Universities increasingly feel the pressure from research funders (i.e., governments) to disseminate the results of their research activities. As well, the granting councils are starting to include a requirement for grant recipients to communicate their discoveries with the public.
It is therefore ironic that, according to veteran science writer Peter Calamai, the number of dedicated science journalists in the major media has been cut drastically over the years. In an opinion piece in the Dec. 23, 2008, edition of Re$earch Money (subscription required), he notes that CBC-TV, the Toronto Star and La Presse no longer have staff reporters assigned to cover science full time. Until last year these organizations had made prominent use of such staff reporters for decades, he notes. (Mr. Calamai was the science reporter for the Toronto Star.)
He continues: “When the Canadian Science Writers’ Association was founded in 1971, there were at least 30 staff newspaper reporters in Canada whose beat was science, sometimes combined with medicine. … Today there are about six such reporters.”
The paradox is striking. On one hand the federal S&T strategy is proclaiming that Canada’s future rests with a knowledge economy and that Canadians need to be excited about scientific research. As well, more and more posts for “research communicators” are being created at universities, research hospitals, corporations and science-based institutions. Yet the best knowledge translators between such communicators and the general public – full-time staff science journalists – are shrinking to the vanishing point.
Of course, this phenomenon is partly a reflection of the changing economics of the newspaper industry and the mass media in general, as they cut staff in response to declining revenues. Internet sites and science blogs may be picking up some of the slack, but Mr. Calamai argues that these niche outlets mostly attract what surveys for the U.S. National Science Foundation call the “science-attentive” portion of the general public, generously estimated to be one in five. The other four-fifths, he writes, “doesn’t go seeking science news on the World Wide Web or elsewhere. But they will listen, watch or read if competently reported news about science appears in the mass media they are already consuming.”
In response, Mr. Calamai proposes the creation of a Science Media Centre of Canada, which would offer help to generalist reporters when they’re writing on science topics. The group pushing the media centre idea has already created a website and encourages science experts and journalists to check it out.
What do you think? What can be done to improve science journalism in Canada? (You can use the comments function by clicking the comment link just below, or send me an e-mail.)