International Science Writing Organizations

This short history of  international science writing organizations was written by ISWA President James Cornell for the massive “Encyclopedia of  Science and Technology Communication”  published in 2010 by Sage Publications. Several other ISWA members served as contributors and/or editors for this project.

It has been suggested that the bug-like tendency of science journalists to swarm, or as Philippe Marcotte and Florian Sauvageau describe it, their “propensity for grouping and mingling,” stems from their sense of isolation –- from other types of reporters and even more so from their sources. Neither fish nor fowl, science writers tend to be a breed apart, often the only one of their kind in a news room –- or, in the developing world, sometimes in an entire country.

Surprisingly, then, the creation of mutual support systems for science writers is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although the first national group – the German Association of Science and Technical Journalists – was founded in 1929, followed by the formation of the U.S. National Association of Science Writers (NASW) in 1934, the majority of the 55 national and regional associations counted in a 2007 survey published by the World Federal of Science Journalists (WFSJ) were formed since the mid-1970s, with many in the developing world created only in the last decade.

Internationalization of Science Journalism

The rapid and luxurious bloom of science journalism worldwide in the late 20th Century mirrored in part the transformation of science research into an international endeavor. As the world became increasingly interconnected, it was clear that issues such as climate change, water shortages, sustainable development, and pandemics knew no borders. Because global problems demanded global solutions, many science journalists hoped to establish effective global networks for sharing vital information, ideally though a world “union” or “federation” of the many new national groups.

The first step toward internationalism was creation of the Ibero-American Association of Science Journalism (AIPC) in 1969 by the Spanish writer Manuel Calvo Hernando. The AIPC linked a score of national associations in Latin America (some of them extremely small) with a base group in Spain. In addition to promoting exchanges of journalists and conducting training programs, the AIPC sponsored a series of bi-hemispheric “congresses” that would set the model for future international conferences. Indeed, at the 1977 congress in Madrid, the Venezuelan delegation proposed creation of a “World Union of Science Journalists.” Although an international organizing committee was formed and some potential funders, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), were contacted, this first formal expression of the “world union” concept went little further due to political, economic, and linguistic limitations.

Actually, the idea of a world union had come up even earlier –- and was dismissed -– during the creation of the first truly global such association, albeit one made up of individual journalists, the International Science Writers Association (ISWA). In 1966, a group of senior science writers and editors (among them Gordon Rattray Taylor of the BBC, John Maddox of Nature, and Dennis Flanagan of Scientific American) met in London to discussed the benefits of forming a loose network. The next year, using the occasion of the World’s Fair in Montreal (EXPO 67), this core group, joined by several other prominent writers (including Robert Cowen of the Christian Science Monitor, Howard Lewis of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and Fred Poland of the Montreal Star), met to write and approve a draft constitution, to elect officers, and to debate, and finally dismiss, a motion to create a “federation of associations” in favor of what ISWA would become (and remains today): an “organization of individual membership.” Maddox became the first president.<

For the next 30 years, ISWA would provide science journalists around the world, particularly those living and working in countries without national associations, connections with the wider world of science communication. Initially serving a largely Anglo-American-Canadian group of journalists who lived or worked abroad (including the notable expatriate Sir Arthur C. Clarke of Sri Lanka), ISWA actively sought out young journalists from emerging nations in the 1980s. Today, the organization has some 200 members in 25 countries, and through its website, ISWA offers them information about jobs, training, and educational opportunities, as well as assists in planning, organizing, and conducting workshops on science communication.

 A World Union?

While ISWA has remained an organization of individuals, the concept of an organization made up of associations still resonated with many writers. In 1971, Giancarlo Massini of Italy’s Corriere della Sera persuaded a group of like-minded European science journalists to form what was to become a truly multinational organization, although a purely regional one. Out of their meetings was created the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations (EUSJA).

The original union included just seven associations, but following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there was an upsurge of interest from Eastern European countries, all of whom now play an active role in EUSJA’s activities, which include exchange visits between member countries and training for young journalists. Member countries (as of March 2009) are Albania, Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK. EUSJA has its headquarters in Strasbourg at Euroscience – where it has its own secretariat.<

Those forerunners of a “world union” – EUSJA, ISWA and AIPC – would all play significant roles in organizing the first “world conference of science journalists,” and eventually, if somewhat painfully, the formation of an actual world federation. But despite these contributions, that first conference was essentially the result of one man’s vision and persistence.

