I’m impressed that the UK’s Minister for Universities and Science is busy talking and writing about the importance of science writing. Here’s an excerpt from Willetts’ Oct. 27, 2011 posting on the Guardian science blogs website,
Meeting the finalists of the Medical Research Council’s [MRC] Max Perutz Science Writing Award recently, I was reminded of the important role of science writing. The ability of science and evidence to transcend tribal loyalties – meeting John Rawls’s test of public reason – make them vital elements of rational discourse in a modern society.
The MRC’s prize and others like the Wellcome Trust’s science writing prize demonstrate that research funders agree. Science writing is all about making information and evidence available and accessible.
Historically, we have relied on a small number of journalists and editors to decide what is important, what is true. Now we have a much greater choice. Each of us is able to choose only the sources we want to hear from. If that means people with whom we already agree, do we risk losing the important function that traditional media have played in challenging our views or preconceptions?
People will differentiate between the many voices, in part on the basis of whom they consider authoritative, who is easy to find and who has been recommended by peers. Both authority and presence can be imparted to an author by the name of the host under whose banner the article is published, a job title, or an excellent track record. That is as true online as anywhere else and, of course, trust is earned slowly and lost quickly.
Independent scientists are consistently rated as well trusted sources of information. But will that hold true throughout a crisis if the major source of reporting is from within a community under scrutiny? Is merely checking copy a threat to “the sort of science journalism that everyone claims they want to see”?
With the trend for more and more online, self-generated material, organisations do have much more control over some of the information available about them. But how is this material produced and by whom? How does a research institute manage its messages if all of its researchers are potential mouthpieces? And what is the interaction between different types of coverage? Is a tweet or blog written for peers, the public, journalists, or all of the above?
I wonder if Gary Goodyear, Canada’s Minister of State (Science and Technology) could be persuaded to post here as a guest? I suspect not.
In any event, David Willetts has spoken previously on the importance of science writing at May 24, 2011 event. From the article by George Wigmore for the Association of British Science Writers on the events page,
Speaking at City University on Tuesday (24 May), David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, talked about the importance of science writing and public engagement.
Describing science journalists as “custodians of empiricism”, and science writers as “more GPs than hospital consultants”. The minister also described parallels between the jobs of science journalist and politician. He went on to describe the pressures that science journalists are under, including “the sheer pressure of time” and the tension “between the scientists doing the primary research, and the newsroom with its demands for a useable story with a vivid headline.”
Touching on a range of issues, including balance and open-access, Willetts stressed the government’s contributions to science writing and engagement. In particular, he mentioned libel reform, transparency, and financial support for institutions such as Science Media Centre.
“Science writing matters,” said Willetts. “It’s about making information and evidence available and accessible. It’s crucial in the public discourse.”
The article page hosts a video of the speech (approximately 55 mins.) and, of course, you can read the rest of the article.
In his posting on the Guardian Science blogs website, Willetts mentions a government initiative, the Online Media Group for Science (from their About page),
Over the next few months we’ll be posing a series of case studies on this site for discussion. They will explore how different people and organisations use online media as they communicate science to a range of audiences. The case studies are intended to be honest and interesting examples of how people and organisations have used online media; what has or hasn’t worked and why. We’re really grateful to the contributors for writing them so honestly.
We’re not intending to create a comprehensive list of what’s out there but the case studies will draw on the experiences of journalists, press officers, science communicators and many others. Rather than defining these familiar roles in an online context, or providing hard and fast rules about how you should use online media, we hope discussions here will help you think about the tools that exist and how they can be used to achieve your aims – whatever they are.
So please take part in the discussion, nominate someone else who you’d like to hear from, share stuff with colleagues or even submit your own case study!
I spotted four case studies from Research Councils UK (RCUK), Guardian News and Media, Wellcome Trust, and Ideas Lab, respectively. Here’s a paragraph from each,
Research Councils UK:
The website has origins in another age, when it was OK to use it as one big electronic document store. Even this, if done well, would perhaps have been fine, but now it is so huge that it is just unwieldy.
Guardian News and Media:
What *don’t* we use? We publish things to our website using a homegrown CMS, which also includes our blogging platform. But we use a variety of other sites and services, too. Twitter is an important way for staff to engage with (and contribute to) communities of interest – we have about 50 official accounts (like @guardiannews, @guardianfilm etc) and well over 500 individual staff members with Twitter accounts. We also use Flickr to publish photos by staff photographers and engage with photography-loving communities, and have a number of fan pages on Facebook. You can also find us at guardian.tumblr.com, where we curate interesting snippets from the day’s news.
I can’t comment on how much we spend, but we have a communications team of about 40 people that encompasses Editorial, Media Office, Web, Design and Marketing. Together we produce our print and online communications. We have to support the infrastructure to run our websites but beyond this our channels, such as the blog, are run on free services and the main resource is employee time.
We don’t have a written strategy for their [website, Twitter, Facebook, podcasting, & online video) use, but we do work to some unwritten rules:
- Lo- to-no budget for online (excluding staff time).
- Having a limited amount of publicly available information. Our online materials are there to encourage communication with us on the phone or face to face.
- Keeping podcasts and tweets frequent and regular.
- Keeping all communication very targeted – having a fixed maximum length for podcasts, and no off-topic/general Tweets.
- Sharing content with third party sites where possible – letting others post our video and podcasts on their sites if they would like to.
- Cross-promoting everything (such as having our Twitter name on our email signatures).
- Keeping at it – even if something isn’t fantastic, just doing it regularly and building up a catalogue can pay off. It’s sometimes about quantity as well as quality.
One of these days I’ll have to go back for a longer look.