Journalism

Clive Cookson

A visit to Purdue, a state university in the cornfields of Indiana almost three hours drive from Chicago, shows the strength in depth of the US academic system.

I’m just back from my third visit, courtesy of Purdue’s imaginative Science Journalism Laureates programme. On each occasion I have been struck by the intellectual quality of the academic staff – faculty, as they are known in America – and the curiosity of the students.

For research as a whole, Purdue is not in the same league as Harvard or Stanford but in some fields it is world class. One is palaeoclimatology, the study of past climate and what it can tell us about the likely course of global warming in future.

Matt Huber left me fascinated but deeply depressed by his latest conclusions about the climate’s response to rising and falling levels of carbon dioxide over the past 50m years. He and his Purdue colleagues have discovered that climate is more sensitive to CO2 than previously suspected – which is of course extremely bad news for efforts to control manmade global warming. I’ll use his insights soon for an FT article on climate history.

Another Purdue scientist with thought-provoking views is David Waters. He showed us how misguided some of the big clinical trials of vitamins and nutritional supplements have been – particularly the $175m US trial to see whether selenium pills can cut men’s risk of prostate cancer, which was stopped last year because it was, if anything, increasing the incidence of disease.

The problem, according to Waters, was that the trial took all comers in the chosen age group, rather than focussing on those – a minority in the US – who are actually deficient in selenium. From that base he built a devastating critique of the “either-or-ness” of public health medicine, and the search for things that are “good for you”.

Part of the rationale for the laureates programme is to interact with Purdue people – and part to discuss issues in science journalism. This year’s set-piece theme was “science journalism in the age of Twitter” in the form of what Americans call a “town hall meeting” with Purdue staff.

Each of the 12 journalists present had to kick off proceedings with a 100-word statement. One managed to do so within the 140-character (about 25 words) Twitter limit.

Opinions about the future of science journalism varied from optimism through “we’ve seen it all before” to utter gloom.

Clive Cookson

The relentless process of making the financial associations of medical researchers more transparent has taken another important step forward.

The 12 journals that belong to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) have agreed a common format for disclosing authors’ financial interests. They include the world’s best known medical publications such as The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA and BMJ.

The new disclosure form is introduced in a common editorial to be published in forthcoming issues of all ICMJE journals.

The three-page form, which will have to be submitted online by everyone whose name appears on an article, looks quite formidable. But the journals say the common format will actually make life easier for authors by eliminating the need to draw up separate forms for competing journals; they will be able to store it on their computers in partially completed form and just add information specific to the manuscript.

There are four sections. First, authors must state their assocations with any company or organisation that supported in any way the study or paper submitted for publication. Second – and this is the longest and most detailed section – they must specify any financial association with any entity that could be viewed as having an interest in the general area of the submitted manuscript (at any point during the three years before submission).

Thirdly, authors are asked about similar associations involving their spouse or children. And lastly they must disclose relevant non-financial associations.

To guide authors, ICMJE provides an illustrative form completed by Kermit The Frog, co-author of a paper entitled “The effects of Sunstop on the function of sunlight on frog skin slime”. For example, in section 4, Kermit declares: “Tadpole Inc. puts $10,000 per year in the college fund of each of my children and pays for a car that my wife drives on a daily basis.”

Though some authors may regard the exercise as excessively intrusive, it is unfortunately necessary if the scientific integrity of medical research is to be restored after recent scandals, such as the drafting by company-funded ghostwriters of articles that are passed off as the work of independent academics.

The journals will use the form for a six-month trial, before their editors meet in April to modify it if necessary in the light of experience.

Clive Cookson

When I started out in science journalism there were three giants of the trade practising on UK national newpapers: Pearce Wright on The Times, Anthony (Phil) Tucker on The Guardian and David Fishlock, my predecessor, on the FT.

David, the last survivor of the trio, died suddenly on Friday at the age 77. He was the FT’s science editor from 1967 to 1991, bridging the worlds of research and business with great skill.

While he covered myriad subjects for the paper – and was adept at identifying new fields that would later lead to important industries – David was known particularly for three things.

The first was his coverage of the early biotechnology companies emerging in the US and UK in the 1970s and early 80s. This culminated in a much-praised book The Business of Biotechnology published by the FT in 1982.

Second was David’s feel for the management of industrial research and development. On retiring from the FT, he founded and wrote a newsletter R&D Efficiency, which explored strategies through interviews with decision-makers responsible for large R&D budgets. He was also a stalwart supporter of the R&D Society.

But David’s greatest professional passion was for nuclear power. He lost no opportunity for write about advances in nuclear science and technology in the FT – though the paper also benefited from his contacts and expertise when things went wrong, as for example during the 1986 Chernobyl crisis.

