The press and innovation

Scientific journalist has a contribution to give towards technological development, but its role is not restricted to spreading information and educating

It is not a trivial task to answer to the question on what should be the role or the contribution of the scientific journalist in scientific and technological development in Brazil. Most certainly it has a role to play, but it is doubtful if it is restricted to spreading information and educating as it is generally thought. Perhaps it might be of value to attempt to track down this possible contribution beginning with its relationship with a real and present problem, such as that of the chronic difficulty of Brazilian research to turn itself into innovative technology. Could it be that the non-specialized press have a contribution to give in overcoming this hurdle?

According to data in the Green Paper of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT), Brazil ranks 17th in the world in terms of the number of scientific papers accepted by indexed publications, with 12,333 articles published during the year 2000. This represents an increase of more than 400% in relation to 1981, against a world average growth rate of the order of 90%. However, regarding patents, the Brazilian performance is timid, above all when compared with South Korea: only 113 patents were registered in the Patents and Trademarks Office of the USA in 2000, as against 3,472 from the Asian country. There isn’t a transmission belt between the world of research, basically State based, and the business world.

Nevertheless, it would be extremely naive to imagine that this lack of communication is due to the lack of reporting of science in Brazilian newspapers and magazines. According to the researchers Ildeu de Castro Moreira, Luisa Massarani and Isabel Magalhães, of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), from June of 2000 until May of 2001, the six main daily newspapers of the country published 751 texts on genetics (an average of one report in each newspaper every three days).

Someone could argue that at least part of this distancing between the research institutes and companies is the product of the relatively small participation of Brazilian researchers on the press agenda (of the order of 41%, according to the UFRJ researchers). In effect, this is a frequent criticism that researchers direct towards Brazilian scientific journalism. Nevertheless, as naive as ignoring it, it would be to believe that the appointed deficiencies have the capacity of offering some explanation for the lack of articulation between the sectors of the production of material goods and the production of knowledge. This must have deeper organic reasons in the economic sphere itself and that of the institutions, which will be up to other specialists to identify.

Scientists and entrepreneurs shouldn’t deceive themselves with the press. It is not an educational institution, nor does it have as its unique and exclusive mission the dissemination of information, in the gross sense of the word. One of its most important starting points is the notion that there is not neutral or objective information. On the contrary, the press that merits this name supposes that information is inextricable from the interests to which it is associated – even in the world of science – and that it is part of its mission to include or to consider these hues or biases in the very task of informing. Such a must, very well accepted and valued in political and economic journalism, is normally poorly understood when scientific journalists try to be faithful to it.

The presupposition, on speaking about education, is normally that there are objective and unquestionable facts produced by unbiased science and that, once the public has access to it, a rational consensus will be established. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Scientific questions in the public arena are, and will continue to be, political questions. Scientific complexity makes up only its backdrop and it is from that point onwards – and not determined by it – that society has to make negotiated decisions.

If the role of facilitator is understood as that of an intermediary, preferably incapable of understanding , contextualizing the techniques themselves and the very knowledge, then it is all misunderstanding and false expectations. The press will never lower itself to be a mere reproducer of information. But it suffers, yes, from a chronic lack of information and of attention about national research, and in this sense – at least by omission – the press has contributed towards this lack of communication. To bridge this gap, between the research institutions and the press, an agile and trustworthy information service for journalists needs to be created. Today they are besieged daily by tons of press releases of little or no relevance.

It is fundamental to begin to think about a national and centralized information service on research for journalists specialized in science. With the resources offered today by the Internet, it would not have prohibitive costs for implementation, and there are already abroad successful initiatives that could offer a starting point, such as the EurekAlert, Science Online and PressNature services, all with areas of restricted access for accredited journalists. This accreditation is necessary so that information can be anticipated to the professionals under embargo, or that is to say, with the commitment of publication of the story report only after a certain date, which would make compatible a more polished journalistic piece of work with the priority on scientific publication.

However, a service of this type would be of little value if it were to function as a kind of notice board, on which everybody could pin up what they saw fit; in a short period of time, not a single journalist would bother to consult it. It is fundamental that the service make use of a filter of editorial character, or in other words, it only harbor communications that comply with minimum requirements of scientific quality and of journalistic relevance.

The research development institutions have probably the best and largest amount of centralized information about studies at the concluding phase and of quality. For this reason, they should take on the responsibility of intermediating this flow of information between research institutions and the press. The press then will be able to, in a much better fashion, to carry out the task of spreading out this information for the public, business persons and investors, in the way that it should be done: with precision, contextualization and criticism. This is the best service that the press could give to the country.

[Adapted from the participation during the round table A population informed: Scientific Information, at the National Conference on Science, Technology and Innovation in September of 2001]

Science editor with the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo and is the author of the books Os Alimentos Transgênicos [Transgenic Foodstuffs] (2000) and A Floresta Amazônica [The Amazon Forest] (2001), both part of the series Folha Explica [Folha Explains] (Publifolha).