Wed | Nov 21, 2018

Martin Henry | Renew focus on science

Published:Sunday | November 11, 2018 | 12:00 AM

On the occasion of the 31st anniversary of this eclectic column, what should the columnist write about?

It would be an interesting exercise, certainly for the writer, to go back and look at what was written about for the first column each November since that first column in November 1987.

I'd essentially told Editor-in-Chief Dudley Stokes when he recruited me as one of a dozen new columnists that I would be specialising as Citizen Henry. Since then, I've written on education, religion, crime and security, politics, government and the state, foreign affairs, culture, environment, economy, development, history and philosophy, law, rights and justice, media and communication, and more, differentiating myself from the pack.

But perhaps the place where I have most stood apart is in a unique body of media work on science and technology, my initial field in higher education.

I was reminded of this by a recent email note out of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST). And November is Science Month. So why not?

I am constantly amazed by the long shelf life of the work and the flashbacks to the far past by readers even before the convenient age of the Internet and Google. But perhaps I shouldn't really be surprised, having taken an early decision to write more on the longer, cooler, broader issues - issues that fall into the 'important, but not urgent' segment - rather than on the hot, frothy nine-day wonders. An approach that hasn't always pleased my editors, but which has earned a certain fan base and produced longevity of view.

The email began: "I would first like to thank you for the excellent work you have done in the '90s to promote science in the media. I read your [CARIMAC MA] thesis and found it to be very interesting and still applicable today."

That media and communication thesis was based on the radio programme 'Science Serving Us', which Alma Mock Yen and I ran for a decade from the Radio Education Unit of the UWI. Alma, broadcaster and teacher of radio, had discovered me, science teacher, when my work on teaching general studies in science at Brown's Town Community College won a Commonwealth award and went public in local media.

The fundamental premise of general studies in science was that laypeople can and need to learn how science works and what it had produced (both good and bad) and how it has shaped, indeed, dominated the world in which they live. Alma had been searching for a communicative 'science brain' to popularise science by radio and she would be the questioning, somewhat naive layperson for whom science was to be made interesting and understandable through teaching-learning dialogue.

"We [at the ministry]", the email continued "are currently researching 'science communication' in Jamaica, which is something we have been doing (albeit not in the most effective way). The programme, Science Serving Us, appeared to have been a perfect model for communicating science and the results of your study certainly validate that." Well, thank you.

 

IMPROVING SCIENCE

 

One thing led to another. General Studies in Science led to Science Serving Us, Science Serving Us led to master's thesis, thesis led to a science communication course at CARIMAC. The MST email writer went on to note that "Professor Aggrey Brown and yourself [trained in both science and media and communication] developed the course 'Science, Society and Media'." And the writer dug up from print, not the Internet, my 20-year-old column (November 25, 1998) on 'Science and the Media'. "The article I attached," the writer said, "was also informative and brings some questions to mind." That column had talked about both Science Serving Us and Science, Society and Media in the context of improving science communication locally.

I had said, "The importance of science and the media speaking to each other and working together is widely recognised but the links are not particularly well developed in Jamaica." Mark you, things have changed in a positive direction in 20 years, but the scientific community still complains that "the media does not pay sufficient attention to its output in research findings. [And] the media counters that the work of scientists is not readily accessible and understandable for proper communication ... . But a bridge of understanding can be constructed if we take the trouble to build it."

Science, Society and Media at CARIMAC was intended to be a bridge-builder. The course, which cranked out more than 50 science-aware Caribbean journalists, was designed to explore the nature of science and technology, its historical development, and its impact on society and some major areas of news making developments in the field, both locally and internationally. As an elective in science journalism, SSM covered identifying, investigating and reporting S&T news and researching, packaging and presenting S&T information as feature stories, and documentaries for lay audiences.

The fact that there is nobody out there identifying as a science journalist says a lot. Media houses are not prepared to back the science beat, as so many do in the advanced countries. And those journalists with some science awareness have opted for other focus.Trainee journalists at CARIMAC, too.

The closest Jamaica has come to setting up a National Research Fund from which research grants can be obtained by competitive bidding is in the funding provided under a Joint Cooperation Agreement in Science & Technology with the same South Africa, an agreement which UTech helped to engineer with my involvement.

The deployment of a national research fund through competitive bids, through strategic facilities, and through targeted training would provide and lead that other shortchanged component: Focus. Money would follow strategic national foci for research and development engagement.

The Scientific Council, where I was working as technical information officer when this column was born in 1987, is experiencing something of a renaissance under Cliff Riley's leadership and taking an enlightened approach to popularising S&T. I have in the past written research feature stories and a newsletter, Agrolink, for the council. Part of what they are doing now is using their biennial National Science & Technology Conference and Exposition to take science to the general public. This year's staging runs November 19-20 at the Pegasus and is open to the public for free.

For that first conference in April 1987, I struggled in from Brown's Town Community College by bus in pouring rain to present a paper on General Studies in Science. In subsequent years another half a dozen papers, or so, have been presented, including papers on Science Serving Us and Science, Society and Media.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@yahoo.com.