Arthur Bourne, a British science writer, world-traveler, and occasional consultant to the United Nations, had tried for nearly two decades to organize a truly “international conference” of journalists from all parts of the world—and particularly from the emerging nations of Africa and Asia. Finally, in late 1990, Bourne, by then president of EUSJA, persuaded UNESCO to sponsor the first world conference in Tokyo. With generous assistance from Japanese business and philanthropic groups, some 50 journalists from 35 countries were invited to meet with approximately 100 of their Japanese colleagues in November 1992.

Despite the great success of the Tokyo meeting, its declaration of the need for a world association, and the continued efforts by Bourne and others to organize a follow-up, a second world conference would not be realized for another seven years. Held in Budapest in July 1999, this conference reflected the changes in science journalism brought about by new technologies, as well as the changes in European society brought about the collapse of the old Soviet bloc.

The organizer and host of the Budapest meeting, Istvan Palugyai, science editor for the newspaper Nepszabadsag, had been a leading proponent of the federation concept at the Tokyo meeting. As such, he led the effort to write “The Declaration of Budapest,” a set of eight recommendations for UNESCO aimed at improving the state (and status) of science journalism worldwide. A key recommendation was the formation of a “world federation” bringing national and regional associations under an umbrella organization that, among other things, could convene international conferences on a regular basis.

The next milestone was 2001, when Japanese science writer and teacher Kenji Makino organized an international mini-meeting on science and technology reporting at Tokyo’s then new “innovation museum.” The meeting closed with still another call for a “world federation,” but the accompanying draft constitution caused some controversy because the signatories to the document did not necessarily officially represent their national associations.

The third world conference would be convened within a year at the Universidade do Vale do Paraiba in Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil. Any lingering doubts about the usefulness of an “umbrella group of associations” and concern over its awkward introduction in Tokyo seemed to have disappeared by this time. The result was a formal announcement creating a World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ), complete with a set of officers and a draft constitution that would be approved at the next conference, held in Montreal in 2004.

By April 2007 and the fifth world conference in Melbourne, Australia, the WFSJ was a well-established entity, with some two dozen member organizations, a sustaining budget, and active outreach and mentoring projects for reporters in the developing world. The sixth conference was held in London in the summer of 2009, by which time the WFSJ represented 40 associations of science and technology journalists around the world. Its flagship project is SjCOOP, which encourages partnerships between well-established science writing associations and newly formed ones in the developing world. One highly successful partnership has been that between the Arab Association of Science Journalists, representing writers from the Middle East and North Africa, and the NASW in the US.

One other “world union of science journalists” also deserves mention.The International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ) was formed in Dresden, Germany, in 1993, and Darryl D’Monte, Chairperson of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India, was elected its first president.  The federation includes as members both associations and individual environmental journalists representing some 88 countries.

The IFEJ is a founding member of the Com+ initiative (Communicators for Sustainable Development), together with the World Bank, Global Environment Facility, InterPress Service, Conservation International, BBC, DevTV, Television Trust for the Environment, National Geographic and a number of other partners. With InterPress Service, IFEJ runs an occasional feature service on sustainable development issues, among many other initiatives.

James Cornell
International Science Writers Association

Further Reading

  • Cornell, James. 1999. “Report: Second World Conference of Science Journalists Meets in Budapest.” Science Communication, Vol. 21 No. 2, December 1999, 200-202.
  • Cornell, James. 2002.  “Report: Tokyo Conference Sets Stage for Third World Conference—and  a New World Federation of Science Journalists.” Science Communication, Vol. 23 No. 4, June 2002, 463-466.
  • Drillsma, Barbara, ed. 2006. The Barriers Are Down: EUSJA Advances Across Europe. Strasbourg, France: European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations. Available for ordering from the official EUSJA website, this book chronicles the history of the organization and its founding.
  • Marcotte, Philippe, & Florian Sauvageau. 2006. «Les journalistes scientifiques: des éducateurs? » Philippe Marcotte et Florian Sauvageau, Les Cahiers du journalisme, No 15, Hiver 2006, École supérieure de journalisme de Lille and Université Laval.
  • White, Jessica. 2007. 2007 Science Journalist Associations Guide. World Federation of Science Journalists, Gatineau, Canada.
  • International Federation of Environmental Journalists.
  • World Federation of Science Journalists.