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Unpopular Science | The Nation

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Unpopular Science

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PETER O. ZIERLEIN*

About the Author

Sheril Kirshenbaum
Sheril Kirshenbaum, a marine biologist at Duke University working to improve communication between scientists,...
Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney, host of the Point of Inquiry podcast, is the author of The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny...

Also by the Author

Political watchdogs like PolitiFact and the Washington Post's "Fact-Checker" are accused of favoring Democrats—but it is the facts themselves that have a liberal bias.

This article is partly based on Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.

For twenty-three years Sabin Russell worked at the San Francisco Chronicle. A top medical writer specializing in global health and infectious diseases, Russell covered subjects ranging from bioterror threats to the risk of avian flu and traveled throughout Africa to report on the AIDS epidemic. He won numerous accolades, including a 2001 Science in Society Journalism Award from the National Association of Science Writers for his reporting on the flaws of the flu vaccine industry.

Then came March 30, 2009--his last day on the job. Russell was at MIT, on leave from his paper for a fellowship. The struggling Chronicle had been cutting staff and now suddenly forced many older career journalists to either take a buyout or risk a reduced pension. At 56, Russell was at the peak of his game, but for him, as for many of his colleagues, there was really just one option. "We have not left journalism; journalism has left us," Russell remarked recently from San Francisco, where he is setting up a freelance office and looking for work.

Now the painful irony: Russell was pressured out of his job just as swine flu murmurs began to emerge from Mexico. This was his beat; few reporters are better equipped to tackle such a difficult yet urgent story, one so rife with uncertain but potentially severe risk. Russell even tipped off his old employer that the paper might want to get a jump on what was happening in Mexico City. "If I was covering this story now," he says, "I'd be all over the Southern Hemisphere. It's flu season there. How is Australia? How is the infrastructure to respond to a new strain holding up?"

Those are stories Russell won't be writing.

It's no secret the newspaper industry is hemorrhaging staff writers and slashing coverage as its business model collapses in the face of declining readership and advertising revenues. But less recognized is how this trend is killing off a breed of journalistic specialists that we need now more than ever--science writers like Russell, who are uniquely trained for the most difficult stories, those with a complex technical component that are nevertheless critical to politics and society.

We live in a time of pathbreaking advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology, of private spaceflight and personalized medicine, amid a climate and energy crisis, in a world made more dangerous by biological and nuclear terror threats and global pandemics. Meanwhile, advances in neuroscience are calling into question who we are, whether our identities and thought processes can be reduced to purely physical phenomena, whether we actually have free will. The media ought to be bursting with this stuff. Yet precisely the opposite is happening: even in places where you'd expect it to hold out the longest, science journalism is declining.

Take Mark Carreau, until recently the space reporter for the Houston Chronicle. He spent more than twenty years covering NASA, whose Johnson Space Center (JSC) lies in the Chronicle's backyard. Such expertise, however, failed to outweigh the need for newsroom cuts, and Carreau was laid off earlier this year. As one space wonk lamented on a blog on the occasion of Carreau's departure: "I'm guessing there are now more people in space than there are reporters in the JSC newsroom."

Or take the ailing Boston Globe, situated in a global center of science that leads the biotech industry. In March the paper dumped its specialized Monday "Health/Science" section, transferring health coverage to its arts and lifestyle pages and folding science reporting into its Monday business section. Soon after, the paper reduced staff significantly on its science desk. The Globe's decision wasn't about the relevance of science to readership; it was about the underlying economics.

The death of specialized newspaper science sections like the Globe's is a long-term trend--one that appears to be accelerating. From 1989 to 2005, the number of US papers featuring weekly science-related sections shrank from ninety-five to thirty-four. Many of the remaining sections shifted to softer health, fitness and "news you can use" coverage, reflecting the apparent judgment that more thorough science or science policy coverage just doesn't support itself economically.

And the problem isn't confined to newspapers. Just one minute out of every 300 on cable news is devoted to science and technology, or one-third of 1 percent. Late last year CNN cut its entire science, space and technology unit. The most prominent departure: Miles O'Brien, who covered the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster for the network.

How did the US media--serving a country that leads the world in virtually every aspect of science--reach this point? Certainly it wasn't always this way.

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