Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Swearing off junk-food science journalism

Daniel Engber has a painful-to-read piece about the quality of British science journalism in Slate. I think it is probably time we Brits acknowledged that we have a problem with what I'd call "junk-food" science journalism. Looks great on the page, fun to read, but essentially lacking any real informational value. You know the kind of thing, like this recent beauty. The thing is, Brits publish an awful lot of this stuff. 

We can all argue about whether this is a general reporter dressing up a baseless story with the aura of "real science", or simply a science reporter going too far (perhaps by choosing to ignore the fact that the 'science' came from a PR-funded research), but the bottom line is that too many British stories try to use an association with science as a means to prop up stories that would otherwise be consigned to the realms of fantasy. For more examples, such as this, click through to Mr Engber's article.

Of course the Daily Mail, and the Telegraph, are both grand purveyors of junk-food science journalism. And this is where I have a slight issue with the context of Mr Engber's piece. He asks "What's wrong with science journalism in the U.K.? Such a statement assumes that the problem is to do with science journalism in and of itself, rather than being an inherent function of writing for trashy mass-market audiences. The US has its tabloid trash papers, like the New York Post.  Does it not do junk science stories? If the answer is, as I suspect, not really then the "problem" may simply be a more banal issue that Brits are more interested in science than Yanks...thus the junk-food end of the British media market serves up more science-themed stories than the junk-food end of  the American market.

If I am right. then the flip side of this argument is that there would be more science journalism overall, good as well as bad. It is easy, perhaps, to focus on the junk-food end--but this would distort the picture. I suspect in reality there is just more interest in science journalism.

There is a vibrant community of science journalists and broadcasters in Britain. British science journalists turn up in droves at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science--the largest non-US contingent. And for historical and geographic reasons, national and international science journalists and broadcasters are found concentrated in London. They work at the BBC, most of the national daily newspapers, Nature, New Scientist and, of course, The Economist. What else? The Times has a wonderful monthly science supplement. And British newspapers don't mind splashing science on the front page, and not just burying it under the fold as they do here in the US. The Independent even had a cover splash on the nerdiest of subjects: RNAi. The Economist also puts science on its front cover, and would bet you'd find at least as much real content in our cover as you would find in the story behind a Time magazine science cover.

Testament to the interest and commitment of British science journalists, the country hosted the World Conference of Science Journalism in 2009. Then in 2010 it hosted what I think is the first national conference of science journalism anywhere in the world. The second UK Conference of Science Journalists is coming up shortly on Monday 25th of June. These were all organised by the Association of British Science Writers, the oldest such professional association in the world (an organisation I chaired until last year). These science journalism conferences debate issues of quality, coverage and balance, bring together the best and the brightest and serve as a point of continuous improvement. It may be that more American journalists went to J-school. This is no alternative to continuous professional development.

Finally, science journalists in the UK care about their national association. In a country a fraction of the size of the US, the ABSW is actually a relatively stronger organisation with about 5-600 members to 2,100 found in the American equivalent--the National Association of Science Writers.

This is all what comes to mind when thinking about the question, "What's wrong with science journalism in the U.K.? The answer may be, not so much....and that the existence of so much junk-food science journalism is actually a sign of something else. That is not to say we shouldn't strive to eliminate it from our diet. (And the junky bottom end creates endless problems and pressures for those producing what I suppose must be by implication "gourmet" science journalism.)

We do need to ask why there is so much crappy science journalism in the UK, as Mr Engber has--and indeed as we do regularly in the UK. I'm reminded of the excellent debate between Ben Goldacre and Lord Drayson, the science minister, a few years ago. I'm reminded of one marketing manager who specifically commissioned some pseudo-research because he knew he could count on it being hoovered up eagerly by the UK media and providing reams of free publicity for his company.

Having said all this, it remains to be seen whether junk-food science journalism is more of a problem of the market than of 'British science journalism'. What I do know, personally, is that there are hundreds of people who call themselves British science journalists and are rightly proud of the truth, accuracy and quality of everything they produce.

Updated: Sorry, updated slightly a few minutes after posting. I managed to post an earlier version somehow.

Friday, May 25, 2012

First man on the moon lacks vision

Popular culture has given the first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, revered status on this planet. No wonder his views have been given so much attention as he has done the rounds of politicians and press in the last few years. His testimony to Congress two years ago poured cold water on the idea that any company might be able to gain access to low-Earth orbit.

