Playing Chinese whispers with science headlines

A couple of months ago I started working as an intern with the communications team of Imperial College London. I write articles for the news site on research carried out by Imperial scientists. Naturally this involves simplifying technical detail for a lay audience. At Imperial I am surrounded by people who spend a great deal of time discussing science communication. We think long and hard about how best to make science accessible and entertaining without compromising accuracy. We also spend a fair bit of time worrying over what counts as ‘accurate’ and ranting about how most journalists don’t share science communicators’ qualms. Still, one wishfully thinks that their professional training and values must count for something. One is wrong. One was recently shocked by just how mercenary science journalism can be.

My first article covered experiments on the use of large structures, inspired by metamaterials, to protect buildings from earthquakes. Imperial is well-known for its metamaterial research because of Sir John Pendry, the father of ‘invisibility cloaks’. That term is not a media gimmick. Physicists themselves write of invisibility cloaks in their research papers, nodding to Harry Potter in an unprecedented display of PR savviness. Continue reading “Playing Chinese whispers with science headlines”

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The Death of Science

Original Article for Palatinate – Durham’s Independent Student Newspaper

“Publish or perish” is a popular saying in the world of academia.

There is a reason why the phrase gets tossed around so cheerfully: like most clichés, it is descriptive and accurate. Before the success of modern academic research during the Second World War, scientists numbered a few hundred thousand. Today, to forge a career in science, academics must compete with several million fellow researchers.

Science is a trusted source of truth – it has earned that trust through self-policing. But with increasing graduates vying for limited scientific occupations, could research quality be giving way to quantity?

The deluge of studies submitted for publication means that leading journals must reject most manuscripts they receive. Editors are more likely to print striking findings on hot topics, which in turn tempts academics to exaggerate or cherry-pick results. Continue reading “The Death of Science”