M&G science editor Sarah Wild tells us why we need well-informed science writing to raise the tenor of our debates.
We need more science in South Africa. We talk about how we need engineers and scientists to grow the economy and develop skills, but we also need science and scientific thinking to inform our national debates.
A professor once told me: “Once your science finds its way on to a bumper sticker, you’re screwed.”
Unfortunately, many of our debates – whether they’re about nuclear energy, fracking or genetically modified foods – are on bumper stickers and are fraught with hyperbolised, emotive nonsense, which degenerates into political mudslinging.
We need well-informed science writing in newspapers to raise the tenor of our debate. Regrettably, science journalists are a rare breed, with only a handful of newspapers in the country having one on staff.
And yet we have thousands of researchers in the country’s tertiary institutions, who seldom speak out.
This is partly because of fear: of the media, of having their science sensationalised or misunderstood, or that they will have to “dumb down” their research to make people interested.
Another problem is that most of the space in our news media is consumed by politics, sport or entertainment – scientists who want to tell the country about their work might find it difficult to get a slot.
This is why the Mail & Guardian launched Science Voices, a platform for postgraduates at South African universities to learn how to write for an audience that is not academic, and to get published in the M&G. Science Voices 2014, a collection of the best postgraduate science writing in the country, comes out on Friday.
We called on master’s and doctoral candidates in South Africa’s universities to submit writing about their research. I selected pieces and worked with those postgraduates to show them what newspapers are looking for and how to write in plain, accessible language.
Science Voices 2014 is a collection of 28 science articles, written by our postgraduates, on topics ranging from women’s shopping habits to using quantum biology to determine “what is life?” With a spread of topics, from students at a wide variety of tertiary institutions, there is something for everyone. Our students and researchers are doing fascinating work, creating knowledge and coming up with solutions to many of our problems, whether it’s in health, energy or agriculture, among others.
People often ask me: “Where is the good news in South Africa?” My answer: “In the amazing work being done in our universities.”