Some Questions and Thoughts on the NASW Officer Debate

Hey there, folks. This is some inside-baseball ruminating about the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), so feel free to skip this one if that’s not up your alley.

At issue is a longstanding debate about a section in the NASW constitution that defines who can (and cannot) serve as an officer in the organization. The language, in Article IV, Section 1, states that: “The elected officers of the Association shall consist of a president, a vice-president who shall be president-elect, a treasurer, and a secretary, who shall all be ex officio directors. A substantial majority of an officer’s science-writing activities shall be journalism. Officers may not write press releases or otherwise act on behalf of an institution or company to affect media coverage while they serve in office. Officers who engage in such activities shall notify the Board immediately. They may remain on the Board, but the Board shall appoint another fully qualified member to carry out the officer duties.”

There is currently an amendment before the membership of NASW that would alter the language to allow any member to serve as an officer. That amendment has amped up the debate over not only who should be able to serve as an officer, but about the nature of NASW itself, as well as its future as an organization. That subject has been written about a fair amount in recent months, such as in these three pieces in Undark (here, here, and here).

Lots of people have written a lot of thoughtful arguments about this issue – one need look no further than many of the comments on the Undark posts I linked to above – so I won’t spend a lot of time hashing out the issues myself. Instead, I’ll lay out my (somewhat conflicted) feelings on it in brief terms. But I do have some fundamental questions that I’m hoping someone can answer for me. (And, to be clear, these are not rhetorical questions, or loaded ones. I’m honestly curious.)

My Conflicted Thoughts re: the Proposed NASW Amendment

In general: 1). I think there are many overlapping areas of interest and skillsets among NASW members of any stripe – and, therefore, NASW can be a valuable organization to reporters, public information officers (or PIOs, such as university science writers, including myself), authors, editors, and others; 2). I also think there are clear, fundamental differences between the job of being a reporter and being a PIO; 3). I’m okay with a PIO being an officer, but I understand the concerns among reporters; 4). I’m not sure what is to be gained (by reporters or PIOs) from a PIO serving as an officer, other than that it is an indication of respect (which is not insignificant); 5). alienating a substantial portion of reporters in order to gain ill-defined benefits by having PIOs be eligible for officer positions seems like a poor trade-off (in my opinion, which I know lots of folks disagree with).

In other words, as noted above, I’m conflicted about this. As anyone who knows me would attest, I have opinions, so finding myself going back and forth on an issue like this one is unusual for me. In short: blargh.

Because, here’s the deal: I’m a PIO. I like being a PIO. I respect myself and the work that I do. I think it’s a noble and legitimate gig. I also used to be a full-time reporter. I liked being a reporter. I respected myself and respect the work that I did. I think it’s a noble and legitimate gig. I also have no illusions whatsoever about the fact that they are fundamentally different jobs. As a PIO, I write about the institution that employs me. That’s a conflict of interest that would be untenable as a journalist.

So, anyway, just throwing that out there. Now, on to the reason I decided to write this post in the first place, potentially opening the door to harsh criticism from both sides.

I Have Questions

The NASW constitution’s language states that “A substantial majority of an officer’s science-writing activities shall be journalism” and that “Officers may not write press releases or otherwise act on behalf of an institution or company to affect media coverage while they serve in office.” And I’m not entirely clear on what that means.

For starters, what does a “substantial majority” mean? 51 percent of an individual’s work over the course of their term? 60 percent? 75?

Do books count as journalism? I.e., if the bulk of a writer’s work is for a book or books, does that count as journalism? What if a person is a staff reporter when they get elected and then they decide to take time off to write a book, do they have to step down as an officer?

What if an officer gets laid off from a staff position, or a favored freelance outlet dries up, and they decide to write a book instead? Does that count?

What if the person’s a freelancer and ends up writing features for a university magazine? Does that count as work that violates the constitutional language? What about writing for other institutional outlets, like (the now defunct) HHMI Bulletin (which I loved)? What about outlets like MIT Technology Review, a very good news outlet that works hard to maintain its editorial independence, but is still, at the end of the day, owned by the university whose name is in the title? Is writing for an outlet like that fundamentally acting “on behalf of an institution or company to affect media coverage”?

I guess I’m just not clear on where the line is for what separates the constitutionally acceptable candidates from the unacceptable candidates, particularly given that I know many reporters who publish in widely-respected news outlets but that have also written for universities and other institutions. They have, to the best of my knowledge, been scrupulous in avoiding conflicts of interest. But I’m not sure how to tell which of them would pass muster as a potential officer. Are there any clearly defined guidelines for implementing the existing language? Or is it based on a Potter-esque “I know it when I see it” sort of thing?

Again, I’m not being snarky. I’m not trying to be difficult. I just want to understand this aspect of things, because it seems like it would be important in helping to place the proposed amendment into context. At least for me.

Stephani Page HEADER

We Are Here; Make Room: An Interview with Stephani Page

Stephani Page HEADER

The science, technology, engineering and math fields have a diversity problem: women and people of color are significantly underrepresented.

And while large institutions – from federal agencies to universities – are trying to address STEM diversity, a lot of the work is being done at the grassroots level.

One of those grassroots efforts was launched by Stephani Page, who spearheaded the creation of the #BlackAndSTEM online community in early 2014. Page, now a postdoctoral researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill, has a varied research background: a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and master’s in biology from North Carolina A&T, and a PhD in biochemistry and biophysics from UNC.

I wanted to talk with her about the creation and evolution of #BlackAndSTEM, and how science communication can make a difference in STEM diversity.

Science Communication Breakdown: Your background is as a scientist, rather than a communicator. When did you start thinking seriously about science communication? Continue reading “We Are Here; Make Room: An Interview with Stephani Page”

Waving goodbye. Waving hello. Photo credit: Andrew Kruse. Shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

Goodbye, Old Blog – Hello, New Blog

Waving goodbye. Waving hello. Photo credit: Andrew Kruse. Shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.
Waving goodbye. Waving hello. Photo credit: Andrew Kruse. Shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

The original version of this blog was launched on a blog network called SciLogs, which announced earlier this month that it will be shutting down in September. This marks the end of Communication Breakdown, but the beginning of my new blog, Science Communication Breakdown – the blog that you are, in fact, reading right now. Continue reading “Goodbye, Old Blog – Hello, New Blog”

LizHeinecke Header 1280

Taking Science Experiments (and Kids) Outdoors: an Interview with Liz Heinecke

LizHeinecke Header 1280

Summer is here, and for parents (like me) who have school-age children, that means finding ways to keep the kids occupied. And if those activities help to instill a love of science, all the better. So, what better time for finding a book of outdoor science experiments for children?

Well, folks, you’re in luck. Continue reading “Taking Science Experiments (and Kids) Outdoors: an Interview with Liz Heinecke”

Photo credit: Viviana Parra Noriega. Shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

People Deem Feminine Women Less Likely to Be Scientists

Photo credit: Viviana Parra Noriega. Shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.
Photo credit: Viviana Parra Noriega. Shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

A paper published in the journal Sex Roles, reports that people think that the more feminine a woman is, the less likely she is to be a scientist. The same stereotype holds true for attractive people of either gender, the paper reports. Ugh.

The paper, “But You Don’t Look Like a Scientist!: Women Scientists With Feminine Appearance Are Deemed Less Likely to Be Scientists,” was published online Feb. 5. The paper was authored by Sarah Banchefsky, Bernadette Park and Charles M. Judd of the University of Colorado Boulder; and Jacob Westfall of the University of Texas at Austin. I’ll be offering an overview of the work here, but Continue reading “People Deem Feminine Women Less Likely to Be Scientists”