Science Journalism

Good Night and Good Well-Defined Statistical Distribution of States

Scientist on Assignment

Department of Physics Blogs
Published: September

That’s it. Today was my final day as a BSA Media Fellow at the Financial Times.

It passed quickly and relatively smoothly but took every joule of energy that I had to give.

I’m glad its done and I’d do it over again in a heart beat.

What should I write about? Should I write about how my last day happened to be the morning after the Scottish referendum? Or about trying to help the UK News desk but probably just getting in the way? Maybe about finding a hidden little gem of a paper buried deep in the embargoes that I doubt the other big news papers will cover? Or maybe just that today, my last day, was just like every other day – busy and filled with deadlines.

I’ll write more on this once I have time to gather my thoughts but, in brief, I’ve come to realize just what sister fields science and journalism really are. Both journalists and scientists are people who work far too hard doing the job they love for way too little money. They both work weird hours and expect that whatever the barriers, the job will get done by shear will and determination. Even the best newsrooms (or labs) in the world, work through a well-honed chaos rather than martial order. Both journalist and scientists are determined to get as close to the truth as they can and feel a moral responsibility to clearly communicate that little truth to the wider world. Neither is perfect. Time and budget constraints force unwanted compromises and both have traditions and industries that feel necessary but may often impede creativity and progress.

This will not be my last blog post. I’ll write about transitioning back to the labcoat and I’ll try to write some more reflective and self-critical posts in the near future.

A Job by Any Other Name

Scientist on Assignment

Department of Physics Blogs
Published: September

Yesterday, I had the wonderful chance to accompany Clive Cookson on an interview of  Dame Ann Dowling, who had only been elected President of the Royal Academy of Engineers the night before.

Dowling is a mechanical engineer, whose career has been spent studying acoustics of combustion and flight. She still has a month as head of Mechanical Engineering at Cambridge.

Although she covered a lot of ground in our interview, I’d like to talk about one small detail – look forward to an in-depth interview by Clive this weekend in the FT Magazine. Dowling noted that the UK requires 450,000 undergraduate-trained engineers and a full 600,000 graduate-level engineers by 2020. This echoes what we heard from the British Science Association and Siemens, Europe’s largest engineering company who have begun what they are calling the Curiosity Project, a funding scheme to bring science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to the heart of British society.

The Siemens website states:

According to recent research engineering companies are projected to need 1.86 million people with engineering skills from 2010-2020. Therefore the UK needs to double the numbers of engineering related apprentices and graduates coming out of colleges and universities.

This situation is quite at odds with what I had believed the situation to be for graduate-level scientists. I lookout and see a very aggressive market place for scientists.

It is important that I’m thinking about academic research positions. A recent Careers and Recruitment article in Nature Biotechnology called this career path a “disheartening outlook.” The article says that only 24% biomedical PhDs find tenure-track positions within 5 years of obtaining their degree but that there is no change in the number who do post-doctoral fellowships. That’s a bleak job market.

The Nature article goes on to talk about The BALSA Group and is worth a read.

It seems to me that we scientists must somehow be “reallocated” to these greener fields engineering.  This could be a much faster way of filling these jobs than “fixing the pipeline problem” of getting school age children to chose STEM career paths. It sounds like the employers need us and we could certainly use the jobs.

As Dowling said in out interview, “To me engineering is the application of science to meet a need.”

A last few points:

  • If the FT’s article on Dame Ann Dowling does not focus on this point then I will post the transcript of this portion of our interview here on my blog
  • Jordon Weissmann at the Atlantic has discussed these issues in a much more pessimistic way that is worth reading.
  • In 2008, graduate-level scientists and engineers (3 years out of school) had only 1.5% unemployment in the USA, which is quite good really.

Some Secrets Are Just Too Good to Keep

Scientist on Assignment

Department of Physics Blogs
Published: September

One day while at the British Science Festival, I didn’t have a clear story from the press briefings, so I spent the day attending the public talks searching for something to cover. I did eventually find an exciting story but I didn’t write about it.

I’m going to be annoyingly oblique in this blog post and I’m sorry about that but you’ll see the reasons become clear in a moment.

