World Federation of Science Journalists

FELLOWSHIP: INVESTIGATING SCIENCE. ARE YOU A JOURNALIST WITH A STORY TO TELL?


April 28, 2015

Investigating science: are you a journalist with a story to tell?

The Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) is seeking bids for its first Investigative Science Journalism Fellowship.

Some of the world’s most significant news strands, from climate change to Ebola, are about science. So are many of its most fascinating stories, about landing a space probe on a comet or uncovering the origins of the human race. At the same time, it is impossible to understand the bulk gathering of electronic intelligence, or the Nepalese earthquake, without some awareness of the science and technology that underlie them.

Because Britain is home to many fine science journalists, these stories are often told very well in the UK media. But there is a problem, revealed most clearly in the entries for the Association of British Science Writers’ (ABSW) annual awards.

Too few of them, in every category from TV programmes to news stories, tell a tale that someone in a position of power would prefer not to see published. Plenty of good science journalism is entered, but too little of it involves controversy. And while we have a “best investigative journalism” category, the entries for it have not been as strong or as many as we would wish.

This must mean that important stories are being missed, whether they relate to the content of scientific research, the behaviour of individual scientists, or the big decisions about policy and funding that set the direction of the scientific enterprise. So we have decided to do something about it.

The ABSW is now asking for bids for its first Investigative Science Journalism Fellowship, and you have till May 31 to apply. We want great ideas that involve investigating important but unknown stories from any area of science.

Our aim is to seed-fund a small number of promising proposals, and to fully fund the best one to emerge from the pack. The winner will get enough money to work for three months on their idea, in a single block or part-time, plus some expenses (but no overseas travel or new computers). If applicants are in a staff job, the editor will have to be enthusiastic about running the story.

This project will complement one set up by SciDev.Net, the development-oriented web service for science and technology. Its scheme builds on long-standing training and mentoring work with journalists in the Global South, and its first investigative fellow is now at work on a project whose results will be made public later this year. This award includes training as well as money (up to £4,000), and entries were received from 25 countries.

Deborah Cohen, investigations editor of the British Medical Journal and one of the judges for the ABSW award, is in no doubt about its importance. She says: “It is especially difficult to get a relevant story, and prove to an editor that it is important, in a complex scientific field, such as the environment. So you always need to find ways of making a story resonate with people. This takes time, which you do not always have.”

Science journalists often like science, Cohen adds. They can be reluctant to use their sources in the scientific community too aggressively, and wary of “pissing off scientists.” In addition, broadcast outlets which have to guarantee “balance” can be vulnerable to last-minute defensive ruses from the body being investigated, such as a rush of data which there is no time to analyse.

Cohen is now involved in setting up a new Centre for Governance & Transparency at the University of Oxford, which she says will use both clinical and journalistic methods for its initially health-based investigations. She says: “It may be that medicine and health are simpler than science for the investigative approach, because there is a bigger pool of people and more public scrutiny.”

Full details of the ABSW fellowship are here. Like SciDev.Net, we shall not be announcing the winner. There is no point in tipping off the target.


This article was published in 
The Guardian online on Tuesday 28 April 2015All rights The Guardian.