Posted by: egutoday | April 7, 2011

Richard’s column

Do scientists need to be good communicators, or not? In the past I’ve swayed between yes and no. On one hand it seems like a good idea to be able to talk well about your research – especially if the public are paying for it. On the other, maybe what people expect is simply that scientists do good science, with other looking after the communication.

What is currently bringing me round to the first of those positions can be expressed in two words: Tohoku and Fukushima. People have been incredibly thirsty for this story; on the BBC website it has smashed all records for number of readers, for desire to know more, for specific web searches, and so on. And at the heart of the story is science.

Developments at the nuclear plant continue to surprise; and without the capacity of scientists to respond and analyse quickly and accurately, how are journalists to make sense of it? And unless journalists do make good sense of it, how are societies to make informed decisions on issues such as nuclear power – particularly bearing in mind the potential problems for climate goals if the technology is abandoned? Meanwhile, the human tragedy of devastated villages and peoples’ unknown fates has brought into focus once again the key role of researchers in the seismic disciplines.

The next Fukushima-sized story could happen in your field. A glacier lake outburst, a space exploration spectacular, a minerals discovery, a sudden climatic shift, a new deep-Earth organism… whatever it is, whenever it is, journalists will be knocking on your door for information and advice, and the words you choose will play a huge role in putting the event in context. It’s a challenge – but a huge opportunity too. Will you be ready?

Richard Black
Environment correspondent
BBC News

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