I went to a presentation that I thought was pretty interesting but by the end of it I was unclear whether or not the material was novel and newsworthy. So after the talk, I approached the presenter with my recorder and note book, and asked her directly. She asked why I was interested in the “newsworthiness” of it and I told her that I was covering the festival for the Financial Times.

She informed me that it was really a few years old, which would have been the end of things, except she then said that she had just concluded an important study that would be high impact. She didn’t include the results in the talk because she hadn’t wanted to make it public before it was published.

That, as they say, would have been that except she then went on to tell me all about it. She told me the experiment. She told me the method. She told me the results. Whenever I was unclear on something she was saying, I asked her for more details and she explained it to me. It went better than most of my interviews.

By the time she had finished telling me about it and I had turned off my recorder, I had more than enough material to write a very exciting story for the FT on a novel research program that no other journalist even knew about.

I was flabbergasted. She had said that she didn’t want to make her work public but then had immediately shared it all with a journalist from the FT!

Scientists, listen to me. Listen to me, scientists. Listen:
Do not do this.

As a journalist, I knew that I was sitting on a good story that would interest my editor and FT readers and would scoop all the other papers. As a fellow scientist, I knew the presenter didn’t realize the ramifications of what she had done.

So I buried the story. I did not write it.

I talked to Clive Cookson, my editor, about it and he was super supportive.

I’ve since contacted the researcher and she’s going to keep me up-to-date on the project. I’ll even visit her lab before she publishes. Hopefully, I can still write the article that will cover her work and have enough time to do a better job than other journalists, who will have to rely on the press release when it comes.

A week at the British Science Festival

Scientist on Assignment

Department of Physics Blogs
Published: September

The reason why I didn’t post last week was because I was covering the British Science Festival for the Financial Times.

It was great. I did all the normal things that I’m used to at a festival, like attend talks and go out in the evening (we BSA Media Fellows won second place at the BSF pub trivial night — that’s right second place). I also got to see Festival of the Spoken Nerd for the first time (amazing) and see two excellent science writers, Alice Roberts and Armand Leroi give talks on their new books.I also personally got to meet two science communicators who I’ve looked up to for many years now: Robyn Williams and Jim Al-khalili. This was all very amazing for me.

On top of all this, I also got to attend press conferences/releases in the morning and write them up in the afternoon.

So it was exhausting but I suppose that I should just be thankful that I didn’t also speak (as, for instance, Vicky Forster did as a panellist on the Cancer Survivalship).

We did get to cover many interesting stories:
The Stonehenge discoveries were probably the highlight and I feel lucky to have been in the group of 20 or so of us from the media to whom this work was first introduced. Media coverage has since spread globally and I’ll never look at Stonehenge the same.
The possibility of using mobile phones to one day diagnose Parkinson’s disease is surprisingly close. Since covering this (and attending a talk by Aral Balkan, who is involved (maybe owns; I’m not clear on this) ind.ie), I’ve been far more concerned with the possibility and reality of invasive data collection about me by corporations, such as Google and medical companies.

Beyond that I covered a few topics that weren’t published immediately but will make it to the magazine this weekend. I’m a touch sorry that they were produced on a timescale that they could have been breaking news but are being released more slowly. This morning while on my way into London, I was listening to the BBC podcast and the Nature podcast and they each reported on one of these stories. Once my versions are out, I’ll post links to them here.

In up coming blog posts look forward to:

  • Burying science stories
  • Rosetta coverage
  • a round-up of FT Magazine articles
  • and a meeting with Dame Ann Dawling.

PUNder the Many Differences

Scientist on Assignment

Department of Physics Blogs
Published: September

A few days ago my first news article was published. Although certainly tied to science it is most certainly a news story and not a science story.

Ahead of a pair of papers being published in scientific journals, the UK authors called a press conference to vocalize their criticism of the WHO’s recommendations for countries to enact stronger regulations on e-cigarettes. Technically, the authors were responding to the academic paper that was commissioned by the WHO to give background but the recommendations of the background paper and the official WHO report are almost identical and it was clear to all that the UK critiques were debating the WHO recommendations.

This press conference was covered by all the major London papers and many science-oriented publications. So it’s interesting to see what ways the articles are consistent and in which they differed.

