Converting Science&Technology into news

Ciência Hoje [Science Today] magazines completes 20 years of uninterrupted publication, with precise information and clear texts

Quality and precision. This has always been the motto that has guided the course of the Ciência Hoje magazine, which completed 20 years’ existence in July. In the course of these two decades, the Brazilian publication, which is totally dedicated to matters regarded as impenetrable by the lay reader, has become a point of reference, without ever having given up one of its main objectives: establishing a communication channel between the scientific community and the public at large, promoting debates about issues like citizenship, education and university participation, and, in particular, making science democratic.

Before meeting these targets, the magazine was just a dream to the group of researchers who took part in the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC), who in the course of six years discussed the bearings of the project. They included the then secretary-general of the institution and neurosurgeon Roberto Lent, physicists Alberto Passos Guimarães and Ennio Candotti, biologist Darcy Fontoura de Almeida and anthropologist Otávio Velho. The main challenge for this group was to break through the barriers of academic language, laden with jargon and formulas, and to turn it into clear and accessible texts, without losing scientific rigor.

The first step came with the launching of the magazine, on July 7th 1982, during the 34th meeting of the SBPC, in Campinas. At the encounter, hundreds of subscriptions were already assured, a proof of the confidence that the researchers had in the venture. Confidence that ended up being rewarded with the success of the first issue of Ciência Hoje , whose 15,000 copies were quickly sold out. There had to be a further print run of 10,000 copies to meet the demand.

Carlos Vogt, FAPESP’s president and also the SBPC’s vice-president explains that researcher and journalist José Reis created the Ciência e Cultura [Science and Culture] magazine, in 1949, the first publication to bring not only scientific articles, “but also details of the projection of this knowledge into society” (in the words of José Reis himself). The magazine, linked to the SBPC, was very different fromCiência Hoje and went through three different stages. “That is to say, Ciência Hoje comes from a tradition that started with the immense work of José Reis in the popularization of science”, says Vogt, the current editor in chief of Ciência e Cultura. He recalls that the enormous repercussion of Ciência Hoje in scientific circles created a paradigm – some time later, Ciencia Hoy was created in Argentina.

According to Ciência Hoje ‘s editor, Alicia Ivanissevich, the publication was born with a strong political link. The first issue brought an article on Cubatão, at the time the most polluted city in the country. There were denouncements of cases of anencephaly (fetuses without brains) and other diseases arising from the criminal emission of toxic substances by the local industries. “In spite of the political bent, the magazine had no problems with the dictatorship”, Alicia recalls. “General Golbery do Couto Silva himself (One leaders of the regime), one of the main organizers of the military regime, used to subscribe to the magazine in its early years”.

When Ciência Hoje was born, there were no publications of its kind in the country, with the exception of the already traditional Ciência e Cultura , or translations of foreign scientific publications. Pesquisa FAPESP, for example, was born three years ago, and the Brazilian edition of the Scientific American was recently launched this year. “At the time, there were isolated ventures for popularizing science, such as radio programs, interviews on TV, talks and informative bulletins from scientific societies”, says the editor of the magazine. That is to say, nothing within the reach of the layman. Alicia admits, however, that there has never been any pretension of winning over the common reader, who lives in a country where education for all is an eternal promise. “The publication was aimed at the scientific sector; it would be impossible to reach a very large public. But it was an attempt to leave the cocoon, the ivory tower, and to speak to the common citizen”, she explains.

As time went by, the directors of the magazine realized that greater challenges than the democratization of science were still to come. Financial difficulties were the first problem. In the 90’s, Ciência Hoje almost shut its doors. At the height of the crisis, two issues of the magazine were published with a band on the cover reading “Threatened with extinction”, a good-humored way of calling attention to the delicate situation. It worked. Shortly afterwards, the scientific community rallied round to collect funds to keep the publication alive, after having ceased receiving funds from organs like the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep) and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq).

In the midst of so many storms, Ciência Hoje not only overcame all the crises, it grew and multiplied – at the moment it has a print run of 12,000 copies. New publications were created, aimed at different publics and age groups. The first venture was the launching of Informe Ciência Hoje [Science Today Information], back in 1985, which was later to be transformed into the Jornal da Ciência [Science Journal], a fortnightly publication with news about the sector and aimed at the SBPC’s members and grant holders. Afterwards, there came Ciência Hoje das Crianças [Science Today for Children], which was born as an insert and became an independent publication. “We also realized that the teachers in fundamental schooling were not being attended to, and we began to publish thematic volumes, baptized Ciência Hoje na Escola [Science Today at School]”, says Alicia. For the Internet, the homepage was created; it is updated with scientific news from all over the world.

With the end of financial support from government research bodies, the strength of some of the magazine’sproducts became fundamental for the publication’s survival. Ciência Hoje das Crianças , for example, is sold to the Ministry of Education, which distributes 180,000 copies of the publication in the public school network. “It is still government funding, but not open-ended”, says Alicia.

The editor also points out the fact that the magazine has “created a demand” and opened up a space for other ventures of the kind, likeSuperinteressante ( Superinteresting) from the Abril Publishing House and Galileu (Galileo) from Globo Publishing House. The respect earned by Ciência Hoje is, in the editor’s opinion, directly related to the figures contained in the 184 issues of the publication. Over these 20 years, more than 2,000 scientists from all over the country (68% from the southeastern region), as well as dozens of professionals working abroad, have written articles for the magazine. About 850 researchers were consulted to assess the texts of their colleagues, common practice in the editorial process. “All the articles and reports are read by specialists in the areas of the exact, biological, biomedical, environmental and human sciences. The articles that come from abroad are also passed on to consultants”, Alicia explains. According to the editor, keeping a balance between academic language and the language of journalism creates a few problems, almost always easily gotten round. “Many scientists even thank us when we leave their articles clearer”.

The respect that Ciência Hoje has won amongst the scientific community has been made explicit in the declarations of the scholars who have accompanied the magazine’s creation and growth. One of them is physicist Sergio Rezende, from the Federal University of Pernambuco, who exalts the publication’s seriousness. According to him, the developed countries have achieved economic and social success because for a long time they have incorporated research and innovation into their productive processes and public policies.”In Brazil, unfortunately, the greater part of society does not realize the importance of science, nor our ability to use it to draw up and to implement a national project to take us to full development”, is Rezende’s analysis. “This is the context in whichCiência Hoje takes on importance, since it is a vehicle that deals competently with science and contributes towards diminishing the lack of information on the suggest, which prevails on the means of communication”.

A former president of FAPESP and the current rector of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, echoes Rezende’s opinion about the importance of the magazine. “It has a fundamental role in popularizing science in Brazil. It played a pioneering role in the country, by dealing with science in an agreeable and accessible way for the lay public”, he praises.

In the opinion of Walter Neves, a researcher from the Human Evolutionary Studies Laboratory of the University of São Paulo, it would be impossible to ignore its scientific and academic path from the creation of Ciência Hoje. “For a country whose academic circles have remained as a body protected from society, the creation of the magazine brought visibility to the lines of research that would not have survived the intramural massacre”, reckons Neves.