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Selling Science to the Media: The Researcher’s View

6 April 2010 | PROJECT NEWS


Researchers need reporters and vice versa, but how do we strike the balance between a story that sells and a story that informs? 

By definition, high-tech research pushes the limits of human understanding, and translating this into something understandable for the general public is notoriously difficult. Sometimes journalists don’t go far enough and the story is lost in complex, stilted language. Sometimes they go too far, simplifying or promising too much about the next breakthrough in anything from healthcare to the environment. Doing too little loses the reader; going too far raises expectations. Where there is no follow-through, this dents the credibility of researcher and reporter alike. Either approach is likely to widen the gap in understanding – and sympathy – between scientists and the general public. 

So is there a third way? Diederik S. Wiersma, researcher at the European Laboratory for Non-Linear Spectroscopy (LENS), thinks so. While hosting young reporters for the project ‘REsearch LAbs for TEaching journalists’ (RELATE), he spoke to EJC Editor Howard Hudson, and gave his views on the beauty and necessity of fundamental research. 


There’s a fine line between oversell and underachievement when it comes to science journalism. How should researchers and reporters try to hook the general public? 

DW: The tendency is to try to get people’s attention by explaining all the possible applications of a certain result. The risk is that the researcher being interviewed is doing whatever he can to find or invent any possible application. That may not be very realistic, but there is so much pressure to invent something and use it to capture the attention. I have the feeling that it’s not very necessary to do that. It seems the easy way for the journalist because saying things like “this is going to cure cancer” or “this is going to make you wealthier and healthier from tomorrow onwards” is the easiest way to hook the general public. 

Clearly, that’s not always possible or justified. I feel that journalists should do something more: they should try to convey the beauty of the scientific result as such. That is in order of magnitude more difficult than just inventing a couple of applications from the result. It is more about seeing the beauty of the world in which we are living, and the beauty of understanding that world. 

Do you mean hooking the audience with beautiful images? Like your photograph (above) that appeared on the cover of Nature magazine? 

DW: That is something that helps. That is an artistic expression of a scientific result that has both a didactic and an aesthetically appealing aspect to it. But it’s more than just the artistic beauty of something. It is really the excitement you have if you understand your world better. The excitement you have when you look at the light emitted by stars millions and millions of years ago and which only now reaches your eye. That is not immediately useful for curing cancer but it’s something that enriches our world and distinguishes us from animals. Animals need to find food, to reproduce and somehow survive—but we are more than that. We have cultural interests. We want to have a fuller, richer life than just bare survival. 

Did you became more aware of these cultural aspects while working in Florence? 

DW: No, it’s unrelated. That has always been my driving force for doing research… I always had the feeling that what I’m doing is nearer to the work of an artist than it is to the work of a normal employee. What you’re doing is very creative, in the work itself, how you do it, and what’s behind it – which is this curiosity in trying to understand how the world works around you. 

So you feel empowered by the research environment in Italy? 

DW: I’m not sure if that’s the research environment in Italy in general, but it’s definitely the research environment at LENS, the lab I’m in at the moment, which is very positive and inspiring. People are very enthusiastic about what they’re doing and about sharing their results with others. It’s a very friendly, competitive environment. So on the one hand, it’s very collaborative but on the other hand it’s a very productive environment in which people are trying to get results and working hard to make progress. It’s the main reason that I’ve stayed here so long, because I think it’s a unique combination. Either you have a lab in which everyone is really friendly and nothing is happening or you have a place where everyone is working very hard and competing with each other and not sharing any results. Neither of the two is the right environment for doing research because in the end what you’re trying to do is to understand nature and get excited about that. 

The first thing you want to do is go to a colleague next door and say “look what I’ve found!” “See how this works – now we understand it!” That works if you have that combination of enthusiasm and hard work, as sometimes it is not so easy to make any progress at all. And on the other hand, the openness and trust in each other so you can share your results without having to be paranoid about things getting stolen. 

Tell us more about your own work and your strategies for getting published. 