You can gauge the coverage versus the tone yourself by reading the original press release.

I read and compared other people’s coverage. Maybe I did this because I wanted to see if I had completely misunderstood the tone of the experts or maybe to see if other papers would put an editorial slant on this socially important issue or if anyone had found an insightful angle that I had completely missed.

Most people (including the BBC, Reuters, Nature News and Time) started with the strong phrase that these experts felt that the WHO made “important errors, misinterpretations and misrepresentation of evidence” or that the WHO was “alarmist.” This is how we started as well.

The other common way to start was to lead with the number of lives that the experts estimated could be saved by ecigarettes. This is the tact that the Guardian took. While I admit that this is perhaps the most important number, it comes from a rough approximation and will never be directly verifiable. For us this rate occurred much deeper into the article. Even rougher than the rate itself, some publications translated the rate of lives saved per year per million smokers who switch from conventional tobacco to ecigarettes into a very large number (54000) of lives that could be saved per year if every single smoker in the UK switched. While the number is no more or less correct than the rate, it is more misleading in my opinion because it is hard to believe that 100% of UK smokers will switch.

One place where my FT article was a bit more number heavy than most was with clauses that tip their hat at the economics of ecigarettes. We mention the growth of the ecigarette market, which very few papers did. This is not new information for this article but seemed like appropriate background information for my stereotype of an FT reader.

Also a lot of the same quotes showed up. I was happy that no one else that I saw used the same ones that I used. Notable, McNeill was certainly on point and there are a number of similar quotes.

My favourite quote that I did not get was one from the BBC: “You have to be a bit crazy to carry on smoking conventional cigarettes when there are e-cigarettes available,” said Robert West “The vapour contains nothing like the concentrations of carcinogens and toxins as cigarette smoke.”

The BBC was also quote heavy like we were at the FT, which is probably the right approach (obviously I’d think so) because the news story is only that these scientists are speaking up.

There were places where the coverage differed but it wasn’t extremely substantial.

Some articles were able to make the distinction that there were two separate articles that were criticising the WHO recommendations and that the separation of the WHO-commisioned paper and the WHO recommendations better than I was able to. The Guardian did this very well and so did Science 2.0.

My excuse is that they had more space to do so. A second place where more space would have been nice would have been to go through the highlights of their critique. In their press release the experts do a very nice job stressing 4 of the 9 points where they really disagree with the WHO recommendations. Again Science 2.0 did a good job of this, as did Reuters.

Thankfully (or not) we weren’t the only ones to go with a pun for this debate which could have a long standing impact on society and potentially save 10s of thousands of lives. Time also ran a pun headline: “Debate Over E-Cigarettes Lights Up.” The headline does not help me be proud of my first news piece; however, I do see why grabbing peoples interest is important and I don’t actually think that the pun misrepresents the story so it’s fine.

One place where we at the FT were a little different was that we stressed that the critics felt that they would be able to work with the WHO moving forward. The BBC went with the standard journalism approach of getting balance by speaking to scientists who disagreed with the critiques. While I definitely understand that there are two sides to every story, it seems to me that the WHO’s recommendations already act as the other side and so by ending with critiques of the critiques, you end up biasing your report.

Nature News went even further and stressed just how polarized things might become. Though we are certainly more optimistic in the piece, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that Nature News’ pessimism is more appropriate.

While we differed in tone at the end of the articles, Time’s piece went very strongly towards antagonistic of the critiques by commenting on the fact that one author of the paper lists his “competing interests.” It’s not actually a bad point but ending with it leaves the reader (or at least me) with a bad taste of  “suspicion of foul play” in their mouth, which doesn’t seem to be appropriate.

For a laugh (or not), notice that the Huffington Post went in an entirely different direction by running the headline “E-Cigarettes Could Act As Gateway Drug To Cocaine And Cannabis, Warn Researchers” covering some other group of researchers on the same day.

Frazzle-dazzle

Scientist on Assignment

Department of Physics Blogs
Published: September

Off to Birmingham for the British Science Festival. This is a totally novel and even foreign experience for me. I don’t know that there were science festivals in Canada while I was growing up. If there were, I certainly don’t remember attending any. The British seem to be great at this sort of thing.

