Thomas R. O'Donnell

Just the facts, ma’am (and sir): Website offers valid science to reporters and the public

In STEM on September 3, 2018 at 8:20 am
A page from Science comics, circa 1939, when newspapers warned of a mad scientist rampage – and the president trusted the FBI. Via the Digital Comic Musem.

A page from Science comics, circa 1939, when newspapers warned of a mad scientist rampage – and the president trusted the FBI. Via the Digital Comic Museum.

If you’re looking for it, there’s good science news reporting everywhere. There’s a long list of science blogs (this is only a few), many written by researchers themselves. There also are innumerable podcasts and videos – some authoritative, some not.

But unless you’re seeking such information, you probably won’t see it. Science coverage in general-interest publications, like newspapers, is almost nonexistent. (Exceptions include the USA Today section in Gannett papers around the country, which often has a science story anchoring its cover, and the New York Times Tuesday section.) Most media can no longer afford reporters who specialize in science.

So what’s a local newspaper or television station to do when science issues burst onto the scene? How can they answer readers’ questions about whether the latest flood or wildfire is related to climate change? How can they address the latest discovery at their local university and gauge its importance?

A nascent website, financed through donations grants from foundations, offers those local reporters quick, scientifically valid and understandable explanations on these issues, free of charge. Its organizers were in Iowa recently to promote the effort and attract both reporters and the scientists who can help them.

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Forget the big boar. Pin down some candidates on science at the Iowa State Fair

In Government, STEM on August 8, 2018 at 2:25 pm
Jeb! Bush speaks at The Des Moines Register's political soapbox at the 2016 Iowa State Fair. Credit: Zach Boyden-Holmes,The Des Moines Register

Jeb! Bush speaks at The Des Moines Register’s political soapbox at the 2016 Iowa State Fair. Credit: Zach Boyden-Holmes, The Des Moines Register

When it comes to science, Iowa politicians are largely blank slates. Most have only made vague statements about supporting science, protecting natural resources or balancing agriculture and the environment. Few have laid out actual policies on science and issues in which knowledge and evidence play major roles.

The March for Science Iowa group, with which I volunteer, is changing that. We’ve emailed questionnaires to candidates for Congress, governor and secretaries of agriculture and state.

Yes, there are still nearly three months left before the election, but the response has been … nonexistent. A few have acknowledged receiving the email, but no one has provided answers. I’m hoping that within a few weeks we’ll get replies.

In the meantime, we each have opportunities to get answers on our own – while also enjoying a corndog or other food-on-a-stick.

Candidates – a few – come clean on science views

In Government on May 29, 2018 at 7:52 am
A March for Science Iowa participant holds a stick with the sign "Stick to the facts" attached to it.

March for Science Iowa organizers hope to do this in gathering information from candidates in the June 5 primary election. The photo was taken at the 2017 March for Science Iowa in Des Moines.

Apparently, it’s difficult to get candidates to reveal their views on science, research and evidence-based policy.

Weeks after sending questionnaires to candidates for several statewide Iowa offices and for Congress, March for Science Iowa organizers (including me) have received few responses.

The idea was to gather this information in one place – the MFSI website – so voters can compare stances.

I don’t know if campaigns are too busy, too understaffed or just don’t care, but at the time of this posting, only three Democrats, two Libertarians and one Green Party candidate have responded. MFSI President Kaitlin Higgins has posted their responses on the site.

The questions were designed to be open-ended and without prejudgment. The March for Science Iowa volunteers put them on the site without comment.

Stepping outside my role as a march volunteer, however, I have some thoughts on what the few candidates wrote.

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