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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 21 March, 2019

'Media coverage of science remains scant and tends to be uncritically promotional or celebratory'

It would be foolish to conclude that all is well with the state of science and science communication in Ireland, writes Cormac Sheridan.

Cormac Sheridan

SCIENTISTS ARE MOBILISING in the US like never before in order to counter what they see as an unprecedented level of threat to the autonomy and integrity of science posed by the new Trump administration.

Within hours of his inauguration as US President, Donald Trump fired the opening salvo in his war on science by replacing the White House web pages on climate change with a brief sketch of the new administration’s fossil-fuel-oriented “America First Energy Plan”. He froze all new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants and slapped a gagging order on public affairs officials at the EPA and other government agencies.

The backlash has been immediate and powerful

Twitter is awash with reports of government scientists “going rogue”, by maintaining a level of covert resistance to the new regime and keeping lines of communication open.

Executive Order 13769 – better known as the Muslim travel ban – prompted 166 biotechnology industry leaders (including Nessan Bermingham, the Irish CEO of genome editing firm Intellia Therapeutics) to sign a letter of protest at a move they predict would undermine US leadership in one of the key industries of the twenty-first century.

The Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), an international network of scientists and non-governmental organisations, is organising a series of “guerrilla archiving” events across the US to safeguard vast repositories of environmental and scientific data from being dismantled by the Trump administration.

The various strands of protest will converge in a March for Science in Washington DC on 22 April, to champion “publicly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.”

Dublin’s Science March 

Dublin is among 226 cities in over 20 countries that will hold a satellite event. The initiative offers a good opportunity to consider the place of science and science communication in our own country as well as across the wider planet.

Although we may be justified in believing that none of what is happening in the US could ever happen here, it would be foolish to conclude that all is well with the state of science and science communication in Ireland.

Although the volume of both has increased substantially during the last decade and a half, the national conversation on science remains curiously muted. Mainstream coverage of science in print media remains scant, and much of it tends to be uncritically promotional or celebratory.

Scant, uncritical coverage

Mary Mulvhill 1 Mary Mulvihill (1957–2015), Ireland’s outstanding science communicator of her time. Source: Brian Dolan

The Irish Times is the only national newspaper to employ a specialist science correspondent and to cover science in a systematic fashion.

There has been a notable increase in science-related output on radio and television, but much of it is sponsored by the country’s main science funding agency, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), which inevitably compromises its independence.

SFI’s leading role in implementing a science policy agenda that is heavily weighted towards the interests of specific industry sectors has aroused considerable levels of unrest among many scientists in Ireland.

Even within the context of SFI’s own stated ambition, to support research that combines “excellence with impact”, the policy is not succeeding, as evidenced by Ireland’s continued poor performance in securing funding from the European Research Council, which is akin to a European “champions league” for science.

Need for engaged science reporting

So while there is much to celebrate in terms of the development of scientific research and public engagement in Ireland since the turn of the century, there is also plenty of scope for more critical debate on where and how we allocate our resources.

And – particularly in this new era of fake news and alternative facts – there is an urgent need for engaged writing and broadcasting about science.

The untimely death of Mary Mulvihill (1957–2015), Ireland’s outstanding science communicator of her time, has prompted the establishment of the Mary Mulvihill Memorial Award, an initiative that aims to celebrate her legacy and to encourage the emergence of a new generation of science writers and communicators.

Mary Mulvihill

Mary’s career was exceptional in the breadth of subjects that she considered and the depth with which she explored them. She was steeped in the history of Irish science and invention. She took delight in science and in the window it gave her on the world.

She took equal delight in sharing her knowledge through stories, reflections and, in later years, through the thematic apps she developed and on the walking tours she led around Dublin’s scientifically significant sites.

Recognising her varied achievements – in journalism, broadcasting and writing, in championing women’s often neglected contribution to science, and in promoting Ireland’s rich scientific, ecological and industrial heritage – will, we hope, help to inspire the next generation of science journalists, writers and communicators. It will also foster work that shares the creative spark and individual flair that distinguished Mary’s output across all of the media in which she worked.

Cormac Sheridan is a freelance science journalist. He is writing in a personal capacity. The deadline for submissions for the inaugural Mary Mulvihill Memorial Award is just two weeks away. Entries close on Friday, 3 March. This new media competition, which is open to students of any discipline studying in Irish third level institutions, is seeking entries on women’s role in science. Entries in any format – journalism, essay, video, audio or blog posts – are eligible. The award carries a cash prize of €2,000.

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Cormac Sheridan

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