8 August 2009

Why I'm a writer, not a scientist

A scientist told me recently that nothing would ever convince him to leave science - it is, he claimed, the most exciting job in the world. He couldn't understand why, having completed undergraduate studies in biological sciences, I would have wanted to do anything else. When I admitted I had spent a brief spell in a lab and decided it wasn't for me - I quickly turned from research to reporting on it - it filled him with nothing but grief.

It's not that I don't find science interesting (obviously), it's that I find too much of it interesting. Whereas some people get their kicks from learning as much as they can about one particular thing, I get mine from learning as much as I can about lots of different things. Neither is better. I'm just saying: I like writing because I get to explore widely different areas of science.

I'm sure there are plenty of scientists who can't understand the need for science journalists or science communicators at all, who think that scientists themselves would do a better job. Let's get it straight. Science journalists don't necessarily think that they can explain a piece of research better than the scientist who did the research, although in some cases that may be true. Rather, they have (hopefully) an unbiased perspective and an understanding of their audience.

More to the point though: we like doing it. For a scientist trying to juggle research with writing academic papers and supervising PhD students, writing newspaper and magazine articles on the side isn't going to be a lot of fun. (There are some mad people who try to do both and claim to enjoy it, but I can't believe it. Or, at least, something's going to have to give eventually.) But we do it because it's our job and - need I say it again? - we like it. That's not to say anyone who likes writing about science will make a good science writer, but it's pretty much a condition of being one. Because not many of us make our millions this way.

There seems to be a school of thought that says that the best science communicators are scientists - real, in-the-lab, doing experiments, writing academic papers-type scientists. Maybe it's true. But, crucially, not all scientists are great communicators, or even half-decent communicators. And not all scientists want to communicate about their science, however exciting it may be. Most of them probably just want to go down the pub at the end of the day. (See, we do have something in common). Thus, there's an awful lot of science that wouldn't get communicated if someone else didn't do it.

And who's to say that you need to have spent a decade in a lab to make a good science writer? What's wrong with a little perspective? A good grasp on what society thinks is important? The ability to make connections between different areas of research and between different disciplines entirely? All just as important as understanding the scientific process.

Of course, scientists should be wary of bad journalists who don't do their research and twist what has been said, but there are also a lot of good journalists, especially among specialist science writers. And having claimed - very speculatively - that some scientists don't see the point of science writers, most scientists I speak to are very respectful of what I do. That said, for the most part, neither of us would rather be doing the other one's job.

Incidentally, whether or not it's more important to actually do the science or report on it is, I think, a moot point. We each have to do the things that we enjoy, don't we? And no matter how important the science itself may be, it's got to be reported, right? Unless we're living in some sort of crazy-ass society where we put billions of pounds/dollars/[repeat for every currency so as not to offend] into research that nobody ever gets to hear about, I'd say "yes".

I must point out that I'm not trying to drive any sort of a wedge between scientists and the media - as if there wasn't a huge, great doorstep-sized wedge there already - I'm just trying to say that I think we sometimes misunderstand each other. Science writers don't write about science because they're failed scientists. They do it because it's fascinating, because it gives them something different to think about each day, because they get a buzz out of learning something new and telling people about it. Or am I only speaking for myself?

So, in a round about sort of way, I'm trying to explain that I won't be leaving science writing for science - ever. As far as I'm concerned, it's the most exciting job in the world.


David Bradley said...

Hear, hear...couldn't have put it better myself!

scary b said...

Me, I do it for the variety. I don't want to become a tunnel visioned polymer-electronicist - I'd rather dip my toes into everything going.

Plus I spend less time on my feet and more time waving my hands around.

I also think it's pretty unrealistic to expect real, working scientists to be good communicators too. It's hard enough to be a good researcher without being good at talking about it amusingly afterwards as well. We aren't ubermenschen!

Oddly enough no other discipline is expected to do this. While my physics course required us to study science communication, I don't think English courses require them to study the scientific method.

And so to you n me Hayley - amphibious in science and lit. So what if our oxygen assimilation is fractionally less efficient - we fill a niche. Ribbit.