Our opinions on ESOF

After the recent edition of the EuroScience Open Forum held in Dublin – to which many members of EUSJA gave their contribution (in addition to the many more who attended) – we discussed within the board about how European science journalists could help further improve future editions – starting from Copenhagen 2014 –  and we came up with the idea of using four authoritative opinions as a starter, to invite and encourage all members to provide their views, either in the form of a short comment or as a longer and more structured piece.

We have a very diverse starting panel: in addition to two former EUSJA Presidents – Hajo Neubert and Istvan Palugyai – and the long-time President of the International Science Writers Association – US colleague Jim Cornell – we also have the voice of the “young” but already well-respected Italian science journalist Michele Catanzaro, who lives and works in Barcelona where he has been elected in the board of the Catalan Association.

We really hope that we will have even more diverse comments from all over the world.

Don’t be shy!

 

I attended all ESOFs since the beginning in Stockholm 2004.

In Stockholm I was involved in the media committee. In Munich 2006 the Board of the German Science Writers TELI, of which I am the chair, but namely treasurer Axel Fischer, organised the visiting programme and the party for the journalists, which was in a way ignored and put aside into a by-programme by the then official ESOF 2006 media committee, but nevertheless proved to be successful in hindsight, was partly even taken over by the following programme or media committees. In Munich, I produced two sessions, one for TELI and one for the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations EUSJA, of which I was vice-president at that time. After Munich I continued to produce and organise all EUSJA sessions at the ESOF 2008, 2010 and 2012, also in the name of TELI. Topics were build around ethics, which were expanded further even to the World Conferences of Science Journalists by others. All sessions have been well attended. In Stockholm, Munich and Barcelona the rooms even turned out to be much too small. Mainly journalists came, but also scientists, which gave rise to interesting exchanges of views even in the aftermath.

However, I was always there also as a working science journalist.

The main advantage for me as a journalists was to get in touch with known and famous scientists with whom I otherwise had difficulties to get in contact or with whom I only had contact by e-mail and phone before. Thus the ESOFs have been door openers for me. In contact with scientists and other journalists from all over Europe (and even beyond) I was able to find new angles for admittedly older stories.

ESOF was lacking real news. But for me it was never an event to find new(s) stories and I did not expect that. During the ESOFs more or less the current achievements and the state of science have been presented, which were broadly known to me. Instead, it was the direct contact with the presenting scientists which was thrilling and lead to new ideas and new aspects and insights on which I could build in between the ESOFs.

Very valuable for me have been meta discussions about science and research policy because I could hear opinions, views and ideas directly from working scientists. They helped me to correct the views which I got from official policy statements, like from the European Commission, research ministries, and science and research funding organisations. The socialised atmosphere during the ESOFs made this quite easy, it opened scientists. From my usual work as journalist I often got the impression, that the real science far too often stands in the shadow of official press releases and political statements. The ESOFs gave me the chance to hear un-official statements. Even when they were given off the records they helped me to judge issues.

Thus for me the ESOFs have been a full success for my work and for building and expanding networks in the scientific community for the benefit of my successional stories.

The press premises where broadly helpful, though sometime not really functioning. However, especially in Munich and Turin the media rooms were well equipped, the staff competent and helpful, the information streamlined and consistent.

But generally the releases from the press offices where not too appealing, and the press officers were, although very friendly, often not really familiar with scientific issues — with the exemption of Stockholm, Munich and Turin. It was obvious that the press office staff at the other ESOFs was hired from normal PR agencies with no special expertise in science. It did not succeed to carve out good aspects in order to attract journalists to their press briefings. I especially missed background information such as CVs and the frame in which a presented research took place. Also changes in the programmes usually were not updated on the web. In Dublin, the programme on the web was not very printer and iPad/iPhone friendly, good telephone lines for outside calls missing.

