What is the mission of a science journalist? Entertainment? Education? Guarding democracy? That depends on your client, according to science journalist Martin Angler, author of Science journalism, an introduction (2017). If you work for a glossy magazine or free online news medium, you will probably see yourself mainly as an entertainer or educator. Employed by a critical national newspaper, you will probably see yourself mainly as a watchdog.
In January we will give four workshops Science communication at the Topinstitute Food and nutrition. In these workshops, we will show how crucial a key message is to organizing a story. Developing a key message is crucial to organizing a story.
The 30-year old Dutch Association for Science Journalists (VWN) is going to change its name in ‘Dutch Association for Science Journalism and Science Communication’. A good decision. Most members, including me, earn their money mainly with communication. But actually the term communication is rather vague. ‘Communication’ conceals it is often marketing: well-written stories increase the chances to catch up new research funds. Nothing wrong with that, but shouldn’t we call ourselves science marketers instead of science communicators? We are always advocating for plain language.
I had already decided to sign my mails with ‘Marianne Heselmans – Science Marketer’, when I received ‘Regenesis. How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. Written by system biologist George Church and science writer/philosopher Ed Regis in 2012. That book makes me doubt. It may not always possible to say: ‘Now I am a marketer. And now I am a science journalist, searching the truth to support democracy.
George Church is a leading synthetic biologist, professor at MIT in Harvard and founder of the young company Gen9. Gen9 makes synthetic DNA on microchips. Synthetic DNA can be used to construct more effective bacteria, plants or animals for industry.
The authors have used the writing techniques of thorough science journalism. They have based their stories on published research results from different research institutes and not on vague expectations, or on only Harvard’s results. All stories can be checked and are full of fine (historical) details.
Meanwhile, the wider story is a sketch of a future world in which all kinds of industrial bacteria, plants and animals are made with….. synthetic DNA. That new ‘synthetic’ organisms are then going to deliver us thousands of new, convenient products such as bio plastic cups and carpets, disease free plants and animals, bacteria for data storage and resurrection of the Neanderthal man.
So we get a clear impression of the results and goals of the synthetic biologists. The book serves democracy too: who is against genetic modification, has got more idea’s, names and research programs to ‘attack’. And possible negative side-effects of synthetic biology are described in detail.
But this convincing sketch of a world in which ‘nature and ourselves are reinvented’ is also the ultimate marketing for the company of George Church. The more believers in new bacteria, plants, animals and men with (only) synthetic DNA, the more synthetic DNA Gen9 is going to sell.
Do they promis too much? Not really. Gen9 now sells its synthetic DNA for 20 dollar cent per letter (per base pair). Still far too expensive to make bacteria and plants with only synthetic DNA. But if you realize how fast the price of sequenced DNA has been lowered in the last ten years (from 1 sequenced letter for 1 dollar in 2003, to 3 million sequenced letters for 1 dollar now), it is not 100 % unlikely that the Church’ and Regis’ world becomes reality. In 50 years or in 100 or 200 years (the authors don’t mention a time).
So what I see in Regenesis is that thorough science journalism may well support democracy and science and technology marketing. And that writing a book together with a science writer is also a good marketing idea.