Wednesday, 15 August 2012

British Science Association media fellowship

For the next month, I am taking a teeny break from science to pretend to be a journalist at Nature News. It's a scheme aimed at teaching working scientists about how the media works by dragging them out of the lab, bleary eyed with the residual smell of growth media lingering upon their person, into the wonderful world of 10am starts and actual, real deadlines.

Three days in, and I have learnt:

1) Science journalists know much more about science than I do. Sure, they couldn't tell you all the three hundred ways there are to accidentally kill a culture, or the gene number of the TB glycerol kinase. But I'm beginning to wonder why, exactly, I've spent so many years filling my own brain up with all this esoteric trivia while neglecting some of the important stuff. Like science policies that directly impact on my work. Or Exciting Stuff happening in fields that are unrelated to my own.

2) Journalists are not the anti-Christ. From how some people in science talk about the media, you'd think everyone who writes about the news sacrifices babies in their spare time and has no regard for things such as factual correctness or the truth. Yeah, Nature is about as sciencey as science journalism can get - its aimed at actual scientists for starters, not those other bipedal furless mammals I am occasionally forced to interact with. But I was still surprised by how much effort goes into fact checking and writing a balanced story. I will, in fact, write an entire post about the creation of an article at some point.

3) Some scientists don't half moan. Getting a quick peak into another industry makes me realise how small and insignificant I am to the world of science as a whole. I think maybe it's easy for scientists to forget how lucky we are when we are constantly surrounded by others who share our worries and fears. Yeah, there are plenty of things in science that could do with being fixed. But whining doesn't help anyone. Fixing them fixes them. Being in a different work place makes it painfully clear that those bitter, complaining scientists who you can find lurking in every lab are not what I want to become </end bitching>

4) So much science is not news. No one wants to read about the latest advance in understanding membrane signalling proteins in Th96 CD61+ T cells, even if the scientist who wrote it is Very Clever and Important. August isn't the greatest month to work in science journalism as there isn't very much going on. I keep trying to find things to write about but very few papers come out that would work as news. 'Surprise, sensationalism and significance' are all required. Makes me realise how insular my own scientific niche is -  even the biggest, most self-important scientists in my field have rarely done anything newsworthy when it comes to their millions of Nature/Science/Cell publications.

5) Phone interviews can be painful. If an author is busy, do you wait patiently for them? Noooo, you phone them again and again, and their co-authors, and anyone else you can think of and PESTER! And, if they don't give you a good enough answer, you keep asking until they tell you to go away. It's like working in a call centre, only without bonuses. This is the part of the placement that I don't think I will quite get used to. That cringing, 'I can't believe I made a stranger hate me in the name of science'-feeling. Urrrgh, scarred for life. But, looking at the positives, I think is will cure me of any residual shyness still lingering from childhood.

6) The novelty of a free canteen runs out very quickly.

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