President’s Letter, News.ISWA #2

The way science is done is rapidly changing, so should science writing and journalism not change? The easy answer is yes. Today the Internet has brought scientists closer to people, yet the pace at which developments take place is sometimes hard to fathom; scientists themselves are still unable to establish the appropriate contract with the larger masses. It is here that the role of science writer/journalist/communicator is found, to make complexities of science accessible to lay people.

But these three roles are not identical. To me the writer explains it in text—in blogs, newspapers, magazines or even extended Facebook posts. A journalist, according to the Oxford Dictionary, differs because he or she is a ‘person who … prepares news to be broadcast’, the key phrase is news, so it necessarily has to be current and relevant. A science communicator to me is a person who usually communicates using audio-visual media like radio, television, You-Tube channels, and museum exhibits, to name just a few. There are also non-traditional ways of communicating as well, like folk theatre, street plays, painting, dancing, and many more. Many a time there is an important, usually unseen bridge, a public relations officer who facilitates but does not necessarily dictate the dialogue. Each role has a specificity, and each needs the respect a professional deserves. None can claim more nobility of action than any other.

In many parts of the world, especially USA and Europe, ‘science communicators’ are perceived to be ‘advocates’ of the scientists or the institutions they represent. This is a rather limited definition of a ‘science communicator’ specific to some dominant geographies. In most other parts of the world, such an advocate is called a public relations officer (PRO), or even a public information officer (PIO).

In today’s fast-changing world, someone like me does ‘pure writing’, television (both news and long form), still photography (news and features), plus radio, online journalism, and Social Media—Twitter and Facebook. Today, which silo — writer/journalist/communicator — I would be placed in is sometimes hard for me to categorize. Those days of purists who specialize in one media are all gone; the lines between all forms are very blurred. This indeed has to be celebrated, not mourned, as it gives more power to individuals.

A raging, almost ‘existential,’ debate in the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the American science journalism organization, on allowing ‘science communications’ personnel to serve as officers burst forth recently. Of course, one needs to comprehend that ‘science communicators’ has different meanings in other parts of the world. Be respectful of diversity.

In this ever-changing world, your Association remains very relevant and is at the forefront of creating space for deeply committed professionals who seek to take the message of science to the people.

-Pallava Bagla