I am very concerned that the new plan, as I understand it, will prohibit us from having human access to low Earth orbit on our own rockets and spacecraft until the private aerospace industry is able to qualify their hardware under development as rated for human occupancy. I support the encouragement of the newcomers toward their goal of lower cost access to space. But having cut my teeth in rockets more than 50 years ago, I am not confident. The most experienced rocket engineers with whom I have spoken believe that will require many years and substantial investment to reach the necessary level of safety and reliability.

In fact, supported by the last man on the moon, Gene Cernan, they became the first and last words on what was supposed to be an awful gap in access to the space station. But the thing is, legends and heroes they may be, but that does not mean they know a damn about good space policy nor have a hold on that special something that everyone in the business wants to claim: "vision". With the news today that the first commercial space station has berthed with the International Space Station, we can finally lay to rest the idea that the commercial sector cannot "do" human spaceflight. It has always been palpable nonsense, and now the game is up.

Of course there will attempts to throw doubt on commercial enterprises in space, for example by casting doubt on its commitment to safety. But luckily the abysmal record of government-funded human spaceflight isn't going to be hard to beat. It is just like the invention of commercial air travel. It will be cheaper and safer than anything the government can do. No question about it.

So now that there is pressure on NASA to choose one commercial supplier for trips to the space station, can we please have some common sense prevail? NASA's attempt to grow the private sector suppliers for space station transit is a hugely successful strategy. It is doing its job. But the point is to foster competition, not provide another company with a monopoly. Choosing SpaceX now as the sole commercial supplier, even though it deserves to be chosen, in the long run will not serve the industry--and humanity--one little bit. Competition and free enterprise is supposed to be what makes America great. So let's have more of it, not less.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Cheesed off

Credit: Gonzo fan2007/Wikimedia
My piece in this week's Economist covers the increasingly bitter dispute in Wisconsin over the future of the governor Scott Walker. The piece went to press prior to the release of revised (but unverified) job numbers

I thought one of the more interesting parts of the interview with Governor Walker was where he suggests that when he is re-elected there will be an appetite for overhauling the recall laws in Wisconsin.  Even though Wisconsinites are pretty cheesed off with the whole recall process, such a change would be pretty controversial.

 Wisconsin’s recall vote

Cheesed off 

The state is embroiled in a bitter dispute over its governor’s fate

May 19th 2012 | MADISON | from the print edition

SOME call it a civil war. Others say that the debate over the future of Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, is now so rancorous that neighbours, families, and co-workers are refusing to discuss the subject. The only thing that everyone agrees on in Wisconsin is that they will be glad when the recall election is over on June 5th. [More...]

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Rebuilding Chicago

Infrastructure renewal, Chicago. Picture: City of Chicago.
I wrote this week in The Economist about the new Chicago Infrastructure Trust--the piece was co-authored with Ryan Avent in Washington.

I have also blogged recently about Chicago's obvious need for a great deal of infrastructure investment

A question of trust 

Chicago pioneers a new way of paying for infrastructure

May 12th 2012 | CHICAGO AND WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition

FOR decades America has underinvested in infrastructure—even though poor roads, delayed flights, crumbling bridges and inefficient buildings are an expensive burden. Deficiencies in roads, bridges and transport systems alone cost households and businesses nearly $130 billion in 2010, mostly because of higher running costs and travel delays. The calculated underinvestment in transport infrastructure alone runs to about $94 billion a year. This filters through to all parts of the economy and increases costs at the point of use of many raw materials, and thereby reduces the productivity and competitiveness of American firms and their goods. Overall the American Society of Civil Engineers reckons that this underinvestment will end up costing each family in the country about $10,600 between 2010 and 2020.

Yet though investment in infrastructure would bring clear gains in efficiency, there is little money around, and all levels of government are reluctant or unable to pile up more debt. Traditional sources of funding, such as the (flat) tax on petrol, have delivered a dwindling amount of revenue as soaring prices at the pump have persuaded people to drive less. The federal government has been unable to get Congress to agree on other ways to generate new sources of funding for transport, to the point where money for new highways has almost dried up. [More...]

Friday, May 11, 2012

Goodbye, Peter

I'm greatly saddened to hear of the death of my colleague Peter David, our Washington Bureau Chief, writer of the Lexington column and a friend.

The last time we met was at the end of April, when he and some colleagues from Washington came to Chicago to meet with the Obama Campaign team. It was a lovely spring day. We met in the sunshine outside the Prudential Tower.