The Science in the City programmes, which accompanied the scientific ESOF meetings, were a real novelty and have to my experience been very successful in Stockholm, Munich and Turin where they took place in the hearts of the city, attracting lots of visitors. In Barcelona the public programme was placed near the main venue outside the city centre, and in Dublin I did not even realise that such a programme happened.

I think this is a real highlight of the ESOFs. However, it might be of benefit to develop this concept even further beyond just science communication, for example to rise science debates, which in turn may be subjects for reporting journalists. This would fit quite well into the bias for meta-thinking in the scientific (and our journalistic) lectures.

I cannot compare ESOF with AAAS as I never attended AAAS. However, I think that Europe did set its scientific mark in the world with its ESOFs, a kind of unique selling proposition. This should definitely continued and expanded.

Hajo Neubert, Germany

 


I agree with Hajo in almost everything, but I would add some remarks, as a Governing Board member of Euroscience (and EUSJA Representative) as well communication Committee member of the last 4 ESOF-s. (Munich, Barcelona, Turin and Dublin). I also attended all of them as working science journalist.

First of all ESOF is a unique opportunity in the European marketplace to represent in the Program science and science communication as well. Therefore the importance of the media and prominently science journalism is in the forefront of the interest of the organizers. From this point of view we could analyse how they handle the journalists as partner and how can they provide the appropriate information and working circumstances.

It is true that ESOF is brilliant choice to get in touch with prominent scientists and science policymakers. The most important information certainly can get with personal discussions during the parties or in social events.

The easiest point to analyse how well fit is the program in scientific content and how good are the press facilities. The Program itself varies but my opinion is according Dublin – what I mentioned even in the preparatory committee meeting – that the last ESOF underrepresented the high-tech field and the applied science what is not fit to the sponsorship and not always very easy for selling the information for the general public.

Otherwise the Program from my point of view was better than in Turin according the “Big Names” but as poor as before according the “Big Announcements”. I tried several times to mention even before Barcelona, that ESOF organisers should try at least to negotiate with the most important European science organisations for “timing” their foreseeable announcements during the ESOF. Certainly it is very difficult because researchers want to publish or announce their results as it is ready for it, but AAAS was in the former years more successful in this field – maybe not because of timing but through the institute’s or universities’ own interests. True is that the last AAAS in Vancouver was poorer in real breaking news. But on the other hand the differences in the number of working science journalists are not so big anymore between the AAAS and ESOF.

The Program was started to be in Turin more or less a science festival for young people but it was not the case in the same extent in Dublin although it is a permanent discussion behind the curtain of Euroscience bodies what is the right direction of the future evolution. Certainly there is a natural extension of the big conferences which achieved ESOF as well but it has an advantage as well what is my point of view the broad spectrum of interest and the opportunity to report about the event by the general media as well. Unfortunately there is still too poor the number of the reports from ESOF by the big and main media but as I explained many times for the organisers: science interested by the media almost always if there are announcements from interesting research results, or surveys and not from the science policy or internals scientific movements.

The selection of the Press Briefing was this time made by the organisers and not by the communication committee as it was in Turin and the local organisers in a whole did not relies much on the committee’ activity. The level of the selection despite of this was not differs strongly with Turin but the most critical point was the very poor quality and quantity of the information materials provide in the press room. I don’t know what the reason was but despite of the lot of boxes the number and the quality of the press briefing and other session materials was under the critical line and without any central organisation.

The technical equipment (internet etc.) and the catering of the press rooms were better than in Turin but the source of material were poorer. In this case the journalists had to be very skilful to obtain the information and the partners because they were not able to get useful help from the local people.

Istvan Palugyai, Hungary

 

As is well known, the ESOF concept and, to large degree, operational structure, is based on the model of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting. And, just as that meeting has become the largest general scientific conference in the US, ESOF has arguably become the largest of its type in Europe. The two conferences share many other similarities, as well as some dramatic differences. For example, both are short on “news” and long on “policy.” Both tend to offer broad, rather eclectic, reviews of past scientific results rather than presentation of unique or specific investigations. The major difference–especially for media representatives–is that the AAAS’ press office vigorously, and often quite successfully, finds items of interest and relevance for reporters.