His only son, Bill, tells me that after retirement David was an active member of  SONE, a group of nuclear supporters in which Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s ex-press secretary was also involved. He also enjoyed the company of a less formal grouping of veteran nuclear industry watchers, the Windscale Fire Club, who regularly deliberated in a London wine bar.

David was a large and convivial man, loving food, drink and conversation. And, despite heart disease and dire medical warnings, he continued to enjoy himself to the end.

But as FT science editor, he kept himself apart from his fellow science correspondents. He knew the FT needed a different type of science coverage to the other newspapers and would never follow Pearce Wright, Phil Tucker and the rest. For instance he did not attend the great ritual gathering of science journalists – the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Festival) – and covered the BA only from the papers available in advance. When I arrived at the FT as technology editor, he was delighted for me to go and pick up stories at the conference.

David was the right science editor at the right time for the FT. My condolences go to his widow Mary, whom he married 50 years ago, and to Bill.

Clive Cookson

Next week I’ll be blogging from one of the traditional rituals of UK science: the annual conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science – rebranded this year as the British Science Festival but very much the successor of BA meetings going back to 1831.

In the 19th century the BA conference was the venue for announcing and debating key scientific findings – including the famous Huxley-Wilberforce debate about Darwin’s recently published theory of evolution, at the 1860 Oxford meeting.

These days no one would think of announcing a really important scientific finding at a general interest conference like the British Science Festival. Research results are revealed in peer-reviewed journals such as Nature and Science and at specialist conferences.

But the festival remains a centrepiece of efforts by the UK research community (including social sciences) to communicate with the outside world via the mass media. Newspapers still send science correspondents to cover it, and they generally make space available for stories from the festival.

This year’s gathering, at the University of Surrey in Guildford, will no doubt feature the usual BA mixture of soft stories and serious stuff. The vast programme ranges from wildlife gardening and the science of human attraction to pandemic flu and carbon capture and storage. I’m sure some of it will be fun and some will be interesting. Please keep reading…

Clive Cookson

The world’s science journalists gathered in London this week for their biennial conference. All the talk in the run-up to the meeting was gloomy – science journalism in decline at best or crisis at worst, as the well-known pressures on traditional printed and broadcast media lead to cuts in specialist coverage.

As the recession deepened over the winter and then swine flu emerged, the organisers (and I should declare an interest, as a member of the conference steering committee) even considered cancelling the event because too few people would attend to make it viable. Thank God we didn’t.

Journalists being journalists, most people left registration to the last minute and there was a torrent of applications over the last two months. In the end the venerable venue, Westminster Central Hall, could take no more and registration was closed at 950 delegates – 60 per cent more than the previous conference in Melbourne two years ago and far more than anyone had dared hope.

It seems amazing that the world has 950 science journalists. And, yes, some of the attendees were “science communications” or PR people. But as far as I could tell from attending sessions (and parties) most delegates were real journalists writing for papers, periodicals and websites – general and specialist – and broadcasting on radio and television.

Certainly there was no sense of science journalism in global crisis at the conference. Yes, jobs have been cut in large news organisations from the BBC to the New York Times but these cuts seem to have been balanced by growth elsewhere. In the developing world, from Asia through Africa to Latin America, science writing is just emerging as a recognised and valued branch of journalism.

Appropriately, the next World Conference of Science Journalists will be held in Cairo in 2011. I can’t wait…

Clive Cookson

I normally groan when I hear about the establishment of yet another campaign group but Straight Statistics, launched last week, is a welcome exception.

Public confidence in official statistics is so low – and the presentation of statistics by companies, academics and the media frequently so poor – that we really need a body to protect the integrity of statistical information. Straight Statistics promises to play that role, with funding from the Nuffield Foundation.

My personal knowledge of some of the journalists and statisticians involved – particularly the director Nigel Hawkes, a former science editor and health editor of The Times – gives me confidence that Straight Statistics will succeed in its aim of restoring confidence by exposing bad and promoting good statistics. (I should add that Simon Briscoe, statistics editor of the Financial Times, is on the organisation’s board.)

The Straight Statistics website already contains good analysis of statistical deficiencies, for example of the Research Assessment Exercise (which determines university funding) and of the Home Office presentation of the national DNA database.

I suspect more of a challenge will be to find excellent statistical presentations, which others can follow. Sadly, it is easier to spot the failures than examples of really good practice.

Straight Statistics can play a public, campaigning role that is beyond the remit of the government’s Statistics Authority and the professional Royal Statistical Society.

As David Lipsey, the chairman of Straight Statistics, puts it, “the epidemic of statistical abuse is ultimately a threat to the integrity of our democracy. It has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.

