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Promises and problems

The spreading of science is passing through a delicate period in Brazil, full of promises and problems. Never before did natural science need such journalistic coverage in the sense of being clear, informative and critical, capable of minimally preparing interested citizens to take part in national debates of the importance of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, to give a recent example. And as well never before were the effects of economic constraints upon journalistic practice, with immediate reflexes on those sectors still perceived as of lesser priority, such as the publishing of science, so weighty.

The worrying financial situation and the successive cuts in resources bring with them the risk of a backward step regarding the prestige and the recognition of scientific journalism in the newsrooms themselves, which had been painstakingly conquered and with considerable investment in the formation of a small group, nevertheless consistent, of professionals. Part of this asset now finds itself under threat with the phantom of unemployment and the general degradation of working conditions.

Although the crisis in the communication industry is systematic, in the weekly magazines perhaps its effects have not been felt as strongly as in the area of scientific diffusion. Even though positions have been cut here, the fact is that over the last few years the tendency of dedicating more and more space to health themes has grown. As well as being a probable symptom of the deterioration of the quality of life, under the new demands of social negative investment and of individual hyper-performance at work, this tendency has transformed itself into what many consider the opposite of scientific journalism: a type of throw-away counseling, even though it is varnished with brush strokes of science – news that can be used (and thrown away) just like paper tissues.

Something similar appears to be laboring against quality scientific journalism – the one does not retreat when faced with impenetrable appearance when scientific relevance commands respect – in the monthly magazines dedicated to the theme. The call of the mermaid in general suggests making something that is merely interesting become important, exactly the opposite of that which good practice demands. Auspicious news, in this respect, is that there remain in the marketplace at least two publications, Scientific American Brasil and Pesquisa FAPESP, which insist on the challenge of turning understandable and attractive the world of natural science without going back to the easy expedient of blurring frontiers with what be called semi-science.

Between the two publications, it is still imperative to highlight the consistent march by Pesquisa FAPESP in the sense of freeing for São Paulo horizons and gaining representation in terms of national research, a niche which, during less difficult times, the magazine Ciência Hoje [Science Today] from the Brazilian Society for Progress in Science (SBPC), occupied in a pioneering way.

However, printed vehicles such as these will not be able to remedy the main deficiency of scientific diffusion in Brazil: the lack of capillary action. As is natural for daily newspapers, their science articles don’t manage more than to generate momentary brilliant ideas on the radar screen of public opinion, whilst magazines, specialized or not, are persuaded by the fleeting shine of the market or then see their forces consistently weakened by scornful print runs.

What is missing in Brazil is a large science portal for the public, like that of EurekAlert in the United States, (www.eurekalert.org), which serves both the layman in search of information and high school teachers short on updated information, and thirsty journalists with reporting agendas. While there is not the creation of a network of social support for scientific research with a cultural value, and not just as a factor of innovation and of economic competitiveness, scientific journalism – and perhaps the very enterprise of research itself – will continue to be abandoned in the comings and goings of the situation.

Marcelo Leite is a journalist, the editor of Ciência for the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper and the author of O DNA (Publifolha).

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