Not surprising, the lack of “hard news” for journalists or “fresh results” for researchers attending ESOF has been a common complaint since the first meeting in Stockholm. At the same time, the amount of time devoted to policy issues and other non-research topics seems to have increased exponentially with each subsequent meeting. For whatever reasons, these failings seemed even more prominent in Turin, the last meeting I attended, but, from my reading the program and on-line press coverage, they seem to have continued in Dublin, as well.

For those of us who have attended all the previous meetings, the nature of the ESOF has changed perceptibly. Although originally intended as a showcase for European research and the catalyst for a coordinated S&T program capable of competing with China and the US, ESOF has slowly evolved into a largely social event, a sort of giant trade fair, celebrating science rather than advancing it.

Indeed, the scientific symposia are now only one part of a multi-track program that includes large portions of career counseling for young academics and industrial/commercial presentations aimed at increasing technology transfer. Young researchers especially seem to benefit from the career-boosting events and many praise the informal and personal lunchtime tutorials ( “Porridge–and well as Pretzel and Pizza–with a Prof”) that have become an iconic hallmark of the ESOF meetings. Alas, because of their very popularity, it is difficult to accommodate all who would like to attend, and most journalists are excluded. This is too bad, since the sessions are excellent sources of stories about the more human aspects of research.

Oddly, the liveliest and perhaps most successful component of ESOF continues to be its ?Science in the City? program. In Stockholm, Munich and Turin lectures, demonstrations, and exhibits were mounted across the urban landscape, in museums and galleries and university halls, but also in many city squares and parks. In Turin especially, the broad embrace of the concept by the local residents was most impressive. Flyers and posters and schedules were everywhere, in cafes and restaurants and news shops, and large enthusiastic crowds gathered in the main plaza to watch scientific
talks and demonstrations projected on a giant television screen. The experience in Barcelona was not as successful, mainly because the public activities were concentrated in a single, and singularly unappealing, venue near the main conventional hall. I can’t comment on Dublin’s public programs, except to note that the published program of events didn’t sound too exciting. Of course, many critics have noted that this part of ESOF should be an addition to but not a replacement for good science in the regular conference activities.

The ESOF Press Operations: A Failing Grade
Even more than at its AAAS counterpart and model, the ESOF science sessions and lectures tend to be reflective overviews and reviews. Little new science is presented. Reporters and researchers alike are entertained, but seldom excited. That makes for an oddly relaxing atmosphere: Once one realizes that there is no news to cover, there is really no need to break one’s neck looking for it. But it also makes it difficult to convince editors and publishers of the need to cover the meeting as a major news event.

For example, in Turin, only one result– new microwave map of the universe produced by the European Space Agency?s Planck satellite?made international news. But because ESOF had little to do with the discovery other than announcing it, the Turin dateline went generally unnoted. As far as I could tell watching events long-distance on my laptop, ESOF Dublin produced no comparable news of international interest–and the Irish press seemed to simply reprint the daily press releases.

[ Incidentally, in the case of the ESA press conference in Turin, at least some reporters attended that briefing. Usually, press conferences had more speakers at the podium than reporters in the room. This was especially true at the presentations of long-range plans and policies by technocrats in blue suits, events very much like the infamous EU press breakfasts at the AAAS ?only without the eggs. ]

In Turin and Barcelona, too, part of the attendance problem due to was the lack of adequate supporting information: the press briefing schedules usually listed only the names of the speakers, with no background material, no cross-references to the program, no explanation of the scientific significance.
Unfortunately, the media centers in both cities did little to assist this process. For example, the availability of press releases or background materials accompanying press briefings was very erratic and contact and biographical information for speakers was seldom provided. And the ESOF website was not updated to reflect changes in program schedules or speakers.

