Science, Upstream: Covering research as a human endeavor

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I remember the period when I was first transitioning from doing science to writing about it, nearly 15 years ago, as a time of great excitement, of new possibilities and satisfying challenges. But there was one giant frustration, too: the news peg. The idea that science only became a “story” in the journalistic sense once it reached an identifiable end point—most commonly the publication of a peer-reviewed journal article—seemed deeply artificial. Science is a process, after all, not a finish line.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve written hundreds of “paper of the week”-type articles since then, and I still enjoy doing them. But the inevitable focus on results tends to flatten the process and experience of science into something at once flashier and flatter than it truly is … more robotically linear in its progress, certainly, and a great deal more successful as well. Besides, papers come out months or years after the experiments they report have been conducted, and they’re written to strip out much of the context and all of the human drama.

The truth is, the great majority of science happens far upstream from the publication of papers, and far too little of that sees the light of day.

That’s why I’m excited to introduce a new project that will be appearing here at PLoS Blogs. Starting today, two of my journalism students at Stanford will be making regular contributions in a section of PLoS Network’s Student Column, called Science, Upstream. Jamie Hansen and Julia James have embedded themselves with a diverse, multidisciplinary research group that is working to quantify the abstract concepts of environmental economics and to apply them to real-world conservation and development decisions. Julia and Jamie’s goal is at once simple and elusive: to catch the slow, churning progress of research in action.

Jamie Hansen

In other words, Jamie and Julia are going upstream—beyond the papers, around the embargo system and inside the research group itself. Until they graduate in June, they’ll be spending time every week with members of the Natural Capital Project, a dispersed network of biologists, social scientists and others with a major hub at Stanford. They’ll sit in on meetings and seminars, they’ll immerse themselves in the details of economic models and ecological interactions and they’ll get to know the people and try to capture a sense of the work they do, its joys and frustrations and why they do it.

There is abundant uncertainty in this approach to science journalism—

Julia James

there’s no more secure story, after all, no more solid news peg or fact-checking resource than a refereed, peer-reviewed, copy-edited science paper just released from embargo. But then of course, science is all about uncertainty, and not just the statistical sort that can be neatly delineated into standard deviations from the mean. The process itself is one of underappreciated risks—of experiments not working, of funding falling through, even of long-cherished hypotheses being proven invalid and careers skidding off the rails. It’s worth emphasizing that we don’t expect any such great drama, but nor do we expect to need it to construct an interesting, engaging portrait of real-time research.

We know we’re not re-inventing the wheel—science journalists have been tagging along on scientific expeditions and tracking experiments over months and years for as long as editors have been signing off on travel budgets, and back-filling the human interest stuff when they haven’t. But we do think it’s significant that Jamie and Julia aren’t heading to an exotic locale or lying in wait for a breakthrough that’s just over the horizon. They are very simply committing to immerse themselves in the day-to-day life of a research group, to probe and explore the work and its applications, the techniques and the people who develop and use them.

Gallons of pixels have been poured out discussing how we should best communicate science. One of my colleagues at The Last Word on Nothing, Richard Panek, has a nice take on the practice of science as narrative endeavor, complete with premise, conflict and resolution. Too often, science is reported just as resolution—just as it’s too-often taught as a mere assemblage of facts.

To my mind, the equation isn’t particularly complex. The universe is a vast and fascinating thing at every level of organization, science is the best way humanity has come up with so far of investigating its mysteries, and telling stories is the best way we have of sharing experiences with one another.

Jamie, Julia and I hope that their experiment—their gamble, really—will pay off as an effective way of finding and sharing stories. Our fondest hope is that you’ll not just come along, but that you’ll be there with your questions, suggestions and insights to help us make the experiment a success.

And here is a link to the first post on Science, Upstream.

Photo credit:
Flickr / By GregTheBusker

Guest Blogger Profile: THOMAS HAYDEN (web/twitter) teaches science and environmental writing and journalism at Stanford University’s School of Earth Sciences. He blogs with friends about science at The Last Word On Nothing.

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