While I am excited, I am also a bit frazzled. I’m not sure what to expect, I don’t feel organized and, as a cherry on top, I’m sick.

I’m sure that I’m sick because I’ve been going non-stop since I started my placement at the FT. I’ve been getting up at 6AM and getting home at 9-10PM each night. I’ve never been very good at remembering little things like to eat lunch, which is fine normally but I think this is starting to catch up to me.

So off I go to cover my first Science Festival as a journalist for the FT rather than as an attendee or as a scientist. I’m sure that it will all turn out fine in the end. In fact, it is bound to be a great adventure and I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

This Just In: Cake!

Scientist on Assignment

Department of Physics Blogs
Published: September

I spent a portion of the day working on a press release. It’s an interesting one with a scientific contribution and immediate international consequences. That’s great. Except…

The press release relies on a submitted manuscript that is referenced as a footnote. In preparing to interview the scientist, I requested the manuscript so that I could do a intelligent interview. But the researchers don’t want to give it to me because it’s not peer-reviewed yet. Does anyone else notice an inconsistency here?

You can’t have your cake and eat it too, name-of-scientists-redacted-here! How do you expect me to cover the science that you advertised and announced to me as worthy of international coverage by releasing a press release WITHOUT letting me even see your claims? What exactly are you thinking that the headline is going to be?

Headline: “Researchers hold press conference: facts to come later”
Quote: “People should expect good stuff”

And it’s not just that I’ve been assigned it by the editor or something. This looks like good science from respected researchers that has been vetted by international organizations with a timely component. All would be good if I could read your preprint.

I know that I’m supposed to be seeing things from a journalist’s perspective but I didn’t think that in 2 weeks I’d be so consistently dumbfounded by my fellow academics.

Rotten Apples

Scientist on Assignment

Department of Physics Blogs
Published: September

Are you a scientist who thinks the media doesn’t do your field of research justice?

Do you study differences in the brain related to gender?

If you answered “yes” to the first question but “no” to the second, you have no idea. I can’t say anything specific because it involves another embargo but this morning I watched a neurologist present an argument against biologically intrinsic differences between genders. It was a clear and specific argument based on the plasticity of brains (at least I thought so) but one or two journalists were clearly fishing for “SCIENCE PROVES MEN AND WOMEN INTRINSICALLY DIFFERENT” type headlines. It was the first time that I was not impressed by the journalists around me. I should stress that most seemed to take the speech for what it was but it only takes one or two rotten apples. I should also say that there may be a little bit of room for a minor scientific debate on potential biological roots for behavioural differences but it did not seem like that was what these few journalists were looking for.

While we are on the subject of retreading over settled issues, an interesting piece was published in Trends in Molecular Medicine last month. David Gorski and Steven Novella wrote an article discussing whether or not the limited resources of the medical community should be spent applying the scientific method (specifically randomized clinical trials — the gold standard in medical sciences) to test alternative medicines such as homeopathy or reiki.

Although, the scientific method demands that all claims are tested against reproducible evidence, Gorski and Novella (who are heavily involved with Science-Based Medicine and with sceptics groups) argue that scientists have limited resources and a responsibility to the public not to waste taxpayers’ money.

You can hear a summary of the argument straight from Steven Novella on the 477th episode of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.

Down the Rabbit’s Hole

Scientist on Assignment

Department of Physics Blogs
Published: September

Today was a day of prescribed distractions.

I started the day working on an article about domestication. While doing research for it, I got entirely fascinated by the process of domestication. I learned that dogs were domesticated from a now extinct population of Eurasian wolves tens of thousands of years ago. The majority of domestic animals were tamed in the mists of prehistory. Ducks, Cats, honey bees, and even silk worms were domesticated thousands of years ago.

Once I felt that I had a fair grasp on the history of domestication, I immediately decided that I needed to know more about Catholic fasting rules, if I was to continue writing my article (I promise to buy a pint for the first person to make the connection between domestication and Catholic fasting rules in the comments below). I contacted a hand full of Catholic organization to verify the facts that I was working with but none have yet contacted me back.

