Science communication at AAAS: The elephant in the interview

The elephant in the convention centre at AAAS: What (some) scientists think about science journalists. Collage Illustration by Keith Rozendal

It’s close enough to the start of AAAS for some early local buzz to emerge. The professional communicators working for the Association have released their press program (.pdf), featuring a long parade of briefings meant to attract the interest of the hundreds of print, broadcast, and online science reporters headed to Vancouver.

Building on a recent AAAS trend, science communicators and their work command big portions of the conference agenda. The AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards honour the best reporting of the year with cash, an awards luncheon, and a cocktail party at Science World.

But, like a family holiday dinner, the warm embraces and pleasantries passing between the journalists and their scientist sources will eventually give way to the more ambiguous realities of many close relationships.

The attitudes of the science and journalism camps towards one another run both hot and cold—a point driven home by the symposium entitled “Perspectives from science media centres: Should scientists bother with the media?” If you thought the question was a straw man, consider that Fiona Fox from London’s Science Media Centre, brings this question to the table: “What’s the mainstream media ever done for us?”

Prepare to hear some specific and scathing critiques of the coverage allotted to key science stories from the last year, as well.

In a recurring sub-theme at AAAS meetings, climate change reporting draws the focus of a few sessions.

UPDATE: Session has been removed from the AAAS program, alas.
The most intriguing brings together Susan Hassol of the advocacy group Climate Communication with Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. In a true one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other moment, David Gustafson from Monsanto joins them. I can’t wait to hear what he recommends for “Communicating climate change to the business community.”

Is the media guilty of “Misreporting Fukushima?” Is it “A failure of science journalism with global repercussions?” Feeling a bit defensive upon reading these charges, I immediately did a bit of muck-raking on this panel. Is it just my hurt feelings leading me to prematurely dismiss presenter Ramesch Sadhanka from the Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. as nuclear energy apologist? My suspicions grew after being led down an Internet rabbit-hole chasing the session organizers, a non-governmental organization called Sense About Science.  I haven’t had time to wade into all the suspicion and red-baiting raised about this organization by George Monbiot and other UK media, but I know you can count on controversy at this session.

Reporters get a chance to air their grievances, too. On this front, be sure to sit in with the New York Times’ Cornelia Dean as she explores the “Disconnnect: The gap between researchers and journalists.” And, as mentioned previously, Frank Sesno’s plenary panel of veteran science journalists will explain why “Science is not enough” to inform public opinion and policy about the global issues set at the centre of this year’s meeting.

Scientists—mostly unfairly tarred with the “socially-awkward” and “incomprehensibly jargon-besotted” brushes—can drink from a firehose of communications advice offered at a series of how-to science popularization sessions. “Bad presenter bingo” promises to be a fun one. Not to be outdone, UBC’s Andy Torr promises to share the “Secrets of a science communicator,” and communications consultant Dennis Meredit will put you to work “Mastering the ‘foreign’ language of lay communications.”

The greatest secret science communications weapon may be revealed in the three talks on “Using pop-culture icons to slip science into the mainstream.” How’s this for a line up of geek-bait: “Can superheros save the (science) day?” Or more specifically, “Can Batman and Iron Man teach neuroscience?” Add that to “The physics of Star Trek,” and I know you can sign me up! I hope Comic Book Guy is there to make a snarky comment.