He told me that he had spent the morning going for a walk down Navy Pier, and said I was lucky to live in such a beautiful city. It is, indeed, a lovely walk from downtown to the lake. We had coffee, and he proudly showed me his new ipad (red leather cover). Peter was a generous and considerate friend, and always available to offer advice and support. I miss him.

He was lost in a car accident. It's a terrible tragic waste of a man of enormous talent.


Peter David's blog as Lexington
Economist's D.C. chief dies in car crash, Politico. (With many remembrances from colleagues)
Some great pictures of Peter David.
Picture of Peter meeting Arafat shortly before Arafat's death in 2004. 
Peter's biography on our staff pages. Prior to joining the Economist he worked at Nature magazine.
Beautiful piece by our former deputy editor, Clive Crook, who is now with the Atlantic.
Washington Post obituary. May require subscription.
The Economist tribute to Peter David.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Crumbling City

Everywhere you go in Chicago you'll find signs of urban decay. Not the sort of middling decay you find in most cities but decades-old, ground in, well-worn and surprising decline. But crumbling walls, fragile sewers, rusting struts and wobbly bridges are not the sort of fabric upon which a thrusting and growing 21st century city is built upon.

So the task at hand for the new Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is catch up with the long-overdue repairs to his city, while making the necessary improvements that will make sure that people want to move into the city rather than out of it. The city has little or no money, and citizens are against the idea of raising taxes. The state is broke too. Dribs and drabs come from the federal government. So how does one fund a serious $7 billion improvement program?

Besides borrowing more money, the answer in Chicago is to do something rather like a private finance initiative. This is to ask the private sector to come in and invest in projects that deliver some steady returns over a number of years.

Chicagoans have been rather anxious about this new idea. Rather ironically private finance of public projects is actually more common in "socialist" Europe. But in Chicago particularly, everyone remembers the parking deal that went bad. The time when a previous mayor sold the lease to the city's parking meters for 75 years for a fraction of its value. This is not the same idea. Nobody is talking about selling off the city's assets. The Chicago Infrastructure Trust wants to match private finance with investments in the city that will yield ongoing returns.

That is not to say that the idea is without risk, there are many things that can go wrong with private financing deals. The public side can end up taking on more risk than it realises when it has to pick up the pieces (a half finished school for example) when things go bad. (See Wikipedia on Criticism of PFI.) And if the investment depends on user fees (say a toll road), sometimes these can be uncomfortably high. And the costs of the project can be too high as well, as experience with school and hospital building has shown in Britain.

But if it is done properly, it absolutely does work--as experience with Britain's new Treasury building shows. And let us not forget how badly public-financed projects can go wrong. The new Scottish parliament building was originally supposed to cost 40m GPB ($64m), but actually cost 400m GPB.

So there are risks, and there are huge potential rewards. While there is anxiety, few appreciate the fact that Chicago needs to act quickly. It lost 200,000 people in the last decade. If this sort of pattern picks up in the next census, rather than reverses, it will be a disaster. Chicago could become just another one of those hollowed out former industrial Midwestern cities, with the wealthy taking refuge in the suburbs and the city loosing its energy and dynamism. Chicago has to be the place that people seek out in the Midwest, not flee from.

So when the mayor says that the city cannot afford to wait for the federal government to act with regards to infrastructure investments, he probably means it. By the time the next census comes around in a decade from now, the city needs to have stemmed or reversed this trend of population decline. Its a tough nut to crack, but this probably explains why the new major has been like a hyperactive squirrel in the last year, scurrying from new project to new project. Time is of the essence.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Restoration drama

Restoration drama - by Natasha Loder, The Economist print edition

America’s under-appreciated community colleges hold promise 
Apr 28th 2012 | CHICAGO AND BOSTON 

COMPARED with its world-famous universities, America’s community colleges are virtually anonymous. But over half of the nation’s 20m undergraduates attend them, and the number is growing fast. Poor, minority and first-generation-immigrant students are far more likely to get their tertiary education from community colleges—where two-year courses offer a cheap route to a degree—than from universities. And, increasingly, many policymakers are wondering whether more attention to the colleges might be a low-cost way of resolving the nation’s shortage of skilled workers.

America’s problem with training was laid bare in a report published last year by Deloitte, a consultancy firm, and the Manufacturing Institute. It identified 600,000 positions that were going unfilled because there were too few qualified skilled workers. Too many colleges, it seems, still fail to align themselves with the needs of local employers, a mismatch that is bad both for the employers and for potential employees, though arguably universities are even worse at doing this. [More...]