I finished the article. Read over it and submitted it then immediately jumped into reading a big embargoed paper that is related to my field of research. I’d really like to tell my research group about it but it is embargoed until Thursday.

Embargoing is apparently a common practice in the media. An organization (such as the AAAS in science) will send a list of potential stories out to registered journalists. The journalists will get a press release, some contact information and a date after which they can make the information known (an embargo date). This practice is good for the organizations announcing the press releases because they get a big media push on the release date from many news organizations. It is also good for journalists because they are given some time to do a good job interviewing scientists and putting together a well crafted story. Now that I’ve gotten used to it, I think the embargo system is good for science journalism.

I took a bit of time for some lunch today(my first lunch break since arriving) before heading off to an interview with a cancer company.

We’ve known for some time that cancer is not a single disease but in recent years it has become clearer and clearer that no one tumour is the same. In fact, even within a tumour there is a large community of types of tumour cells and you can’t just treat cancer by treating the most aggressive cells. As a consequence it is very unlikely that any one will ever develop a single cancer drug but rather that complicated cocktails of many different drugs will have to be used. But if everyone is different, how can doctors know the right cocktail?

The company that we met with makes “mice avatars” for cancer patients. Mice avatars are rodents that have their immune system knocked out and a piece of a patient’s tumour transplanted into them.  Since mice reproduce so quickly, soon the company has many surrogate versions of the patient’s tumour on which to test many different drug combinations. It’s a strategy that has worked well in cases when the rate of cancer growth is “just right”.

That was it for my responsibilities today but there was still time left so I got to spend the end of the day searching for interesting and exciting British scientists to potentially profile. If any one has any ideas, let me know.

Let’s be Honest

Scientist on Assignment

Department of Physics Blogs
Published: August

One week done. I’ve gotten to write five stories so far. Most of them should come out in tomorrow’s weekend edition. They’ve all been nice and short with no frills — just present the news of the science as concisely as possible. That might not be an easy task but at least it’s straight forward. I’ve covered biology, psychology and fundamental physics. As a wonderful treat, I even got to write a brief about some non-equilibrium statistical mechanics (my field), which may be accompanied by an interactive that I helped to put together.

One thing that I noticed after doing a few interviews was that I wasn’t always truly listening to the researchers. Instead I was hunting for good quotations and when I would nab one, I would scramble to scribble it down.

To make matters worse, many (not all but many) of these researchers would just natter on about details that I had already read in their papers and press releases. These people generally wouldn’t think long enough before speaking. Often they would change thought mid-sentence ruining potentially good quotations.

If I am ever interviewed by a journalist for a print piece, I will strictly adhere to the following rules:

  1. I will listen to the question.
  2. Before speaking, I will silently remind myself that journalists are looking for quotations to broadly encapsulate the point, not to have it explained to them (they’re playing dumb).
  3. I will pause to chose my words carefully.
  4. I will give a one sentence answer that includes any essential caveats.
  5. Then and only then, I will continue on to information that I think journalists will need to write their articles.

Since most scientists don’t do this, I’ve started using a strategy to drag it out from them:

  1. I’ve started recording all my interviews in their entirety — believe it or not this is slower than transcribing quotes as I hear them, since I have to go through the entire recording afterwards.
  2. I ask the question that I would like to get an answer to and listen closely to the researcher’s first answer.
  3. Once the researcher has answered, I say, “So I asked” and repeat the question followed by “If you were to encapsulate all of what you just said into a single sentence for my article, what would you say?”
  4. After I have asked all my questions, I ask if I have missed anything.
  5. I also ask, “If you could have just one quote or point made in the article, what would that be?”
  6. Finally, I ask, “Has anything bugged you or rubbed you the wrong way about the media coverage so far?”

This recipe is forward. It’s honest. It’s cooperative. Some might even call it collusive but I need the best quotation that I can get on specific points and the scientist needs to give the best answers to be quoted in a short printed account of their work. This is the way that I’ve been approaching the last few interviews that I’ve done. I’ve been trying to make it my job to create the best possible scientist-journalist interaction during interviews for the express purpose of producing publishable quotations. And as is often the case with scientists, there’s no place for subtlety.