World Conferences

Arthur Bourne, an ISWA founding member whose vision and persistence were instrumental in creating the World Conference of Science Journalists, passed away in 2013. Reflecting on his death, ISWA President Jim Cornell wrote:

As the international science writing community reflects on the success of the Eighth World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ2013) and plans for the Ninth in Korea, it may be interesting to learn how the “conference concept” came about. More than anyone, Arthur made possible that first meeting in Japan and, to his credit, involved ISWA in identifying deserving journalists — many of them our fellow members — from developing world as participants, a practice that has continued in subsequent conferences. The history, as told in his own words, can be found at our website. (JC)

The First World Conference of Science Journalists:
An Idea Realised

Arthur Bourne
President Emeritus

The easiest part is to have an idea, the most difficult part is to make it happen and that requires the support and effort of others. The author of the idea for the first World Conference of Science Journalists (Tokyo, Japan; November 1992) was fortunate in that others were sufficiently enthusiastic and willing to support him.

I was, at the time the idea formed in my head, editor of Spectrum, British Science News, published by the Science Unit of the Central Office of Information. The idea for an “international conference of science journalists” occurred during a stopover in New Delhi on my way to Tokyo to attend the International Whaling Commission in 1968.

I knew many of the British science journalists; not a few contributed to Spectrum. But an added bonus was that, as the editor of a publication widely distributed overseas, I was reasonably well known. The stopover turned out to be an opportunity to meet the local science journalists and discuss issues that were important to them. I was invited to one of their meetings and presented my views on the importance of science journalism in communicating science to the general public.

That meeting and subsequent discussions with Japanese journalists in Tokyo confirmed that an international meeting of science journalists was worth pursuing; but how to achieve it was another matter. You cannot patent an idea, it has to be developed and this requires commitment.

At about the same time and unbeknownst to me, in faraway Europe, another idea was moving in the direction that would lead one day to realising mine. The author of this other idea was Giancarlo Massini, science journalist with Corriere della Sera, who persuaded a group of like-minded European science journalists to form what was to become a truly multinational organisation, albeit a European one. Out of their meetings was created the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations (EUSJA).

The immediacy for the realisation of my own idea was to lapse as my career changed. The world was changing, too. The Cold War was over and Europe was getting back into something resembling its pre-war shape. Mindful of the times, our Austrian colleagues, Hugo Obergottsberger and Franz Mayrhofer, seized the moment! In 1990 they organised the pivotal European conference Science, the Economy and the Media East and West. Pivotal, because for the first time science journalists from the so-called Eastern Bloc met with their counterparts from the West. The conference, held in the town of Krems not far from Vienna, was, to put it mildly, a joyous occasion.

As the then President of EUSJA, I had the pleasure, and with the wholehearted backing of the board, to invite our new-found Eastern European colleagues to join us in EUSJA. Hence, in the small town of Krems, was finally created what one could describe as a truly “European” Union of Science Journalists’ Associations, with the credibility and critical mass of an organization that could really represent European science writers and their interests. These goals were expressed by delegates from the twenty countries of the expanded EUSJA in a document that came to be known as the “Krems Declaration.”

In the meantime, in the United States, the long-established National Association of Science Writers (NASW) had grown into a major professional organization with several thousand members. In Australia, India, and Japan, too, there were organised groups of science journalists. And, on the world scene, the International Science Writers Association (ISWA), an organization founded in the late 1960s, now offered representation for individual science journalists scattered around the globe.

In 1989, as part of the growing atmosphere of internationalism, Manuel Calvo Hernando, chair of the Iberoamerican Association of Scientific Journalism, was busy arranging for South American science journalists to meet members of EUSJA at an international conference in Spain celebrating the 50th anniversary of that country’s Council of Scientific Investigations (CSIC).

However, there was a problem. How could the type of conference I envisaged ever be called “international” without the participation of those science journalists I had met in Africa and other countries of Asia?

The first part of the answer, obviously, had to be funding. It was one thing to find funding for small groups to visit each others countries, but an International Conference worthy of the name and on the scale I was thinking about could only be realised if we could find a willing sponsor or sponsors. The conference would require finances and organisational expertise beyond the resources and time of our collective organisations.

