“Everyone wishes there were a magic formula for figuring out the best mix of applied science and pure science”


Interview with KENNETH CHANG
Science reporter for The New York Times


Kenneth Chang covers several subjects: chemistry, geology, physics... Instead of receiving a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois he attended the science writing program at University of California at Santa Cruz. He worked at The Los Angeles Times, the Greenwich Time in Connecticut, The Newark Star-Ledger and ABCNEWS.com prior to joining the Times in 2000. He believes that science, at its core, is about wondering. Just being curious…


-  Why did you decide to work in science outreach?

Basically, I'm a failed physicist. I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois for seven years and never came close to finishing my doctorate. During one summer, I did a science writing internship at the San Francisco Chronicle, and that turned out to be far more fascinating and fun than my science research. For me, it was far better to talk to other people who were doing great science -and then write about it- than doing science myself.

- European journalists (especially Spanish journalists) complain that science news is, in many of the media, relegated to a mere anecdote.  What importance is assigned to science news in The New York Times, and in the US media in general?

There is nothing wrong with anecdote. The best science writers always talk about how storytelling helps communicate strange, complex, sometimes befuddling science. It is up to the journalist to make sure the anecdote is relevant.
The New York Times started its weekly Science Times section in 1978, which set off a boom in science coverage in the 1980s. Most newspapers have long since cut back on science, but the New York Times still has 18 reporters in the science department covering science, health and environmental stories. (There are more reporters in the business section writing about technology.) There are also six editors, a photo editor and an art director. That's probably a bigger science staff than any other newspaper in the world.
In general, American newspapers have cut back tremendously on science coverage. The same is true for television news. Conversely, one can find more well-written, well-reported science coverage than ever before from digital publications like Quanta, Quartz and Medium and older publications like Scientific American that now have a broader digital presence. But there is also an abundance of terrible and wrong science out there, and it is a challenge for someone to find and sort through everything.

- Do you think that the public gets interested in science via the media? Is this a good way to initiate their interest?

Science, at its core, is about wondering. "Why is the sky blue?" "How far away are those points of light in the night sky?" As cynical as we sometimes are about the modern world, humans wonder. I think it is much easier to write about science than, say, the economics of the European Union.

- What at the “star” topics which attract the majority of your audience?

Mars, dinosaurs.

- From Europe we are fascinated to see how NASA has managed to become a brand with its own outreach, with thousands of followers on the social networks, and with a marketing style very similar to that of a company. Do you think that this is positive for science? Does it bring in funding? Can it be followed by others?

What some people call marketing, others regard as communication. Scientists have to communicate their science, or no one will know about it. Many space enthusiasts say NASA actually does a poor job of communicating, because public support has always been broad, but shallow. In polls, people usually say they like what NASA has done, but they don't want to spend too much on it, because other needs are more pressing. The $18 billion budget averages out to $50 per American per year. It hasn't gone down much, but it's unlikely to go up, either.

- Do you know about Spanish science? Which project would you pick out?

I don't know much about Spanish science other than involvement in European collaborations like CERN and ESA. There's an unfortunate barrier of distance and language.

- In Spain science has been very closely linked with the academic careers of the scientists, who are university professors, or members of publicly funded research cetres. However the US model is that of science much closer to industry. How would you rate the two models. Do you think that Spain should move close to the US model?

I don't think the difference is quite as large as that. U.S. scientists in academia are largely financed by government or foundations, not industry, and those who are financed by industry are often regarded skeptically by media and colleagues. There are a large number of scientists working in industry, but that is a different career path.

- The eternal debate about whether to invest more efforts in applied science or pure science has been intensified during the economic crisis. What is your view on this?

Obviously both.  Everyone wishes there were a magic formula for figuring out the best mix.

- In recent times the science news in the New York Times has been accompanied by videos. Is the new way to communicate science via images?

The Web is a different medium from print or television or radio. It offers more and different ways for telling stories, and it's smart to embrace whatever works best.

- What have the social networks, and the speed of internet in general brought to science news and outreach?

One of the biggest differences is that people no longer read "The New York Times" per se. Most come across a story on Facebook, Twitter or Google News and click on it. It's a contradictory situation where more people read New York Times articles than ever before, but fewer people realize they're reading the New York Times.  That means a deluge of people will see a big science story -- water on Mars! -- but then not come across other stories that don't intersect with their social networks.

- Space is always of great interest to the general public. Do you think that we will soon have the new item which is most awaited, the detection of extraterrestrial life?

I wish I knew. I don't have an informed guess.

- In the US the majority of research institutions have large departments of science outreach and communications. What are the relations between journalist who work in the media and those departments? Do they interfere much with the work of a reporter such as you?

The public information people send out useful press releases, help arrange interviews, provide images, etc. I haven't had any bad experiences of any research institution trying to meddle with what I was writing. (That's not true about companies.)


Coordination of interviews: Verónica Martín and Annia Domenech


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100xCIENCIA Communicating Frontier Science. La Palma (Canary Islands, Spain), October 2015
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