Kavli workshop to discuss challenges of covering emerging science

Image by Gerd Altmann

What new issues arise as 21st-century science creates fresh frontiers in research, from neuroscience to gene editing to artificial intelligence? Science journalists, scientists, and ethicists will tackle that question during an Oct. 15 half-day virtual workshop sponsored by the Kavli Foundation and organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing as part of ScienceWriters2020.

“The science journalist’s job is not just telling people what scientists are up to, but also helping them figure out what it all means—digging into the social implications of research, its uses and abuses, sharing facts and stories that inform public discussion,” said Rosalind Reid, CASW executive director and an organizer of the workshop. “Startling developments in science inspire awe, excitement, anxiety, controversy, and confusion—and novel challenges for journalists who write about them. We’re going to spend some time talking about those challenges and looking for good tools and guidelines.”

The workshop, called “Journalists and Scientists at the Frontiers of Science: A Dialogue About Values and Responsibility,” will begin with a session taking a deep dive into a July 2019 New York Times Magazine article, “Scientists Are Giving Dead Brains New Life. What Could Go Wrong?” Veteran freelance journalist Robin Marantz Henig (@robinhenig), who teaches an ethics course for science journalism graduate students at New York University, will be joined by neuroethicist Karen Rommelfanger of Emory University in leading a panel discussion with the reporter and editor of the story as well as the Yale University scientist who was its primary focus and two ethicists who can comment on the issues raised.

The magazine story, about the re-animation of previously dead animal brains, addressed profound issues related to defining consciousness and the boundary between life and death. The discussion will tease out the different ethical codes of scientists and journalists as they played out in the development of the article. The author of the article, freelance writer Matthew Shaer (@matthewshaer) and his editor, Mike Benoist, will talk about how they wrestled with these challenges in a longform project that took Shaer behind the scenes with Yale biologist Nenad Sestan and his research team. Also participating will be Sestan, bioethicist L. Syd M. Johnson of SUNY Upstate Medical University, and Khara Ramos, director of the Neuroethics Program at the National Institutes of Health.

In small-group breakouts following the session, scientists and science writers will look at dilemmas that arise in reporting on other areas where the frontiers of science and technology raise social and ethical questions. Individual groups will discuss four areas of research:

  • Gene editing, where a Chinese scientist’s claims of having edited human embryos have sparked controversy and international debate.
  • Solar geoengineering, the development of techniques to reflect sunlight and cool the Earth,  a controversial area of research that is characterized by huge potential benefits but equally large uncertainties for the planet.
  • Predictive technologies using artificial intelligence and face recognition, which many have criticized as inherently flawed and certain to promote racism in areas including policing and hiring.
  • Brain-machine interfaces, which offer medical advances but also raise ethical questions about human enhancement and the merging of human and artificial intelligence.

The groups will be asked to suggest guidance for journalists and communicators working on similarly challenging topics. Ivan Amato (@ivan_amato), a Washington, DC-based science communicator, is co-organizing the small-group discussions with Reid.

Each discussion group will include science and policy experts as well as a journalist who has written on the topic. Journalists who have agreed to share their experiences include Karen Hao (@_KarenHao), artificial intelligence senior reporter for MIT Technology Review; Betsy Mason (@betsymason), freelance journalist and CASW board member; Emily Mullin (@emilylmullin), staff writer at OneZero; and Eliza Strickland (@newsbeagle), senior editor of IEEE Spectrum.

In a final session, editors who work with these stories will be asked to share experiences and respond to proposals and questions from the discussion groups. CASW President Alan Boyle (@b0yle), a veteran science journalist who is now a contributing editor at GeekWire, will be joined by Victoria Jaggard (@vmjaggard99), executive editor for science at National Geographic, and Alison Snyder (@alisonmsnyder), who manages coverage of science, space, transportation and other areas for Axios.

Aside from the discussion groups, which were filled by advance registration, the sessions are open to all ScienceWriters2020 attendees and will be recorded for delayed online viewing.

The workshop was developed by CASW in conversation with Brooke Smith and Stacey Bailey of the Kavli Foundation staff, with support of a grant from the foundation. As a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality and quantity of science news reaching the public, CASW presents educational programs for science writers and honors excellence in the field. CASW co-organizes the ScienceWriters conferences with the National Association of Science Writers. Registration for this year’s online ScienceWriters2020 events continues through Oct. 1.