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Fall 1998

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 98 > Article

Finding a Voice for Science

My doctoral adviser, Eldon Newcomb, had what it takes to be a great scientist, including insatiable curiosity, but Paul de Kruif’s classic Microbe Hunters provided the inspiration. More recent books, including Timothy Ferris’ elegant descriptions of the universe (The Whole Shebang) and Jared Diamond’s marvelous excursions into human evolution (The Third Chimpanzee) are just as inspiring.

Science books can resonate deep and long in our psyche. For me it was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring years before I knew what ecology was. In exposing the dangers of pesticides like DDT, Silent Spring invented environmental awareness.

The way the public views our work is almost as important as the discoveries we make. For example, mention release of genetically engineered organisms and some people flinch. Concerns about the effects of biotechnology on public health and the environment are particularly acute in Europe, where ecoterrorists recently vandalized plots of transformed plants. A pending decision by the Swiss to ban genetic engineering threatens an entire industry and many jobs. Headless tadpoles and Dolly the cloned sheep also have raised yellow flags. Even here in the United States, President Clinton has called for a ban on human cloning.

In the public’s perception of science, the process is just as important as the facts. How scientists think, the kinds of questions they ask (and the ones they don’t), and how they answer those questions are vital in public opinion on issues as thorny as allowing religion into the science classroom.

Good science writing should illuminate the scientific process. If successful, it lets us see through the hokum of cold fusion and interpret conflicting opinions such as the debate over mammograms before age 50. Like any human enterprise, science has its defects, including fraud and gender bias. By exposing science’s warts, writers help excise them. They also place them in perspective: Despite its shortcomings, science remains the best method for learning about the natural world.

Science writers are a link between the laboratory and the public, reporting discoveries and probing important issues. Science writing includes everything from newspaper and magazine reporting to the Internet.

Many authors write for trade publications, technical reports and research magazines such as this one. They also work in industry and government. Science fills the airwaves: NPR’s "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" feature science almost daily.

The stories behind the writers are as varied as the opportunities. Deborah Blum, who earned a Pulitzer Prize for her series on primate research for the Sacramento Bee, majored in journalism at the University of Georgia, got a master’s from the University of Wiscon-sin and did general newspaper assignments before concentrating on science, perhaps because she comes from a science family. Her dad, Murray Blum, is UGA emeritus professor of entomology. Blum’s recent book, Sex on the Brain, received critical accolades. On the other hand, Roald Hoffmann is a Nobel chemist but also a poet and author of science books directed at a general audience, including The Same and Not the Same and Old Wine — New Flasks. Blum presented a Charter Lecture last year; Hoffmann did the same this past February.

Scientists themselves are often the best people to translate their work for a general audience; witness the success of E.O. Wilson, Stephen J. Gould and Carl Sagan. But if scientists don’t write the articles and books, they should cooperate with those who do. Unfortunately, scientists and journalists come to the table with different expectations. A writer’s primary obligation is to the reader, while the scientist’s goal is to plug the research. Both owe it to themselves and society to bridge the gap.

Often that has not been the case. According to Christopher Toumey (Conjuring Science), scientists traditionally have a low opinion of writing for a general audience. They tend to think it isn’t respectable, and the science dumbed down. Petty jealousy is also a factor, said Peter Gwynne in The Scientist (July 21, 1997). Scientists who engage in popularization are suspect; witness the treatment of Sagan who was refused membership in the National Academy of Sciences. In a stirring tribute (Discover, May 1997), Jared Diamond took his colleagues to task, reminding us that "...there will never be another Carl Sagan, and his loss seems doubly painful because we so badly need scientists with his skill. Just one would not be enough: we need thousands. But we are never going to get them — not until scientists and their organizations drastically change their behavior."

Hopefully, change is on the way. Scientists believe that besides enhancing the chance of success in grant proposals and technical manuscripts, communication skills may be important in building public support for research and science education. Because jobs are scarce, knowing how to do lots of things, including writing well, is an advantage, something industry also recognizes judging from recent job ads.

Given the importance of science writing and communication, a broadly based university such as ours is positioned to prepare students entering the profession. With its strengths in the sciences, humanities and journalism, the university can tap its expertise to train science writers for a variety of careers. We hope to do that with a proposed Interdisciplinary Certificate Program in Science Writing and Communication. If approved, the program will complement various majors across campus and emphasize writing skills, science writing genres, career opportunities and exposure to professionals through seminars, symposia and workshops. Internships and mentoring by faculty also will be important. The program will serve as a nucleus for other activities, including workshops for faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. While the focus will first be on undergraduates, a graduate certificate also is likely.

The demand is there: A course in environmental reporting already has been offered, and enthusiastic students took two pilot seminars in science writing last spring. Students also met with Blum and Hoffmann. The watchword is flexibility, or as physicist Richard Feynman used to say, "a large toolbox." We should train the next generation of scientists and writers for a variety of career options, including science writing.

Barry A. Palevitz, Research Professor of Botany, is coordinator of advising in biology, department of botany, University of Georgia, Athens, Ga. 30602-7271. For more information, contact Barry Palevitz at palevitz@dogwood.botany.uga.edu or call (706) 542-1784.

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Barry A. Palevitz