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Filling the void

As science journalism declines, scientists must rise up and reach out.

Scientists at CERN, Europe's particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, opened the wine last week to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the laboratory's invention of the World Wide Web. The scientists were also joined by around 60 members of the media, who may have been in a less festive mood. Even before the current economic crisis, the web was inflicting much pain on the mass media. Circulations have dropped, advertising has dried up and newspapers have been forced to lay off reporters and scale back coverage. A similar slump has hit the broadcast market, with no end in sight.

Science journalism is one of the numerous casualties in this media meltdown. Many science journalists are losing their jobs, and those who remain are being asked to provide content for blogs, podcasts, online videos and other new media (see page 274). Although it is difficult to know what effect these cutbacks have had on the public's understanding of science, the general feeling is that the quality of science coverage in the conventional media is declining — as is the media's ability to play a watchdog role in science, ferreting out fraud or other misconduct.

True, there is no shortage of scientific information on the web. Witness the way that research funding agencies use the web to inform the public about everything from planetary missions to public health. In principle, anyone with an Internet connection now has access to more, and better, scientific coverage than ever before.

In practice, however, this sort of information reaches only those who seek it out. An average citizen is unlikely to search the web for the Higgs boson or the proteasome if he or she doesn't hear about it first on, say, a cable news channel. And as mass media sheds its scientific expertise, science's mass-market presence will become harder to maintain.

Harder, but not impossible. For example, scientists are blogging in ever increasing numbers, and the most popular blogs draw hundreds of thousands of readers each month. These blogging scientists not only offer expertise for free, but have emerged as an important resource for reporters. A Nature survey of nearly 500 science journalists shows that most have used a scientist's blog in developing story ideas. And a handful of universities, meanwhile, have started environmental publications that are run jointly by scientists and journalists. These publications seek to provide their journalistically valid, scientifically accurate content free of charge to the mainstream press.

Sadly, these activities live on the fringe of the scientific enterprise. Blogging will not help, and could even hurt, a young researcher's chances of tenure. Many of their elders still look down on colleagues who blog, believing that research should be communicated only through conventional channels such as peer-review and publication. Indeed, many researchers are hesitant even to speak to the popular press, for fear of having their carefully chosen words twisted beyond recognition.

But in today's overstressed media market, scientists must change these attitudes if they want to stay in the public eye. They must recognize the contributions of bloggers and others, and they should encourage any and all experiments that could help science better penetrate the news cycle. Even if they are reluctant to talk to the press themselves, they should encourage colleagues who do so responsibly. Scientists are poised to reach more people than ever, but only if they can embrace the very technology that they have developed.

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Filling the void. Nature 458, 260 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/458260a

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