Science Writing in a Time of Crisis

It’s day four of University Press Week and today the blog tour is highlighting the scientific voices within the community. One of those voices is Mireille F. Ghoussoub, who holds a PhD in materials chemistry from the University of Toronto and is the co-author of The Story of CO2: Big Ideas for a Small Molecule. In this post, Mireille highlights why, in a world facing climate change and a global pandemic, the need for honest and effective science communication has never been greater.

Check out other university presses taking part today at the bottom of the post, or follow the blog tour on Twitter @AUPresses.

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By Mireille F. Ghoussoub

In Haymarket Books’s recent webinar on the aftermath of the 2020 US election, author and journalist Naomi Klein jokingly remarked that “Trump has been very good for socialist publishing.”

The comment offered a moment of levity in the discussion focused on untangling the next steps for activists and organizers in the wake of a new government in a world facing intersecting economic, environmental, political, and health crises, and accompanied a call to the audience to continue to support book publishers during these challenging times. Despite its lightheartedness, Klein’s observation succinctly captures how, in times of crisis, people seek information to make sense of their reality.

In a world facing climate change and, relatedly, a global pandemic, the need for honest and effective science communication has never been greater. Our survival as a species arguably rests on our collective understanding that emissions from burning fossil fuels are permanently altering our environment and that vaccines can protect us from deadly disease.

Science writers and communicators require an impressive skillset to be able to articulate the meaning and implications of scientific research to non-experts. Beyond simply finding ways of communicating abstract or unintuitive concepts to non-scientists, a good science writer is also versed in interviewing researchers and locating the significance of a particular result in the context of the wider field. Modern academia’s “publish or perish” landscape has created additional challenges for writers seeking to stay atop of the latest research as new papers flood the literature every day.

Science, by its definition, is messy; rigorous science requires that ideas be tested, evidenced, and debated and the journey to establishing agreed-upon “facts” is non-linear and fraught with mistakes. But the past year has undoubtedly kept science writers and communicators on their toes like never before. Normally, those writing about science would be covering news-worthy scientific findings born of projects motivated by decades of peer-reviewed literature. However, the surge of new papers oriented around COVID-19 – not to mention the overwhelming noise that has been made by non-experts – has meant that science writers have had to extricate the most critical and trustworthy findings as the scientific process happens in real-time. We are indebted to many remarkable writers, such as Ed Yong, Zeynep Tufekci, Roxanne Khamsi, Sarah Zhang, and countless science communicators like Dr. Samantha Yammine (a.k.a. Science Sam), Raven Baxter (a.k.a. Raven the Science Maven), and Dr. Naheed Dosani, to name a few, whose accessible, evidenced, and conscientious content have helped the masses navigate the uncertainties of the past several months.

Returning to Klein’s remark, if Trump was good for socialist publishing, one can only hope that a silver lining of the global pandemic might be a rekindled public interest in science. Is it possible that the crisis has motivated a new generation to pursue careers in epidemiology, biology, and public health?

One thing is certain: the policies laid out by governments and public health authorities are only as strong as their messaging, and their success requires a public that already holds an appreciation of and trust in science and medical innovation. The need for science and science communication is especially acute in the current moment as we contend with the acceleratory spread of disinformation online. Concerted efforts towards public education, science literacy, and evidenced-based policy will be critical to keeping the public informed and engaged on everything from coronavirus to climate. With that, let us – as educators, authors, editors, and publishers – make sure that good science writing awaits people of all backgrounds in times of crisis.

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To continue on Day Four of the University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses.

John Hopkins University Press

Visit Blog | Twitter: @JHUPress

University of Alabama Press

Visit Blog | Twitter: @UniofAlPress

Purdue University Press

Visit Blog | Twitter: @PurduePress

Oregon State University Press

Visit Blog | Twitter: @OSUPress

Princeton University Press

Visit Blog | Twitter: @PrincetonUPress

Bristol University Press

Visit Blog | Twitter: @BrisUniPress

Indiana University Press

Visit Blog | Twitter: @iupress

University of Toronto Press Journals

Visit Blog | Twitter: @utpjournals

Vanderbilt University Press

Visit Blog | Twitter: @VanderbiltUP

Columbia University Press

Visit Blog | Twitter: @ColumbiaUP