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When And Why Do You Need a Science Writer?

When And Why Do You Need a Science Writer?

By The CCM Team

This complicated world of ours is getting more complicated every day as technology increasingly becomes part of our daily lives. Science and scientific research find an important place in the news we read or hear about, and play a part in many aspects of our lives, from business to leisure. 

Science may be foundational to your business, to your health, to the air you breathe or to the food you eat. How will scientists find an effective vaccine for COVID-19? Does climate change really spell disaster for the environment? Do extinctions of biological species really matter? Will science ever “beat” cancer? What should we know about our drinking water? Can science guarantee that our food, medicines and motor vehicles are all safe?

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While we’re talking science, let’s look at a couple of facts. Fact One: Science often needs to be explained. Fact Two: Many scientists are not really very good at explaining their work, their warnings and their value to the rest of us. One might say that understanding science requires a communication bridge between scientists and the rest of us.

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Fortunately, the science writer is a professional who does just that.  The goal of science writing is to translate, communicate and simplify science, but to do so without violating the integrity of science by “dumbing it down” to levels of inaccuracy.

As a writing and journalistic profession, science writing has not been around for a long time. According to the National Association of Science Writer’s (NASW) website, pioneering science reporters established the National Association of Science Writers in 1934 to improve their craft and encourage conditions that promote good science writing. The association was formally incorporated in 1955 with a charter to "foster the dissemination of accurate information regarding science through all media normally devoted to informing the public."

First and foremost, science writers are communicators about science – how it works, what it finds, and what it means.

Science communicators you’ve known

There have been many great communicators of science in the American media. Baby boomers may recall “Mr. Wizard” from the earliest days of television. “Bill Nye the Science Guy” is still out there teaching us important facts. 

One of the greats of science writing and newspaper reporting was Jules Bergman, who was an American broadcast writer and journalist and served as science editor for ABC News from 1961 until his death in 1987. He is most remembered for his coverage of the American space program. Highly recognized and as good as they get is Miles O'Brien, an independent American broadcast news journalist specializing in science, technology, and aerospace who has been serving as national science correspondent for PBS NewsHour since 2010. He is also a frequent contributor to CNN and other news networks. The legendary Walter Cronkite was not a science reporter as such, but he helped broker all things Cape Canaveral to us.

Most science writers are not so visible as these legends. 

How is a science writer different from a journalist?

Until recently, most big city newspapers had at least one science writer who covered general science as a dedicated “beat.” But, with the demise of newspapers, the science writing slot has gone empty. Many universities and government agencies employ science writers. But they are also an indispensible resource for manufacturers and major corporations with hi-tech products, from pharmaceuticals to sports equipment, that need to be explained to consumers.

Science writers working in the news media differ from general journalists or investigative reporters in that they are likely to have scientific backgrounds and training and have developed the communication skills to help us understand science, which is the goal of science writers generally.

Most science writers do not start out to be science writers. Most have studied and have a bachelor’s degree in science, whether chemistry, biology, physics, or engineering. Many seek jobs that may be in research and many find themselves writing about research and have developed skills to do so. Many science writers who have advanced degrees work for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA); many work in the pharmaceutical industry. Many work in other aspects of industry where chemicals, manufacturing practices or intellectual property are important. Some science writers work for universities and explain to the public the breadth of scientific research produced by their faculty and graduate students.

The science writer as a caped crusader?

It can also be said that now, perhaps more than ever, the science writer should be in high demand. Over the last few decades, science has taken somewhat of a “beating.” Social and political extremists have created an environment in which science is often treated as opinion, rather than fact. A good science writer can be the “unsung hero,” helping a client cut through the nonsense and convey the scientific facts, thereby making a complex subject understandable without, as mentioned earlier, “dumbing it down.” 

When do you need a science writer? When there is complicated information with scientific aspects that needs explaining or brokering to the public. Why do you need a science writer to do that? To help assure that data, research, safety, benefits, risk, and proper use of products, are clearly and expertly communicated to consumers and the public.

Editor's Note:

At CCM, our go-to science writer is Randy Fillmore. Randy has recently contributed a series of blog posts about the coronavirus pandemic:

Responsibility, Ethics and Morality During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Unheeded Warnings: The WHO Bell Tolled, But Not Everyone Listened

Clinical Trials – And Errors?

SARS-Cov2 Virus and COVID-19 Disease: Made by Nature or Humans?

Social Distancing to Survive, Circa 1347

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