Again, I cannot comment on the quality of Dublin operations once the meeting began. However, in the weeks–and even days–leading up to the meeting, myself–and my Bosch Foundation colleague–found it impossible to get information about press conference schedules, speaker bios, accommodations, or basic services (fax, Internet, etc.) which we wanted to provide to the some 50 Bosch Fellows coming from Europe, North America, India, China, and Japan. My Irish science writing colleagues voiced similar complaints. In fact, at the Eleventh Hour, an independent Public Relations firm stepped in to take over media relations from the Irish government bureaucrats.

In short, the press operations at all the ESOF meetings –with the notable exception of Munich–have been less than professional. Stockholm can be excused because of its nascent state. But the lessons —and recommendations–of the subsequent meetings seemed to have been either forgotten or ignored. The beauty of the AAAS press operations is the continuity and constancy of the team. No matter what city ( or, even country, since the last meeting was in Canada) the same staff plans and runs the press office. For ESOF, press operations must be reinvented every two years in each new country. Obviously, some continuity between successive ESOF meetings must be maintained, ideally by a small core of media experts as part of the ESOF Office permanet staff.

On the positive side, ESOF is unusual in that its panels on issues in science journalism are suggested and mounted by journalists themselves.
The European Union of Science Journalism Associations (EUSJA) has played a very active role in this and, indeed, a rolling discussion of journalistic ethics introduced at ESOF meetings has been continued and expanded in off-years at the world conferences of science journalists.

Journalist attendance has also been encouraged through travel grants, with ESOF providing support especially for reporters from Eastern Europe and smaller EU countries. The Bosch Foundation also provided up to 12 fellowships at each meeting for writers from North America, as well as similar numbers from China, India, and Japan, in addition to two dozen or so young German journalists. [ Unfortunately, that Fellowship program was scheduled to end with the Dublin meeting.]

Despite my criticism, which is really intened to help ESOF improve, I have enjoyed the experience immensely. And I am happy to have been involved since its beginning and to see the meeting become a major international event. The original founding committee–a small group of truly visionary scientists–are to be commended. I wish ESOF many more years.

POST SCRIPTUM: I attended ESOF primarily as a “facilitator of other journalists” rather than a working journalist myself. Thus, I failed in my assessment to note, as Hajo so forcefully did, the great benefit of meeting and talking with leading scientists from the EU ( and elsewhere) as part of the ESOF experience. Indeed, this is a point I always stressed with the German Bosch Fellows attending AAAS meetings: The news at any particular meeting may be sparse, but the opportunity for making contacts with top American researchers ( and their PR officers!) for future stories and interviews is unlimited and invaluable. Nothing beats being able to say to a source: “We met at the AAAS in Boston.” Or, “I heard your presentation at ESOF in Barcelona.”
The other positive aspect I neglected to mention is ESOF’s role in creating an “international network of science reporters” who have common interests and experiences. By a strange–but beneficial–confluence of events, the emergence of ESOF as a major stop on the global circuit of science conferences has coincided with the growing importance of the World Conferences of Science Journalists and, equally important, the transformation of the AAAS from a purely US media phenomenon into a major international meeting at which fully half of the registered “working press” are non-Americans. This means that a large percentage of the reporters in the press rooms of both ESOF and AAAS — and on the programs of the WCSJ — are familiar faces and, more vital, members of a world-wide mutual support network willing and able to help fellow journalists with everything from translations to telephone numbers to restaurant recommendations. [ One very personal example: Although I was unable to attend the Dublin meeting, Irish Times science editor Dick Ahlstrom, who I knew from past AAAS and ESOF meetings, was one of several reporter-friends who stepped in to give talks to the Bosch Fellows in my absence.]

Jim Cornell, United States of America

 

Chronicle of the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) held in Dublin from July 11th to 15th

Almost a decade after the first edition, the Euro Science Open Forum (ESOF) still lacks a clear objective. Speakers and topics of the edition that was held in July in Dublin were of high quality. But the event has not found its audience yet.

