World Federation of Science Journalists

Europe puts young science journalists into labs

March 1, 2011

There’s a thread through a cluster of recent science stories produced by young European reporters. They were part of a project called Research Labs for Teaching Journalists, (RELATE for short), an EU (European Union) effort to bridge the gap between science and society.

It offered an all-expense-paid weeklong visit to various research centres where 78 participants shadowed scientists at their work. About a quarter of the resulting stories have already been published or broadcast.

An article about laser nanosurgery by Andrada Fiscutean appeared in the December issue of Romania’s Descopera magazine. Fiscutean is a news editor and anchor at PRO FM in Bucharest and covers science for the Descopera website.

On the New Science Journalism website, there’s a video about genetic erosion by Nataša Šudelija, a student at the University of Political Science, in Zagreb, Croatia.

A Leipzig radio station aired a documentary about the uses of solar energy in photovoltaics and in energy production. It was produced by Sven Knobloch, who graduated with an MA in journalism from the University of Leipzig in 2010 and is now working as a broadcaster in Leipzig.

A trans-European research project called ROCARE is working on a construction material for the restoration of Europe’s architectural heritage. Valentin Todorov wrote about it in the Bulgarian daily newspaper, Novinara just before Christmas. He’s a senior journalism student at Sofia University, freelancing online and in print.

Mico Tatalovic works in London as deputy news editor at SciDev.Net and blogs on science and science policy for the Croatian daily Jutarnji List. In November, the Australian magazine Cosmos published his article about destruction of coral reefs from increasing acidity in seawater – a consequence of more CO2. He also wrote his own account for the RELATE project which can be read on the web site of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW):

When the project wound up in Brussels at the end of January, around 50 of the scientists and their journalistic shadows joined European Union officials to discuss what happened when they were put together for a week.

Fiscutean said her assignment at the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona reinforced her belief that “Nanotechnology could radically change medicine,” and how she marvelled at how “doctors are able to perform surgery with incisions smaller than the tip of a needle.

“What I enjoyed the most was the chance to witness how research is done, to actually observe and touch the devices scientists use to perform experiments.”

Tatalovic said his stint at the University of Bologna offered “free reign in the labs – just talking to lots of different scientists.” He got a “minor scoop” dealing with the recent emergence of a volcanic crater in the Mediterranean Sea. This undersea surprise “made it possible to experiment on how corals will be affected as the oceans become more acidic.”

The project attracted participants from 21 countries in the EU and a handful of non-EU nations.

Project director Hinano Spreafico, from Brussels-based Minerva Consulting & Communications, said some participants already “had a background in science and were willing to change from scientific career to a science communication one. So they all had already at least a clue about science journalism.”

They operated in small groups, Spreafico said, with “a maximum of six, and we mixed more experienced participants with younger ones, those with science background with those with none.” They went to about 30 laboratories in 12 different research centres in three sessions, in November 2009, March 2010 and November 2010.

For students, “this was really their first experience in approaching publishers,” she said. (Published or not, all their stories are at The writers themselves are at

Other labs involved included the European Southern Observatory in Munich, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Estaciуn Biolуgica de Doсana in Seville, Bilkent University in Ankara and about 25 others.

During the final Brussels conference participants considered the whys and hows of better science journalism. Netta Ahituv, a freelancer for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, said “editors consider science to be at the bottom of the hierarchy of newsworthy topics” so future RELATE projects should bring editors on board.

Participants Tatalovic and Stephan van Duin of The Netherlands were invited to formally summarize participants’ thoughts about science journalism and the project itself at the final conference.

Tatalovic saw a “tension built into the project between promoting science and training objective science journalists. Just putting inexperienced journalists into research labs isn’t training.”