From ScienceWriters: Dialogue and drama at WCSJ2015

ScienceWriters Summer 2015 cover

WCSJ2015 provided a forum for science journalism to discuss the demands of our changing times, forge new and renewed professional networks, and savor Korean culture.

Undeterred by an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the 9th World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) took place June 8 to 12, in Seoul, South Korea.

The WCSJ is the biggest international gathering for science journalists. Over 1,200 delegates from 55 countries attended this year’s event, with 40 percent coming from developing nations, according to Jae-eok Shim, chairman of the WCSJ2015 organizing committee and president of the Korea Science Journalists Association.

WCSJ welcome

WCSJ welcome

In his opening speech, Shim called this year’s conference “special” as it is the first time it is being held in Asia since the World Federation of Science Journalists was founded in 2002.

[The first conference was staged in Japan in 1992, with 300 journalists. It was followed seven years later in Hungary, in 1999. Since 2007, the conference is now held on a biennial schedule.]

Shim, however, expressed disappointment that North Korea “failed to respond” to the organizing committee’s “courteous invitation” to be part of WCSJ2015.

The news we chase often transends national borders. That means when we get a bunch of science journalists from around the world into the same room, we have a lot to talk about.”

 

— Richard Stone, Chair WCSJ2015 Program Advisory Committee International News Editor, Science

In an interview with SciDev.Net after the opening ceremony, Shim reiterated that this year’s venue reflects Asia’s rising role as a central player in the scientific world.

“No one can draw a big picture of the world now without speaking about Asia,” he told SciDev.Net.

In his address, federation president Chul-joong Kim said that the WCSJ serves as a “platform for in-depth discussion about the future of science journalism in an ever-changing media environment.”

South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye sent a video message, played at the opening ceremony, in which she said science has always been a “driving force of human history and civilization.”

WCSJ mixer

WCSJ mixer

She also highlighted the growing importance of the role of science journalists which involves “delivering technical and complex scientific knowledge in an accessible manner, and connecting science and society, as well as scientists and the general public.”

Duksung Women’s University president Won-bok Rhie gave the keynote address; an unusual choice at a science journalism conference as he is best known as a cartoonist.

“I believe that cartoonists and journalists have a lot in common,” said Rhie. “Our audience is the general public, and both cartoonists and journalists need to disseminate accurate information in an accessible manner.”

This article produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia and Pacific desk. Posted June 10, 2015.

 

WCSJ2015 highlights available online

 

Heading to Seoul in the midst of MERS

By Ivan Oransky

As I write this, I’m 34,000 feet over the Northwest Territories of Canada, several hours into a flight to Seoul by way of Tokyo.

Keiji Fukuda, M.D., Assistant Director-General for Health, Security and Environment for the World Health Organization, is also heading to Seoul, but our missions are quite different. His is to fight an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

Mine is to take part in the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ), a gathering of several hundred reporters and editors that takes place every two years. I’m on the planning advisory committee and speaking on a few panels.

Although I certainly felt an obligation to honor the agreement I’d made to take part, it’s fair to say that Fukuda had a bit less of a say in whether to travel to a country in the midst of the worst outbreak of MERS outside of the region for which the disease is named.

So why risk it? Why worry my mother, whom if memory serves, only a decade ago — when I got married — abandoned the practice of asking me to call her whenever I landed?

For one, the risk is extremely small, almost certainly less than if I try to cross a busy Seoul street against a light. (Don’t worry, Mom, I won’t do that.) As WCSJ organizers said in a message to participants:

Korean health authorities have announced that the alert level for contracting MERS in Seoul is at level 2 out of 4, “watch.” That means there are no restrictions in place on movement or activities in Seoul or anywhere throughout the country. This was a single imported case that spread to close contacts in a hospital setting, not from everyday life activities.

Compare those risks to the ones faced by the reporter I sent to Siberia to report on multi-drug-resistant TB when I was an editor at Scientific American. I’d do that again, in a heartbeat.