I had the privilege of participating at ESOF 2012 thanks to a scholarship for freelancers members  of science journalists associations (such as the ACCC, which I belong to), offered by the Irish Science and Technology Journalist Association (ISTJA). We fellows receive a superb treatment, the organization of the conference in general was excellent and the venue beautiful: a glass cylinder in front of the Liffey river and its docks.

I returned from ESOF 2012 with a collection of cards from scientists, politicians and journalists: it was an excellent networking event, with opportunities to meet interesting new people and see old colleagues. During the meeting, there was an assembly of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ), where it adopted new statutes that define the institution as a charity. This allows the WFSJ to secure and increase funding of the Adessium Foundation, the entity that gives the money to the daily functioning of the federation. Also, from now on there will be an executive director dedicated full-time to the WFSJ, Danielle Vinette.

There were several high profile events. CERN director Rolf-Dieter Heuer spoke of the recent discovery of the Higgs boson (or a particle that resembles it). Craig Venter gave a lecture at Trinity College entitled “What is life in 2012?”, an update of the famous “What is life?”, given by Erwin Schrödinger in the same place in 1943. Brian Greene spoke about the status of string theory and Helga Nowotny about the usefulness of useless knowledge.

Among current issues, there were discussions on science and the Arab spring and on doping at the Olympics. There were also a couple of discussions on science writing, that displayed experiences in data journalism and investigative journalism: these are “therapeutic” events, a reporter comes out of them with the desire to do his best in his work.

However, I had the feeling that the soundtrack of the event was the famous Irish band U2′s song, “and I still have not found what I’m looking for.” In a couple of occasions, the speakers admitted candidly that they had no idea of what audience they had before them. In another case, I found myself in a session where a professor explained what the scientific method is: I had not traveled to Dublin to hear this, after a PhD and 10 years of scientific reporting.

In general, the strength of many of the topics and speakers was watered down by a lack of clear objectives: talks were too skewed toward popularization, did not highlight conflicting issues nor enter in sensitive topics… I suspect that the main reason for this is that ESOF has not a clear vision of its audiences. It is too expensive for the general public. Too focused on popularization for scientists. It is too generic for science policy makers. And too far away from contentious issues for journalists.

I’m not in the position to give advice to the organizers. I am sure they have done an excellent job: I think it is not a matter of effort, but of focus. However, I venture to give a couple of ideas.

The event could be an ideal forum for frank and open discussion on science policy in Europe and the countries of the region. But for this to work, it is necessary that the speakers have to deal with a variety of critical positions and points of view.

The talk of the research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn consisted essentially in repeating that science is important for Europe, with no further details. The head of robotic space exploration at ESA, the Spanish Alvaro Giménez Cañete, simply make a list of past and future success stories of the agency, without mentioning the tough cuts that are likely to hit the entity in the ministers’ meeting in 2013. The only event with a clear diversity of opinions was an interesting debate on open access to scientific publications.

Another idea would be to select carefully those scientific issues on which there is a lively debate within the world of science, and among scientists and other stakeholders. This was done partly in the three sessions of Hot Science that tackled, among other issues, fracking and the safety of nanotechnologies. The first sold out and many of us had to stay outside the room: debates of this king are interesting for scientists, politicians, journalists and society at large.

My remarks are intended as a constructive criticism. Although ESOF lacks focus, I think it is a necessary event. Today more than ever we need moments that cross over boundaries of disciplines and countries and generate informed opinions and debates. I think ESOF from being one of those moments, if it moves in the right direction.

Michele Catanzaro, Spain/Italy

This article originally appeared on the website “El web de la Ciència” : http://www.accc.cat/index/esof2012-michele-eng

About Fabio Turone

Fabio Turone directs the Agency Zoe of scientific and medical information. He is President of Science Writers in Italy, Course Director of the International School of Science Journalism based in Erice, Sicily, and works with UNESCO at the Balkan School of Science Journalism.