U.S. Exciting, right? Not so fast.
In March 2012, science writer and editor Colin Macilwain wrote a piece for Nature laying out why he thought the SMC paradigm simply wouldn’t work in the U.S. For one thing, Macilwain wrote, science communication in the U.S. is plagued by “bitter social and political division over stem-cell research, global warming, creationism and much else besides. A US Science Media Centre would either avoid these highly partisan issues — and face irrelevance — or step right into them, and take a level of heat that the UK SMC has never experienced.”
Furthermore, Macilwain argues, “US journalists, justifiably or not, have higher self-regard than their British counterparts and are likely to take strong issue with the ‘churnalism’ aspects of the SMC. Under pressure as US reporters may be, they don’t want to share ‘pooled’ quotes.”
Those are good arguments. But not necessarily fatal ones.
Julia Moore, a former director of legislative and public affairs for the National Science Foundation, is a member of the exploratory committee for an SMC in the U.S. In April of last year, Moore wrote a rebuttal to Macilwain’s piece, which was posted on the exploratory committee’s web site.
“It is precisely because of the bitter contention in the United States over issues such as climate change, stem-cell research and evolution that we need a science media centre now more than ever,” Moore argued. “Successful science media centres in other countries have demonstrated that they improve civic discourse, because journalists are better informed about the science behind the controversies. Policy-makers can make decisions based on the best available science, and citizens can make smarter personal life choices and engage in serious political dialogue.”
I hope that’s true. Anything that facilitates good coverage of science issues is welcome, in my opinion. But a lot of time has passed since April 2012, so I contacted Moore – who, like all members of the exploratory committee, serves in a purely voluntary capacity – to gauge the prospects of an SMC in the States.
Where Things Stand Now
I think it’s fair to say that the exploratory committee is currently trying to address two fundamental questions: 1). How an SMC in the U.S. might work; and 2). How to pay for it.
On the latter point, Moore told me that the committee is currently trying to establish the SMC as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and trying to identify potential funding sources for the project.
But, Moore says, “the exploratory committee also is engaged in reaching out—through our various professional networks—to journalists, science leaders, public information officers, government, industry, professional societies, etc.—to determine whether the need exists for a SMC in this country.” Further, Moore notes, the committee is trying to determine how an SMC could “operate as an independent organization whose goal is to help enable and expand quality science reporting.”
What Moore did not say – or even imply – was that a key challenge for the SMC would be to avoid becoming a political football as a result of anything it might say (or not say) in regard to contentious issues such as climate change or genetically modified crops. But, while Moore did not say that, I will. (In fact, I just did.) After ~10 years of covering environmental policy issues as a reporter in DC, I feel comfortable saying that such a center would almost certainly be a political target at some point. However, I think that is simply the cost of doing business, and should not be a barrier to the creation of an SMC. If being a potential target for political mudslinging was a meaningful deterrent, nothing would ever get done.
I would love to see an SMC in the U.S. I think it could be a valuable resource, particularly for “general assignment” reporters who find themselves facing scientific questions and without adequate time to find a bevy of expert sources before their deadline. For dedicated science reporters, it would likely be less useful, since they (hopefully) have an established collection of sources they can turn to. But, alas, most news outlets now employ fewer full-time science reporters (if they still employ any).
So, readers, what do you think? If you’re reading this blog, you presumably have an interest in science communication. Would an SMC work in the U.S.? Would it be useful? Who might be able to pay for it? I want to know what you think. And, presumably, the exploratory committee would too.