By fortuitous circumstance at this time I was appointed a consultant to the publications division of UNESCO in Paris. The thought occurred to me that a world conference of science communicators was ideally suited to UNESCO’s Framework Programme, Science, Technology, and Society. I took it upon myself to pursue the idea within the organisation. I had met the chief of the Science, Technology, and Society Unit, Vladislav Kotchetkov, and through my work I also had access to the Director-General of UNESCO, Frederico Mayor. Mayor was not only a scientist, but one, as I soon found out during one of our meetings, who had a deep interest in communicating science to the public at large.

The upshot of my efforts was that I was asked to submit a written proposal for the conference. Alas, during subsequent meetings, I was not too encouraged, because, as explained, UNESCO had no allocation available for such an event in the current round of funding. However, I did leave the discussions with an understanding that the Director General and his colleagues would explore other possibilities. What those possibilities were I had no idea. Silence prevailed.

In 1990, Spain’s Calvo Hernando organized the Fifth Congress of the Ibero-American Association of Scientific Journalism in Valencia, another international meeting that brought together scores of journalists from both Europe and the Americas and had the special distinction of including the presentation of Honorary Doctorates by the University of Valencia to oceanographer and science communicator Jacques Cousteau and UNESCO’s Mayor.

On the evening of his award, Mayor gave an after-dinner speech during which he announced, to my surprise and delight, that “Arthur Bourne’s international conference of science journalists” was on! And, thanks to the National Federation of UNESCO Associations of Japan, it was to be held in Tokyo in November 1992.

There it was–an idea had become a reality. It had its supporters and, in the final stages, its various runners. UNESCO had drawn them all together–the invitation to participants read “UNESCO, jointly with the Japanese Organising Committee [and] the National Federation of UNESCO Associations in Japan (NFUAJ), and in close collaboration with the European Union of Science Journalists (EUSJA) and the International Science Writers’ Association (ISWA)”–but scores of other individuals and groups had made vital contributions.

Because I was not privy to what was going on elsewhere, my emphasis must be on the roles played by the EUSJA board members; by Federico Mayor and his colleagues in UNESCO, including Adnan Badran, Assistant Director-General for Science, who opened the conference on behalf of Mayor; by the ISWA officers who helped identify representative journalists from the developing world; and, most importantly, by our Japanese hosts, including Mr. Kishida, Chairman of the Japanese Organising Committee; Mr. Takashima, Chairman of the National Federation of UNESCO Associations in Japan; Mr. Kuwada, Vice-President of the Science Council of Japan, and Mr. Kaku, Chairman of Canon Inc., who, in the end, made the First World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) possible.

Those of us who had the privilege of attending that first conference in 1992 remember it as one of the highlights of our professional lives. With the sixth world conference planned for London in 2009, we should perhaps ask ourselves whether we have lived up to the promises we made at the first.

Have we, the signatories of the Tokyo Declaration, delivered on our, then, good intentions? Reflecting even further back, has the seminal Krems Declaration, signed some two decades ago, also delivered on its promises?

It is an honour to those who helped realize these ideas that we can answer both questions in the affirmative.




Jim Cornell adds this coda:

In addition to Kenji Makino, who headed up the local organizing committee, other ISWA members who attended the first conference included, Martin Yriart (Argentina), Robyn Williams (Australia), Fabiola de Oliveira (Brazil), Yanina Rovinski (Costa Rica), Jacques Richardson and Dominique Leglu (France), Wilfred Ray Ankomah (Ghana), Mochtar Lubis ( Indonesia), Otula Owuor (Kenya), Hak-Soo Kim (Korea), Prakash Khanal (Nepal), Bunmi Makinwa (Nigeria), Adlai Amor (Philippines), Helene Knorre (Russia), Oumar Dieng (Senegal), Manuel Calvo Hernando (Spain), Nalaka Gunawardene (Sri Lanka), Marcel Roche (Venezuela), and James Cornell, Sharon Dunwoody, Frederic Golden, Howard Lewis, and Victor McElheny (USA). ISWA has been involved in every subsequent conference and in the founding of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ), first proposed in Tokyo and formally established in Brazil in 2002.

JC, December 2008