10th World Conference of Science Journalists

Burroughs Wellcome Fund an integral part of the global science conversation

SAN FRANCISCO — Coming from 73 different countries, nearly 1,400 science journalists and writers gathered in San Francisco, California, this October for the 10th World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ 2017). The conference was made possible in part by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and BWF programs and grantees were an integral part of this global conversation.

In 2015, the World Federation of Science Journalists awarded the United States delegation —comprised of the National Association of Science Writers, the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, San Francisco — the bid to host the 10th conference.

The resulting program boasted lectures on the frontiers and achievements of scientific research, as well as discussions on the tools and debates within science journalism. Research topics highlighted at WCSJ 2017 events and sessions spanned drug discovery to paleontology to public health, and the focus of one panel was UCSF investigator Joe DeRisi, Ph.D. (BWF New Initiatives in Malaria, 2002), whose Center for Advanced Technology facility also was among the conference tour destinations.

The journalistic portion of the conference dissected timely issues such as the sensitivity of reporting on natural disasters and human crises, the need to investigate harassment misconduct in academia, and guidelines for covering Zika and other emerging infectious diseases. Equally in high demand was the “Power Pitch” session — where freelance journalists lined up to propose story ideas to top-tier outlets such as Nature, The Atlantic, Washington Post, and Scientific American. Memorably, these daytime itineraries were bookended by two professional networking galas, held under the starry science lights of the California Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium.

Such diverse programming and career advancement opportunities proved a worthwhile draw for journalists, editors, university information officers, government agency communicators, and foundation program officers from across the world — including several professional communities familiar to BWF support.

Alumni of The Open Notebook BWF Fellowship — a mentorship program for early-career science journalists — were in attendance at WCSJ 2017, including Rodrigo Pérez Ortega (2017), Christina Selby (2016), Jane C. Hu, Ph.D. (2016), and Julia Rosen Ph.D. (2015). The Science Communicators of North Carolina (SCONC) — through which BWF supports the advancement of science communication in its home state — saw many institutional and freelance members in attendance, including SCONC president and BWF contributing writer Marla Vacek Broadfoot, Ph.D. Finally, the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowship program, which has long received BWF support, also saw alumni in San Francisco, including BWF grantees Tim de Chant, Ph.D. (2008) and Ben Young Landis (2009).

In engaging the global community of science journalists, the WCSJ 2017 social media campaign posed evocative questions to registrants ahead of the meeting. “Has social media improved science journalism?” asked one tweet, while another asked, “Are there issues that need more coverage by science journalists?”

In a twist, these queries were posed again during the five-day conference, in the form of an interactive poster display near the registration booth, which prompted attendees to film their responses and opinions.

"What I think should be covered a lot more by science journalists and by media in general is the whole process of science," replied Dutch journalist Jop de Vrieze in a video response. "Nowadays, people tend to think that science is just an opinion, or they tend to think that all science is the same. But when you really show what the whole process of science is about — all these small steps that lead to a certain conclusion... then people get a lot better impression of what science is about. And that's what we really need in this age."

Appropriately, one particular query drew impassionate responses. “Science journalism needs international faces and voices,” read one poster placard.

“Science is global. Science exists for humanity. And if science is global, [then] there are different perspectives from virtually everywhere,” replied Nigerian journalist Akin Jimoh. “So, it means that we have a variety of voices. We have a variety of faces. We have a variety of linkages.”

University of Florida educator and Jamaican science writer Czerne Reid, Ph.D., puts it simply: “Science journalism needs international faces and voices if it is to tell the full story.”

The 11th World Conference of Science Journalists will be held in 2019 in Lausanne, Switzerland.