That’s the other reason I’m going to Seoul. For journalists to shy away from areas undergoing outbreaks would be a bad idea. Bearing witness — and in this case, the conference added a session with updates on MERS precisely for that reason — is a critical function.

It’s what we do.

“Why I’m heading to Seoul in the midst of a MERS outbreak,” MedPage Today, posted June 6, 2015.

Medical journalist Ivan Oransky is global editorial director of MedPage Today and co-founder of Retraction Watch.

 

Tim Hunt furor must lead to systemic change

By Connie St Louis

The World Conference of Science Journalism in South Korea has ended and I get on the long flight home from Seoul to London. During the flight I have a very disturbing dream.

It begins with me steering my wheeled luggage through the "Nothing to Declare" lane at Heathrow airport. I try to avoid the eyes of a customs officer; I don’t want to be delayed. I’m so relieved to be arriving home. It’s been a long and stressful week. Finally, I turn into the arrivals lounge, where chauffeurs hang out with oversized name cards. Lovers run weeping into each other’s arms and families are reunited. It’s a happy space and the ambiance is good. Suddenly, out of the blue, a pack of journalists comes rushing up to me. They’re like the ones in those old, black-and-white movies: men in trench coats holding large microphones, cameras, and flashbulbs all poised. They are all shouting the same question: “How did you think you would get away with publicly calling to account a prominent white male scientist?”

Twitter shaming has entered my subconscious since I called out Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt for sexist remarks at the conference in Seoul. It’s easy to miss the point of this story within the social media firestorm that erupted afterward. How do you do good journalism, holding powerful people accountable for their actions, on Twitter without focusing too much attention on the individual?

My decision to publish the story was straightforward. Hunt’s words and behavior were not only extremely sexist, but also culturally insensitive. His blustering statements were deeply disrespectful to the female Korean scientists who were hosting the luncheon where Hunt spoke.

There is always a danger with breaking a story on Twitter because it is extremely difficult to conduct nuanced discussions about the news you’re presenting. As an academic, I am acutely aware of this, yet something had to be said, and since I was traveling, Twitter was the solution. There was little point for the subsequent reaction to focus only on Hunt, however. His statements were just the very tip of the iceberg of the sexism in science. I wanted to be more strategic, so I planned my statements carefully.

First, I had to break the story, which I did three hours after the luncheon ended. Hunt’s comments had shocked many people in the room, including journalists and others, and I discussed them with a couple of colleagues, Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky, who I’d been sitting next to. Unbeknown to each other, we had written down what we had heard Hunt say at the lunch. Our quotes were identical, which meant we could independently verify the story, but I was still hesitant to broadcast Hunt’s remarks. Women are vulnerable to vicious trolling on Twitter, and black women doubly so. So it was enormously supportive to have two journalists of Blum and Oranksy’s stature behind me.

We decided that I should publish the story on Twitter since it had a British angle, and that Deborah and Ivan would authenticate my account. I didn’t want to publish the story as a series of tweets so I decided to write a short news story with a comment at the end and post it as an image. I knew it was important to get it right. Hunt is a Nobel laureate, a mentor of young scientists, male and female, with enormous administrative power and influence in international science.

Why are the British so embarrassing abroad? At #wcsj2015 President lunch today sponsored by powerful role model Korean female scientists and engineers. Utterly ruined by sexist speaker Tim Hunt FRS @royalsociety who stood up on invitation and says he has a reputation as male chauvinist. He continued “let me tell you about my trouble with girls.“ 3 things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry” not happy with the big hole he has already dug, he continues digging: “I’m in favour of single-sex labs” BUT he “doesn’t want to stand in the way of women. Oh yeah! Sounds like it? let me tell you about my trouble with girls three things happen in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry! So as a result, he’s in favor of single-sex labs but he doesn’t want anything to stand in the way of women. Really does this Nobel laureate think we are still in Victorian times???

