Voyage of discovery: How I learned to stop hating science and write about it

Voyage of discovery: How I learned to stop hating science and write about it

September 1, 2007

My high school science teachers would probably be aghast to learn that I had won a national award for science writing. If they recalled me at all, it would be as that kid near the front of the row who always looked like he’d rather be somewhere else. My marks in their classes indicated that, in my mind at least, I was very far away indeed.

At the time, my scholastic passions, such as they were, ran to politics and literature. And during three years as an English major at the University of Alberta, I indulged those passions almost exclusively. But then a funny thing happened: I stumbled into a career as a magazine and newspaper journalist. It’s a line of work that, over the past quarter century, has taken me to every corner of this country—from Bonavista, Nfld. to Victoria, B.C.; from Ellesmere Island to downtown Toronto.

Through all that time, I worked as a generalist, covering every imaginable subject, including politics, business, education, religion and the arts. But from the start, reporting and writing about science, technology and medical research was always part of my job. It proved to be both the hardest and most rewarding writing of all.

Hard, because science was not something I intuitively understood in the way I did, say, a politician on the election stump or an author promoting her latest book. Rewarding, because each time I did it I learned something new and gained increased respect for the men and women who inhabit Canada’s research labs or otherwise advance the cause of pure and applied science.

Over the years, I’ve learned more than I ever thought I’d know about customized software innovations, giant particle accelerators and a wide variety of potentially life-saving medical research, including Canada’s world-leading contributions to stem cell science (the subject of the article honored with last year’s Superstars of Innovation Award).

I also gained a deep appreciation for working scientists. Almost to a person, they are thoughtful individuals who are passionate about what they do and who work tremendously hard, often with very little recognition. Where many fall short (and I think they’d be the first to acknowledge this) is in the ability to communicate what they are doing to a general lay audience. And that’s precisely where good science writing plays a critical role.

Journalists are, in essence, storytellers—and there’s no end of good science and technology stories to be told. The trick is to be able to make sense of very complex subjects without trivializing or unduly sensationalizing the facts at hand. At the same time, there is no harm—and sometimes great benefit—in striving to entertain as well as inform.

Good science writing can shine a spotlight on the contribution research and applied science makes to everyday life and the quality of our collective future. It can also raise important public policy and ethical concerns about the choices scientists, and their benefactors, make. Good science writing should never be about blind boosterism; if it is, such journalism betrays the intellectual rigor that characterizes the very people it seeks to celebrate.

At the end of the day, science writing is not for the benefit of the scientists. If they are the only ones reading, then the journalist has failed. Engaging the larger public in the wonders, and potential pitfalls, of science should be the objective. Anything less misses the mark—and warrants the kind of failing grade my high school science teachers were sometimes tempted to assign.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.