A science writer ponders 2016

Friday, December 30, 2016

My end-of-year message

Once again I find myself arriving at the end of the year having lagged in sending email announcements. This year, in addition to the usual busy-ness and general discomfort with promoting myself, I have another excuse: I haven’t felt particularly inspired to tout my own little accomplishments when much larger things are going wrong in the world.

Still, it would be remiss to let the year change without writing something. So I want to take the opportunity to do something a little different this time: before sharing a few of what I feel are my most important stories from 2016, I want to first ask for your help. I became a science writer in part because I thought it would be a fun and interesting career (which it is), and in part because I felt that building bridges between the technical world of science and the non-scientist public would be a worthwhile thing to do. I still believe that, but when our country just elected an anti-science president, I find my belief in the inherent value and impact of science writing somewhat shaken. Clearly we science writers are failing to connect with large swaths of the public we aim to serve — a public that increasingly views science at best as something esoteric and irrelevant to their lives, and at worst as a political tool used by elitists in Washington and elsewhere to manipulate them and restrict their freedoms.

I want to find ways to change that. I want to find and tell stories that will connect with all kinds of readers, not just those who share my basic assumptions about the value and importance of science. I want to tell stories that will make clear what role science plays in our world, and that will hold both scientists and science deniers or manipulators accountable. I am always on the lookout for such stories, of course, but I can only see, hear and read so much. So I would like to ask you to be on the lookout too, and let me know when you come across them. (For those of you who are also writers, I might tweak this appeal a bit: let me know if you find a story you’re unable to do yourself — or if you ever want a collaborator.)

Now to turn to my regularly scheduled update. When I look back on 2016, two pieces that stand out were published within a day of each other in early October. The first was my third New York Times op-ed, Update the Nobel Prizes. I have long marveled at how the Nobel organization has set itself apart as the world’s scientific king (and, not frequently enough, queen) maker. All too often, science writers and others use “Nobel laureate” as a sort of shorthand for genius. But this is problematic, because the Nobel glory is far from equally available to everyone. I and others have documented the prize’s long-standing gender inequality problem, but this year I looked at a different kind of inequality: the fact that scientists of many disciplines are completely shut out of Nobel contention simply because there is no prize recognizing their field. Now we’ll have to wait til next October to see if the organization takes my advice!

The second was a profile in Nature of Matt Hansen, a geographer at the University of Maryland. I first heard of Hansen in late 2013 when he published a set of global forest cover change maps based on satellite data. From then on, it seemed that everyone I talked to who was working on forests inevitably mentioned the “Hansen maps”. So one day I biked over to the university (literally down the road from me) to find out what made his work so unique and high-impact. I found that Hansen is truly the anti-ivory tower academic — everything he does is with an eye toward making a difference in the real world. And like everyone doing high-profile work, he has his critics. I hope I was able to present both sides fairly.

Another story that started with a chat with a local scientist was my feature in Science on progress on quantum computers. Quantum computing is a challenging topic to cover, because while there are always new papers being published (and promoted), any commercial technology still seems a long way off. But there is reason to think this could be changing: major private companies like Google and Intel, as well as venture capital firms, are getting into the field in a big way. Private funders, like governments, can of course take long-shot bets on new technologies just to make sure they don’t miss out on a big payday, and this flurry of interest could be an example of that, but I do think it represents a sizable step forward in seriousness for the field. Don’t be surprised if you start to see quantum technology seeping into our world in the coming years.

Speaking of physics, I continue to be interested in how this sometimes cloistered field, which I long ago studied in school, intersects with other parts of science, especially biology. This year that took the form of a story on physicists taking an unconventional approach to studying cancer, for the online magazine Quanta.

I have also started looking more deeply into how science interacts with parts of society that it has historically excluded. I wrote this summer for Nature about collaborations between scientists and indigenous communities, and recently wrote for Smithsonian about how protected areas — the kinds of places we in America love to visit on family road trips — can sometimes be counterproductive both for forests and people who live in them. I have every intention of continuing to pursue these kinds of stories, and welcome any leads.

Lastly, I took a brave stand against tree anthropomorphism, in a book review for Science and an essay for Aeon. I love trees, as anybody who has ever stepped outside with me knows. But I don’t think we need to pretend they are like people. We should strive to understand them on their own terms.

I will also strive, again, to use this email list more regularly in 2017. But for those who might want up-to-the-minute news of my latest work, I post almost everything I write on Twitter (@gabrielpopkin) and Facebook, and of course on this website.

I will close with something out of character: a political message. Whatever you think about the result of the presidential election, I think we can all agree it was a loss for democracy. Donald Trump is about to become president despite receiving almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. More than 40% of eligible voters — far more than voted for Clinton, much less Trump — didn’t vote at all. And I am hardly the first to observe that many democratic norms that we have always taken for granted in this country — respecting the legitimacy of opposition parties and politicians, upholding the universal right to vote, respecting the sanctity of basic rights and freedoms — are being eroded.

Folks, democracy is not a spectator sport; it is a participatory sport. If we don’t participate, it will go away. There are many ways to participate — through our votes, through our work, through our involvement in our communities, through how we spend our time and our money, and, if necessary, through nonviolent protest. I know I have been doing some soul-searching about how I can more actively and effectively participate. If you are too, I would like to highlight one way: support independent media organizations, the kinds of places that employ people like me. It’s expensive to produce high-quality journalistic stories. It requires paying writers and editors (and believe me, we are not overpaid), paying computer programmers and web designers and artists, paying audio and video producers, and, unless a place is going to abstain from publishing anything that challenges any powerful person or institution, paying lawyers to defend against attempts to stifle press freedom.

I realize this will not be news for some of you, but the main revenue source for media historically — advertising — has been eaten away for two decades by the Internet, and more recently by social media platforms like Facebook. The other revenue source (other than the occasional magnanimous billionaire) is people like us. I know it can seem pointless to spend money on subscriptions and donations when an endless deluge of free media is available 24/7. And I know the media stumbled badly with the election. Support them anyway. Otherwise, there will be nobody to hold the Trump administration and all the private interests that stand to benefit from it accountable, and we will stumble further down the road toward an undemocratic society.

This is hardly an exclusive list, but places I find to be doing the kind of tough journalism that we need to support include the New Yorker, New York Times, Washington Post, the Guardian, NPR and the Intercept. You may have your own favorites, and that’s fine. I just ask you to set aside whatever you can afford to support a healthy independent media, as you would for other causes you feel strongly about.

And lest this message end on too dire a note, I want to say that not every story and not every publication needs to be devoted exclusively to challenging the powerful and fighting for democracy. There is still room for stories that are fun, stories that are interesting, and stories that are beautiful. And publications that specialize in those kinds of stories. I hope to do some of all of the above in the coming year.

Thanks for hearing me out, please let me hear from you, and I hope you have a great end to a not-so-great year.