DW: The topic that our group is dealing with at LENS is photonics: how light waves behave in photonic materials. Our daily life in the lab consists of a lot of thinking, a lot of doing experiments, aligning optics and lasers and trying to get all the equipment to work. So there is a lot of time involved in getting the experiments going. 

The most exciting part is, once you have some experimental results and bits and pieces of theory, when you start to sit down again together and to understand it and interpret your results. That is the added value of making a good scientific paper: you don’t simply report on what has been done and what the outcome was, but you give a deeper understanding of what that means and the physical insight that comes out of that. That is our strategy of getting published. We don’t think all the time about getting the paper published. We try to get the insight and once you have a nice result and it is really good stuff, then you write it in a paper that’s easy to read and easy to understand. This usually gets published easily because you have written a good paper. So it’s the opposite: we don’t think what do we have to do to get published, it’s rather “how do we get good results”? Then getting that published is automatic. Sometimes you have difficulties or misunderstandings, but that’s always resolvable. 

What I really hate is repeating tiny little results or writing the same thing three or four times for different journals in a slightly different way because it’s completely useless. It’s just time lost. It would be like Rembrandt trying to make photocopies of his paintings. He wouldn’t have any satisfaction about the work. The same approach applies to scientific as well as non-scientific publishing: for the general public, newspapers, things that are in between – like Physics Today, Scientific American – I love writing those kinds of papers because it gives you the chance to explain what you’re doing to a very broad audience. Again this is the moment when you can try to get this excitement about nature and to somehow convey a little of that to the general public. And if you manage to do that, that’s a great satisfaction, especially if you can do it without having to oversell your results. If you do that clearly, that is when the general public sees the beauty of it. 

That is what I think a journalist should try to do: try to really understand it and explain it clearly in simple terms, and then people will say “that is interesting!”. When the baker or the butcher in my village understand my scientific results, that is when I have achieved something in journalism or scientific publishing. 

You’re a Dutch researcher, working in Italy, published in the UK (Nature magazine) and USA (Physical Review Letters). What are the main differences in working with the media in these various countries? 

DW: The most surprising thing is that I didn’t find such big differences. I had quite good experiences so far with journalists that wrote about our work. I always try to spend a lot of time with the journalist to talk about the results, to understand them, and once he or she has written the article, I always give feedback. 

You recently visited China on business. How is the scientific landscape there compared with Europe? 

DW: I went to China for just a week to teach. I didn’t have any contacts with journalists, but it was very interesting to see their very different way of working. What was very interesting to see is that the Chinese Government is investing heavily in fundamental research; so not necessarily application-driven. Just looking at the statistics, at the moment in China it is easier to get funding for fundamental research than it is in Europe or the USA. That is completely the reverse from what we’re used to; as we’re used to seeing the Chinese copying what we are doing and not adding a lot of technology. What they have decided is that, with their money, they should now invest in fundamental research to create the basis for technological development in their country. That is something that we have forgotten in the meantime, that we’re doing less of now in Europe and the USA. I’m very curious to see what consequences that will have in 10 years’ time… They now understand that you have to do fundamental research to create a knowledge basis, from which the engineering can develop all kind of new technologies and devices. Of course it takes courage to do that because you are creating knowledge that is accessible to everyone. Chinese research results can be used by US engineers to develop technology, so it’s investment for the general benefit of mankind, and it’s new for China to take that approach. 

They have a very different system and a lot of decisions are taken by the relatively small group of people that form the central committee. A local professor told me that the central committee had simply decided that a lot of the money that they’ve made in the economic boom should now be used to do basic research… There may be problems due to the lack of democracy; but it’s impressive to see that the people running the country in China understand that you have to do basic research. This is something that in Europe we don’t manage to justify to the taxpayer anymore. There could be an important role here for European science journalists to improve on this in the future. 

NOTE TO EDITORS: REsearch LAbs for TEaching journalists (RELATE) is a project funded by the European Commission under the Science in Society research area of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

Embedded Science Reporting with RELATE
Week-long encounters brought journalists and researchers together, getting researchers out of ivory towers and journalists out of deadlines. These punctual collaborations paved the way to a more knowledgeable and trust-based relationship between researchers and journalists, improving, ultimately, the quality of science reporting.