From ScienceWriters: An international science communication conference
News from afar
By Fabio Turone
With 670 participants from around the world and over 450 speakers, panelists, and various performers using different presentation formats, the International Conference of Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) took place in Florence, Italy, in April, and was hailed as a success.
The 12th of a series of biennial meetings organized since 1989 by an international network of academics, science communicators, and science journalists, this year’s conference was dedicated to “quality, honesty, and beauty in science and technology communication.”
Following the opening speech by the popular icon of Italian TV science journalism Piero Angela, the presentations offered a range of questions and discussion about the basics of science communication:
- “Pus, Pest, PCST, Plus: Will our models be complementary, in competition — or simply irrelevant?” (asked Cornell University’s Bruce Lewenstein)
- Historical accounts of the birth of the first hoax about the life on Mars (presented by space scientist and popularizer Giovanni Bignami, who currently heads the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics)
- The use of images for conveying complex scientific concepts in an immediate way, without distortions (presented by photographer and visual artist Felice Frankel at MIT)
- Several panels discussed issues related to the revolution underway in the field of open-access publishing, including the implications for the use of embargoed press releases.
The well-tested model of the Science Media Centers (SMC) — already operating in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and the United Kingdom and is in various stages of development in countries such as Denmark, Italy, and the United States — was described and discussed in a very lively panel that put together Fiona Fox, from the UK SMC (the first such center), and Morten Busch, from the Danish Experimentarium, in Copenhagen (the latest SMC), who discussed the model with Scottish microbiologist Anne Glover, the newly appointed chief scientific adviser to the European Commission (the EU’s governing body).
Fox described the way the UK SMC works — in cooperation with the international network — and recalled the recent experiences of controversial science topics hitting the headlines; scares that just a few years ago risked to spreading unscientific fears capable of surfing the front-pages for weeks are nowadays covered in a more complete and balanced way by most media, basically thanks to a better cooperation among scientists and media professionals.
The debate started to heat up after Fox stated that, thanks to the SMC, scientists are becoming more able of “setting the agenda.”
Critical questions from the audience about “scientists setting the agenda for the media” were debated at length, echoing an equally heated discussion that took place at last year’s World Conference of Science Journalists, in Doha (Qatar). There, in a panel discussion about the experience of international teamwork in the days after the Fukushima accident, the president of the Association of British Science Writers, Connie St. Louis, objected vehemently that the work of the Science Media Centers is making science journalists lazy, and even more prone to press-release-based “churnalism.”
In response, Fox explained that from her point of view this is just one way of looking at a phenomenon that existed before the SMCs and is due to the pressure for producing copy at a faster and faster pace with fewer and fewer staff and economic resources. And many in the audience agreed that even when you start from a press release you can do good science journalism, and even when it is mediated by a third party, a good relationship with trusted sources can add a lot of value. (Full disclosure by the author: I produced and moderated the panel on the SMCs, and am taking part in the exploratory effort to establish one such center in Italy).
The next PCST conference will take place in May 2014 in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, and will explore “Science Communication for Social Inclusion.”
The full program can be downloaded from:
Fabio Turone is editor-in-chief of Agenzia Zoe in Milan, Italy.