Clive Cookson

London’s great Science Museum opens its centenary celebrations today, with an invitation to visitors to vote for the object that is most significant in the history of science, technology and medicine.

The museum is proposing 10 candidates, of which the most ancient is Thompson’s Atmospheric Engine (1791), the oldest surviving industrial steam engine. The most recent is the Apollo 10 command module in which Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan travelled around the Moon in 1969 (see picture below).

In between the museum is offering Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive, a Model T Ford car, the V2 rocket engine and Watson and Crick’s DNA model, among other exhibits. They have been arranged in a special Centenary Journey trail.

Further details of the Science Museum’s development plans for the beginning of its second century will be announced this morning. They include new galleries and an updated façade on Exhibition Road.

Lord Mandelson, head of the newly created Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) - the latest home for science in the government – says in a speech released last night ahead of today’s centenary launch: “Every time I come here, I feel like a kid again.

“And of course, every day hundreds of children and their parents walk through this Museum’s doors… What follows is wide-eyed amazement, lively debate and exciting experiments. It’s never boring.”

I agree with him. I’ll never forget my boyhood excitement coming to London to visit the Science Museum.

(And incidentally my vote for the museum’s top “centenary icon” goes to the Model T, with the DNA double helix in second place.)

NASA/SSPL

Apollo 10 is winched aboard its recovery vessel at the end of its lunar mission in May 1969 Credit: NASA/SSPL

Clive Cookson

Many of Britain’s science journalists will be feeling sad – and nostalgic – today after hearing that John Maddox died on Sunday at the age of 83. He was the most influential science editor of the 20th century and created a blueprint for the modern research journal.

In two spells as editor of Nature, from 1966 to 1973 and 1980 to 1995, Maddox converted a staid journal, for which the word “venerable” might have been invented, into a lively news-seeking and news-making publication without sacrificing its scientific authority.

Maddox had earlier made his mark in newspaper journalism, as science correspondent of The Manchester Guardian from 1955 to 1964, where he developed a campaigning style and an appetite for scoops that he carried over to Nature.

His appointment at the Guardian came when science correspondents were still a novelty. The late 1950s were an optimistic period for science and technology, with newspapers showing gung-ho enthusiasm for aerospace, astronomy, nuclear power and medical research. But Maddox managed to delve into the dark side of technology, including a ground-breaking investigation of the 1957 Windscale reactor fire.

He left the Guardian in 1964 for the Nuffield Foundation, where he spent two years leading an influential project to update the school science curriculum (I was to be a beneficiary of his work, studying the Nuffield Physical Sciences A-level course). Maddox returned to Nuffield in the 1970s, serving as the foundation’s director in between his two spells editing Nature.

When Maddox arrived at Nature, the journal was approaching the centenary of its foundation and retained a gentlemanly, old-fashioned aura. It still attracted some first-rate research papers (such as the one by Crick and Watson announcing the discovery of the DNA double helix) but its owners, the Macmillan family, wanted Maddox to shake up the publication in the face of growing competition. Science, its long-term American rival, was benefiting from the shift in scientific power from Europe to the US.

Maddox obliged by transforming the slow and somewhat arbitrary process by which Nature selected papers for publication. He set up an efficient peer review process for routine submissions – though he was quite happy for important papers to be whisked through on his say-so without formal review – and actively solicited contributions from the world’s top scientists. At the same time Maddox gave Nature its first news and features pages, and built a young team of editors and writers who would go on to fill many roles in science journalism elsewhere (including my FT colleagues Alan Cane and Nick Timmins).

In his second term as editor, Maddox was even more determined to raise his journal’s profile. The most controversial coup was first to publish a paper by the late Jacques Benveniste, a French immunologist, who purported to demonstrate the scientific basis of homeopathy – a form of alternative medicine scorned by most scientists – and then to make a highly publicised visit to Benveniste’s lab in the company of James Randi, a famous magician and fraud-buster, who revealed that the experiment was based on a scientific illusion.

Maddox had grown up near Swansea, the son of furnaceman in an aluminium smelter, and his favourite retreat was a cottage deep in rural Wales. But there was little trace of a Welsh accent left by the time Maddox retired finally from Nature. The most distinctive feature of his voice then was the gravely timbre given by a lifetime’s smoking and drinking. When Maddox wrote his flowery but elegant editorials – late in the evening with the nominal deadline already passed – cigarettes and red wine were the standard accompaniment.

Maddox was knighted in 1995 and made an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society – a far rarer distinction – in 2000. He is survived by his wife, the biographer Brenda Maddox, and four grown-up children (including Bronwen Maddox, former FT environment correspondent and now chief foreign commentator of The Times).

John Maddox © The Royal Society

John Maddox © The Royal Society

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The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.

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