We all know that engineers tend to look at the world from a unique perspective. Instead of half-empty or half-full, the engineer's glass appears to be twice as big as necessary. After all, this is the crowd that can chronologically list Star Trek episodes while window shopping Radio Shack, right? So what on Earth is a young engineer to make of a discussion about environmental journalism?
As a young graduate engineer, I was graciously sponsored to attend SEJ 2010 by the Metcalf Institute, through their NSF RAPID grant. What I found was a remarkable connection between scientists and the journalists that heroically cover the field. Many scientists view their discipline through an isolationist lens, yet the interrelationships between science, journalism, politics and the public is strikingly symbiotic and inexorably intertwined. I would agree that the challenges facing our planet have evolved. While our scientific capabilities have also risen proportionally, our ability to address those challenges has dwindled. In many ways, we are like a V12 roadster with an expert driver and a blown transmission; our inability to "engage" results in both ignorance and inaction.
Now any clever person can define a problem, but how on Earth can we move forward in addressing it? From the seminars, panels, and side conversations at SEJ, I would humbly suggest three key changes, as a starting point:
First, we need to fix the distrust and lack of communication between scientists and journalists. From side conversations with journalists, I would posit that journalists can be frustrated with scientists' aloof and withdrawn attitude, especially when scientists don't understand or accept the demands of print deadlines. I would also suggest that scientists are terribly afraid of the political and financial repercussions that are ignited by inaccurate media coverage. I personally think that the first step in rebuilding trust belongs to the journalists: allow scientists to preview how their quotes and explanations will be used in print; talk with editors about setting deadlines that enable appropriate research and reporting; and start engaging scientists directly at science conferences and meetings.
Second, we need to encourage scientists to rejoin the public conversation. A recent Yale Forum article talked about a movement toward "scientists as advocates." I don't personally think this is the best way to approach the current problem, but it illustrates that multiple solution methods are viable. Scientists have long since disengaged from the public conversation on scientific topics. In the dawning of digital media, scientists have the opportunity to engage audiences in a direct and profound way, sharing both our understanding of scientific principles and current advancements in our research; in this way, we can work side-by-side with journalists to truly enrich and broaden the conversation. There is no easy way to begin this process, except by having a personal conversation with every scientist you know.
Third, and finally, journalists need to reevaluate scientific journals as an essential source. Many journalists I talked to said that they don't rely on peer-reviewed journals, except as supporting citations for scientists whom they have interviewed. In many cases, these journalists also said that they are wary of papers which include industrial or governmental funding sources. The peer-review publication process is the primary forum of the scientific community, and we take it very seriously! The process was designed to eliminate the "weeds" and present the most advanced thinking, and this generally works very well. Though these may be poorly written and difficult to parse, science journalists must regularly keep up on the scientific journals that pertain to their area (excellent primer on how scientists read journal articles). Instead of being disconnected, journalists are a critical part of the scientific process, and to overlook or distrust these journals is to intentionally disregard another critical part of the process.
Thank you again to Metcalf for sponsoring a young engineer at SEJ, and thank you to all SEJ attendees for your hospitality and humor. If you find these observations of particular value, please leave a comment! The conversation has to start somewhere, so let's start it here!