Navel Gazing

London: The Guardian newspaper and Wellcome Trust medical organisation have launched a prize “to celebrate new voices in the ever-growing ecosystem of science writers”.

Several of the organisms in this ecosystem were asked to contribute their thoughts and advice on writing about science (including me) and a comprehensive list of columns by my fellow sci-hacks is steadily building up.

The British and, to some extent, US science writing community is very interested in the process of writing and discusses and dissects it continually in a way that, I imagine, sports journalists don’t. Even as a member of this community, I sometimes find the extent of the navel gazing a bit hard to understand. And, given the niche interest, it’s unprecedented for a mainstream national newspaper to indulge this self analysis in the way The Guardian has – (done superbly in this sublime parody) – and testament, I think, to the paper’s celebration of all things media, efforts to expand its science coverage, and without doubt the infinite size available in webland.

Science writing is a bit special, though. It’s not just about taking something pretty complicated and rendering it understandable (after all, I don’t understand anything about football, cricket or whatever that in-between game’s called), it’s also carries an important social responsibility. A science writer is responsible for helping readers to understand issues crucial to their lives and the well-being of the planet, such as whether to vaccinate their children, to vote for carbon taxes on fuel or to get rid of ozone-depleting CFCs.

Because of this responsibility, I think it is important not just that the ways to write better about science are explored, but that it is done so in a mainstream publication, so there is better transparency around the craft itself. Sci-hacks, like everyone else including scientists, have their own views, beliefs and agendas, but I am confident that central to these is a conviction that the science must be related clearly and unambiguously no matter what the politics.

I do wonder, though, if encouraging more scientists and medics to drop their lab tools and take up science writing is a good idea – shouldn’t they be out there doing the science? After all, if no one’s coming out with new scientific findings, hacks like me will have to resort to writing about writing about science…

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