Laura James on science and journalism

Laura James On 19 of October I arrived in Madrid, the the place of beautiful parks, live flamenco, brilliant nightlife, churros, a Spanish type of long thin doughnut, El Rastro, an enormous outdoor market, and the Golden Triangle of art museums. But I wasn’t really there for the tapas, I was there for environmental health matters. I am taking one year out of medical school to explore medical journalism, and word reached me that there was a workshop for young journalists in Spain on the topics of health and the environment, with the World Health Youth (WHY) Communication Network on environment and health.

So I applied and was invited to the opening of the Ministerial Conference of Environment and Health in Madrid. Afterwards I was put into a group of twenty young journalists from around Europe and central Asia. We were encouraged to talk about how we would spread the word.

But spread the word about what exactly?

It was hard to know where to start. In the short time we were there, we were given a great many concise talks and question and answer sessions about chemicals, injuries, air pollution and health, water and sanitation, radiation, climate change, communication and science policy.

Then we were encouraged to pour our ideas and thoughts into discussion about ethics, politics and globalisation. Despite the broad range of people of different nationalities involved, including Azerbaijan, Denmark, Hungary and Russia, everyone could speak excellent English. Some were even able to speak fluently in four or more languages.

Soon our light hearted conversations about how an English person pronounced the word “water” compared to an American and what the Spanish phrase was, for when you had nothing to say to each other, became complex and profound debates on the environment, health and the media.

But increasingly after being taught that a journalist should always be sceptical, as negative as it may sound, I was becoming sceptical that the general population would care about these complex issues, as much as the scientists and the policy makers did. It was becoming more and more clear that the duty of the journalist was to make sure that people would pay attention to such matters.

And one speaker, Roger Aertgeerts, a scientist and Regional Adviser of Water and Sanitation, gave us the often undisclosed scientist’s viewpoint of talking to the media.

According to him, scientists are often introverted and critical people. Therefore, for scientists, communicating with those not from a scientific field can become unwelcome and difficult.

The example he gave was that of an unhappy introverted Nobel prizewinner. Toshihide Maskawa was one of two Japanese scientists who won the 2008 Nobel Prize for Physics. He said: “I am very happy that Professor Yoichiro Nambu was awarded. I myself am not that happy. It’s a noisy celebration for society.”

There is also the scientist’s fear that they will be misquoted and this will be used against them.

Could it be a case of the scientist not wanting to tell the public and at the same time the public not really wanting to know?

However to put it bluntly, this is not speaking for all scientists and we were assured that with a bit of understanding and trust from both ends, hidden useful academic knowledge can arrive at the eyes of the public to help make the world a better place.

Scientists need publicity to obtain funding and politicians need the media to enforce their policies. The public need the media to know about the world we live in and the media need the media to keep a living. So on that note, my next challenge is to write an indepth but engaging article on the health effects of climate change. Wish me luck and you better read it.

Laura James is a medical student at King’s College London. She would like to thank the University of Westminster, where she is currently studying journalism, for sponsoring the trip, and the WHO.