Spring 2010

The future of science news

Donald Kennedy

Donald Kennedy, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1968, is President Emeritus, Bing Professor of Environmental Science and Policy Emeritus, and Senior Fellow of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Science and former Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. His recent publications include U.S. Policy and the Global Environment (with John A. Riggs, 2000).

At a recent lunch, I asked Phil Taubman, an old friend who has had a distinguished career at The New York Times, what he would say about the future of respected daily papers like his that are made by printing with ink on newsprint. Phil suggested that he wasn’t sure they had a future. Neither am I.

I am particularly concerned with the news crisis because it has the potential to undermine the public understanding of science. Why is that so important? At this moment, more so than at any other time within memory, more of the policy decisions facing Congress and the administrative agencies of government have deep science and technology content. The nexus between science and policy is so vitally important that major efforts are under way to shape the proper relationship between science and its outcomes in regulatory policies or allocation decisions.

Before we go further, I should disclose my own personal relationship with news, and particularly the portion of it that deals with science and technology. It consists of regular breakfast encounters with The New York Times and frequent auditory contact with National Public Radio. I advised the science unit of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer from time to time, and watch the program almost nightly if I can. For eight years (2000–2008) I was editor-in-chief of Science, the weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It regularly supplies science news to mainstream media outlets and has an active news section itself.

The reader may conclude that I am hopelessly addicted to “trusted sources.” I am; that’s why I am in mourning about this discouraging prognosis. We hear everywhere that the news business is experiencing a growing economic malaise. Regional distress and national attention followed the demise of the Rocky Mountain News and the flight to an electronic version by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, one that conferred an unanticipated benefit on its rival, the Times. The near-death experience of The Boston Globe came about despite its ownership by The New York Times Company –doubtless a threatening sign to outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune that were amid bankruptcy proceedings. Cities that were two-paper towns got joint operating agreements in the 1980s; some of them are now no-paper towns.

All that is bad enough. But it is worse still that a large number of metropolitan daily newspapers have done away with special science pages as well as those reporters who had developed special talents for explaining difficult science to the public. In any given year, our democracy has to decide on a host of issues that have important scientific and technological content: what to do about climate change, how to organize human or robotic exploration of space, how to develop a sustainable national energy policy, how to treat the health potential offered by embryonic stem cells, and the like. To vote intelligently, citizens will increasingly require a level of scientific literacy. Of course, we also need to develop a layer of committed scientists who will lead the march of discovery, providing the basic research findings that will serve as seed corn for the next generation of new developments. In making that kind of commitment, young people are often inspired by the dramatic research accomplishments being made by scientists and interpreted by those who write about the work.

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