It is easy to name a cultural or political hero. These are public figures who have built nations and captured the hearts of young and old. Now, try asking someone to name a living scientist who is contributing significantly to his or her country ‒ many will draw a blank.
The diminution of scientific accomplishment from Asia is particularly acute. Compounded by language and cultural barriers, a relatively young academic infrastructure and a nascent science communications sector, even the most revolutionary of scientific progress may go unnoticed by local and international communities. The ability of Asia to shape future scientific debate is thus dependent on a skill as old as human culture itself: the humble scribe. Indeed, Asia needs gifted storytellers.
In 2011, I founded Asian Scientist Magazine, a print and online magazine that covers science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) news from Asia. While Asia-centric research and development (R&D) trade magazines have existed long before us and international magazines also have Asian editions, our magazine is pan-discipline and focuses on scientists who publish their research from Asia. Our mission is to highlight high-quality scientific research coming from the region, along with an honest discussion of the problems that need to be addressed.
Slowly but surely, science journalism in Asia is finding its form. For the first time, the World Conference of Science Journalists will be held in Asia. The conference will take place in Coex, South Korea, in June 2015. The shift of the world’s R&D epicentre from the US to Asia is also very apparent: according to the 2014 US National Science Foundation Key Science and Engineering Indicators report, Asian countries represented 25% of the global R&D total in 2001, but accounted for 34% in 2011. Incredibly, China’s R&D growth over a decade was sustained at 18% annually, adjusted for inflation. For comparison, the European Union accounted for 22% of the global R&D total in 2011, down from 26% in 2001. Clearly, there is an industry here that scientific journalism can actively support.
But, in the so-called “Asia-10” (China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand), much more work needs to be done to improve the standards of scientific journalism.
Significant language and cultural barriers to communication are reinforced by formal press releases, approved by committee, that emphasize bureaucracy over science. Discovery, seen through the lens of institutional administration, faces an uphill battle in capturing the imagination of the public. Progress is slow as there are few high-quality scientific journalism courses and workshops available for training and continuing education. I take as an example my previous institution, MIT, which has grown to an outsized global influence not just because of the science, but also because it communicates well via its century-old MIT Technology Review magazine. So much so, that a Knight Science Journalism fellowship programme was established to teach others the same skill.
Which brings me to my next point – science writing is difficult. It is the opposite of click-bait articles that pepper the internet: embellished, misleading headlines like “A cure for (fill in the blank) has been found”. Science writing requires scientific literacy and the literary muscle to inject enthusiasm into the bounds of reported information. As one who hires science editors, I can say the Venn diagram of these talents touches at only a few points. Practitioners are few and far between. For every scientist who spouts incomprehensible jargon, we have a journalist who is confounded by the workings of the Higgs Boson and CRISPR/Cas gene editing.
Together with collaborators and supporting organizations, we are actively helping the Asian science communications sector grow alongside its much more affluent R&D sibling. In April 2015, we are launching Asia’s first science writing prize, which is open to all individuals based in Asia, and no professional qualifications or affiliations are necessary. Importantly, we have dedicated a special youth award to nurture younger writers under the age of 18.
Science communications also has an important role in public health. A poll of 1,012 adults in the US by The Associated Press and GfK Custom Research North America found that only 51% of Americans are confident that vaccines are safe and effective. There exists a need for a similar study in Asia, as equally rooted beliefs colour everything from childhood vaccination to climate change.
Supporting scientific journalism in the region is good for business. Opening channels of communication can produce unexpected ideas and collaborations that cut across scientific disciplines. At the recent Global Young Scientists Summit 2015 held in Singapore, which is Asia’s answer to the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, a panel session chaired by Professor Arnoud de Meyer, President of Singapore Management University, discussed how best to turn insights into innovation. The panel was unanimous that multidisciplinary research is the way forward in STEM; and 2013 Chemistry Nobel Laureate Michael Levitt said: “In science today, the seams between disciplines are where a lot of the gold is.” Scientific communicators are natural liaisons between scientists from arcane disciplines.
Good science writing can also nurture scientific interest in young people. Scientific stories are not limited to professional journalists and writers; they can be user-generated and tap into visual media and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. From my experience, many of our readers are students under the age of 18. I receive calls from parents appreciative that their children are enthused by STEM, instead of being put off by it.
As Asian countries continue to make headway in globally relevant research, it is a natural progression for science communications to mature with it. I issue a call to all those interested in science and journalism to give science writing a try. It is not only a fulfilling career for the individual, but also a strong driver of positive outcomes for the region.
Author: Juliana Chan is the Editor-in-Chief of Asian Scientist Magazine and Nanyang Assistant Professor at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and a member of the 2015 intake of World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders
Image: A researcher prepares medicine at a laboratory in Nanjing University in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, April 29, 2011. REUTERS/Aly Song