 

— Connie St Louis @connie_stlouis • Jun 8

 

Nobel scientist Tim Hunt FRS @royalsociety says at Korean women lunch “I’m a chauvinist and keep ‘girls’ single lab

I didn’t just call out Hunt in that first tweet, however, but also the Royal Society, the U.K.’s national academy of science, where he is a fellow. Sexual inequality in the STEM fields continues, in part, because the society continues to take very little action. The British government has tasked the society with addressing the enormous inequality experienced by women in science, and it receives vast amounts of taxpayer money to do this and other key science tasks. So, a comment from the organization was needed. Yet the morning after my first tweet, the society merely flagged its diversity initiatives but said nothing of Hunt’s comment. It was clearly inadequate, and I said so:

The Royal Society @royalsociety • Jun 9

 

@connie_stlouis @royalsociety is committed to a diverse science workforce ow.ly/O4KfN Tim Hunt’s comments don’t reflect our views

 

Connie St Louis @connie_stlouis • Jun 9

 

@royalsociety My response is below @carlzimmer @edyong209 @deborahblum @russellcris @ivanoransky #wcsj2015

 

I’m afraid I find your response risible. Do you not take any action when one of your fellows and especially a Nobel laureate, is so embarrassingly off your diversity message and behaves in such a sexist manner? May I also ask that if you are so committed to a ‘diverse’ science workforce, why has there never been a female President of the Royal Society (UK’s National Academy of Sciences) in its entire 350+ history? A female President of the Royal Society would go a long way to illustrate and underscore your commitment to a ‘diverse science workforce’. There are many women scientists who could do the job and then perhaps Fellows like Tim Hunt would take this matter more seriously #timeforafemalepresidentoftheroyal society

A few hours later, the society posted a statement on its website headlined, “Science needs women.” Again the wording was weak and naïve. The society said it had “acted to distance itself from reported comments” by Hunt, but didn’t say the obvious: sexism is wrong and should not be tolerated.

When Hunt arrived back in the U.K. from Korea he was asked to resign his honorary post by University College London. In an interview in The Observer, a British paper that’s part of the Guardian Media Group, Hunt and his wife, Professor Mary Collins, who also has a post at UCL, accused the university of “hanging them out to dry.” A day later, the Royal Society confirmed that Hunt had also resigned from its Biological Sciences Awards Committee. Next, Hunt resigned from the board of the European Research Council, the organization that had taken him to South Korea.

While these organizations cleverly and surefootedly “distanced” themselves from Hunt, the narrative of the rogue scientist belies larger, institutional failings. The Royal Society, in particular, sidestepped these problems. I felt it would be a waste if the uproar ignored the forest for trees — rebuking only Hunt and not higher orders of power as well — so my next action was to present a framework for systemic change:

The Royal Society @royalsociety • Jun 9:

 

Science needs women. @royalsociety response to Tim Hunt’s comments made at #wcsj2015. [ow.ly/O5t5c](http://ow.ly/O5t5c)

 

Connie St Louis @connie_stlouis • Jun 9

 

@royalsociety If you are committed to diversity and you say that you need women, why no female President ever?

The Royal Society was founded in 1660. In that time there has never been a female president, so I went to Change.org and set up a petition, called, “It’s time to elect a female president to lead the Royal Society.” So far there have been only 68 signatures. [As SW went to press, there were 310 supporters.] The enormous response on Twitter to the Hunt story as well as the ironic and creative #distractinglysexy response has obtained a huge worldwide coverage and has made it difficult to discuss anything, including concrete actions such as the one I propose.

When I landed at Heathrow, I learned that my in-flight dream had not been a premonition. There were no reporters in trench coats waiting for me. This story runs the risk of fizzling out and being forgotten. Condemning one man’s sexist remarks is not enough. It is important that this episode also affects change for women in science. Please sign the petition. In the words of UCL pharmacologist David Colquhoun, it’s “an idea whose time has come (a while ago).”

“Furor over Tim Hunt must lead to systemic change,” Scientific American blog, June 15, 2015.

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