Grant Jacobs, Ph.D., is an established computational biologist contracting to research groups, organisations and companies offering his background in molecular biology / genetics and computer science locally and internationally through his consultancy, BioinfoTools. He has wide personal research interests, including epigenetic and chromatin-level control of gene expression, the three-dimensional organisation of genomes, structural biology and development of new algorithms. Outside of work he is a fan of travel, tramping (hiking), good books and, more recently, writing. He is the author of Code for life and tweets under @BioinfoTools.
During a recent Royal Institution debate (written up here by the nature.com Communities team), Fiona Fox, head of the UK Science Media Centre (SMC), was quoted as stating that “blogs [are] fantastic but no journalists go to them to look for full stories.”
This has not been the experience of those writing at the Sciblogs, New Zealand ’s largest on-line science writing collective. One element to this may be that the New Zealand SMC not only links journalists with scientists, and vice versa, but also promotes to the media the scientists’ causes as presented through articles on blogs. It likely helps that the NZ SMC runs Sciblogs and are in touch with the writers there daily. The SMC imprimatur may give journalists more confidence to use this source for material. An additional factor may be thatNew Zealand lacks science columnists for print and television (a notable exception is Radio NewZealand who have a long-running regular science feature). As a consequence of these factors, it may be that the media are turning to those scientists who make a direct effort to address a general audience.
Peter Griffin, who heads the NZ SMC, reports that he regularly receives requests based on material initially seen on Sciblogs. Where some articles result from interaction facilitated through the NZ SMC, others arise from direct contact between the media and the scientist. In some cases blog articles are re-worked to be run as columns in local newspapers.
Scientists writing blogs at Sciblogs have been called up to radio and television appearances, quoted in newspaper articles, or had their work presented as articles in newspapers. In addition, the NZ Herald opts-in to present blogs on their website, usually opinion pieces or backgrounders to current issues (see Appendix at the end of the article for specific examples).
Below the work of a few writers are presented as representative of the relationship between science blogging and the media inNew Zealand. These examples span three broad areas:
i) Public health issues, such as disease outbreaks and prevention
ii) Science education issues and evaluating risk
iii) Science of topical public concern e.g. the recent earthquakes
It is worth bearing in mind that a wider range of articles (and authors) have been associated with the media than the examples presented here, for example covering technology, climate change science and policy, and so forth – a limitation of the brief coverage here.
Public health issues
Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles has found herself on radio, in newspapers and television:
– An article on using bees to diagnose tuberculosis (TB) led to an interview on Breakfast with Spanky (RDU 98.5 fm, 31st October 2011) as did an article on ’ferret’ flu (9th February 2012), which also featured on ABC Radio Australia (Connect Asia, 22nd December 2011) and was quoted in various Australian print media (The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald and the HeraldSun).
– Tilting against ’quantum-homeopathic-biophotonic flea-control pendants’ was quoted in Sunday Star Times (Charles Anderson, 22nd Jan 2012) in Scientist gets hot under the collar over flea remedy.
– An article on HPV vaccination was reworked as an op-ed piece for The Dominion Post (Offering HPV vaccination to boys the logical, ethical thing to do, 15 Dec 2011) via an university communication team member inviting her to rewrite the piece.
– The German E. coli outbreak of June last year found Siouxsie on current affairs television (TVNZ Close Up, 3rd June 2011) and radio (Radio Live Drive Time, 3rd June 2011) explaining the story to the public.
Science education issues
– Alison Campbell, whose interests lie with how science is taught, has been on radio, with several of articles from her blog re-worked for newspapers and periodicals. (Changing the culture of science education. New Zealand Herald. 27 January 2011; Predicting earthquakes: hedging your bets – National Business Review, 04 March 2011; Resistance to science. Skeptical Intelligencer. 14: 26-27 (2011); Oxygenated food for the brain Skeptical Intelligencer 13: 23-24 (2010).)
– Michael Edmond, a chemist, has taken part in a panel on radio covering the chemistry of food, sex and ageing. He feels that the presence of the blog made it clear that he was interested in science communication, which led to the opportunity.
Science of topical concern
– Our coverage of the disasters in New Zealandhas been cited in a number of articles, for example in the NZ Herald.
– One of the better-known cases is David Winter’s post examining the statistical meaningfulness of astrologer Ken Ring’s ’forecasts’ of further earthquakes in the Canterbury region following the damaging earthquakes there. Mr Ring’s ’forecasts’ raised considerable pubic debate and concern. David’s article led to an appearance in a prime-time current affairs presentation to relay the gist of his article to a wider audience; his articles was quoted and referred to in prominent print media inNew Zealand.
Colleagues have noted that they are typically introduced as scientists in these presentations, particularly when on radio or television, and the blog is not mentioned. However, it is clear that it was the blog article that led to their media invitations.
With this (and much more) evidence of the interaction of mainstream media with science blogs, perhaps there is a case for science media centres elsewhere to be more active in promoting the role of science bloggers and it should be more widely recognised that, given the opportunity, scientists who regularly address the general public have a lot to offer to improve public engagement with, and understanding of, scientific news.
Less evidenced is a perceived shift by some media venues and publications towards more science coverage. There may be no ready way to quantitate this, but one would hope that in part this is a consequence of exposure of science writing withinNew Zealand. The author’s impression has been that blog articles can act as leads to science-related stories in an indirect fashion. Finally, it’s worth noting that the traditional focus on journalists as the sole source of public information has changed. People can now access information ’straight from the source’ or via (perceived) informed comments on social media sites and blogs.
Footnote: I would like to thank my science blogging colleagues for their contribution to this article and extend my sincere apologies to any of you that have not been mentioned. With so many of you and so many articles that have made it to the media, it has been difficult to represent them all. My thanks, too, to Lou Woodley for constructive suggestions that have improved this article.
Appendix: Examples of coverage in the NZ Herald website
As mentioned, the New Zealand Herald ops-in some articles on sciblogs to their Science/Technology pages. In the previous Appendix, the topics of the examples reflect the writers’ interests.
- An introduction to Australia’s The Conversation science discussion forum (Peter Griffin),
- The CSI effect (Anna Sandiford, forensic scientist)
- Promotion of science-related business such as Lanzatech (Peter Kerr, Public relations/journalist in the technology area)
- Why newly evolved genes may be as important as ancient ones (Tamsin Jones, Assistant Research Fellow, genetics)
- How to shut down a nuclear reactor (Professor Shaun Hendry, computational materials science and nanotechnology)
- Changing the culture of science education (Alison Campbell, Associate Dean, Teaching and Learning)
- The god gene – or is it a meme (Ken Perrot, retired chemist)
- An animated map of Auckland’Äôs transport system (Chris McDowall, data presentation expert),
- Why are eggs egg-shaped? (Marcus Wilson, physics lecturer)
- Climate change, natural disasters and human vulnerability (Jesse Dykstra, geology Ph.D. student)
- Think of the tigers (Brendan Moyle, conservation biology)
- The perfect popstar (Motoko Kakubayashi, Japanese science correspondent)
- Climate change sinking Kiribati (Bryan Walker, climate change)
- ‘Anti-science doubters’ and the blogosphere (Grant Jacobs, computational biologist)
- Who cares about New Zealand’s waistline? (Amanda Johnson, nutrition)
- Kelp forests under threat (Rebecca McLeod, marine biology)
- Tuatara central (Hillary Miller, genetics)
(Search ’sciblogs’ at the NZ Herald website for other examples).