Sunday, May 9, 2021

Scientists and journalists, unlikely bedfellows…

Scientists have never really gotten along with journalists. That’s understandable, seeing that scientists are generally introverted, nerdish and bespectacled types while journalists are loud, extroverted and opinionated characters who seem hell bent on poking their noses into other people’s business.

Generally, scientists are obsessed with accuracy and they tend to be mistrustful of the journalists’ ability to accurately report on their research, which usually involves a lot of complicated figures and equations. On the other hand, journalists think scientists are “snobbish” types who think they know it all. But the truth is that scientific research is complicated. Plus it involves numbers, and everyone knows that journalists don’t like crunching numbers.

However, the media now finds itself in a jam. There is a new breed of readers, the kind who just love science news and despises the socio-political scandals that the media has been fixated on. This moneyed reader, the suave, techno-savvy and moneyed know-it-all, also has the power of the Pula. Even government seems to have been bitten by the techno bug, as students are nowadays discouraged from taking law, teaching and administration courses in favour of science, engineering and medicine. Yeah, the world has changed. So here we are, poor journalists, stuck with a new breed of readers who are agitating for science and technology news. These guys want to take us back to school.

But there is hope. The Botswana Institution of Technology Research and Innovation (BITRI) came to the rescue when it offered to teach local journalists how to report on science and technology. And so it was that last week Thursday the two unlikely allies sat around the table to discuss ways in which they can work together. The event?

A meet and greet session organised by BITRI. First to take the stage was the Chief Executive Officer himself, Nelson Torto. He explained that BITRI, now two years old, is a public funded institution that has to report to government. Then came Jose Jackson-Malete, Director-Research and Partnerships, who revealed that as scientists, they generally shy away from the media.

“But BITRI is a publicly funded science and research institution and we have to engage the media as a way of reporting back to our stakeholders, the public,” she said.

She also explained that BITRI engages the media through regular press releases, published articles and media engagement sessions.

“Going forward, we will hold regular engagements with the media and build capacity to facilitate easier and more accurate reporting. We will also strive to share our scientific activities in a way that is simple and understandable for the media and the public,” she said.

To that end, said Jackson-Malete, BITRI has been in consultation with the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Botswana Chapter, to explore avenues through which such capacity building can be harnessed. As part of its capacity building initiatives, BITRI will sponsor a “Best Science and Technology Reporter” award at the forthcoming MISA awards.

“There will surely be more activities geared at harnessing accurate and informed reporting on science and technology,” she said.

BITRI’s efforts are very welcome, simply because science and the media need each other. Scientists need journalists to report on their research, innovation and ground breaking discoveries. After all, it is this research that makes our lives easier every day. Scientific breakthroughs are usually of great interest for the general public, whether it’s about a potential cure for cancer or horsemeat in our burgers. We all need medicine, electricity, food, vehicles…but we care less how they are made or availed to us. We just take such things for granted. After all it’s the work of scientists. Let them labour over algorithms and test tubes while we party it up all night. Journalists will now have to join in the number crunching. There is now hope that scientists and journalists will develop a trusting relationship.

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