Friday, 23 November 2012

Scientists and journalists - friends or foes

Yesterday, I went to the Wellcome Trust for a media panel with 150 scientists organised by the Science Media Centre.

It was billed as an introduction to the news media and for most in the room they had little or no experience of dealing with journalists.

There is much talk nowadays of science engaging with the media and the Science Media Centre does an excellent job bridging the gap.

But it is clear many excellent researchers are, understandably, still nervous of engaging with media - despite having fantastic stories to tell about their research.

There's something of a generation gap, I suspect, as well. Young researchers are far more interested in communicating science - perhaps spurred on by the passionate writing of people like Ben Goldacre .

There's an army of young science qualified press offices to help scientists tell their story - although I worry sometimes that too few of them have any real experience at national level about how the media really works.

I have been doing these panels for several years and there has been a definite softening of attitudes in the audiences towards the press.

A few years ago there was far more prejudice and wild accusations about the press not being interested in checking facts and not understanding science.

Now there is much more interest in practical aspects - how can I do this?  What's the best way to present my research? How far to "dumb down" research for a general audience.

My main message yesterday was that, basically we are on the same side. Journalists want to tell good stories and science has many good stories to tell.

Journalists need scientists to be interesting, clear, accurate and most of all available. Few outside of news organisations understand the time pressures of the daily news agenda and the sheer volume of information which bombards specialist reporters.

But, of course, trying to explain detailed and long term research in a 300 word newspaper or online article or a 60 second television news broadcast is a bit absurd. But if you don't do it then either no-one will know about your research or someone else will do it and take the credit - and the research funds.

There are also tensions in the need for news to deal mainly in certainties and the natural inclination of scientists to be cautious and talk of possibilities and probabilities.

One of the main complaints, always, is about headlines. So often you hear: "Well the story was fine and gave a balanced view but the headline was far too strong."

At the end of the day it's all about stories. Science nowadays throws up good stories virtually every week, often several times a week. Science is becoming ever more vital to our survival at anything like current levels to feed us, keep us warm, understand climate change and power our world.

Science journalists are trying to find the most appealing and important of those stories and explain them in the best way they can.

For me, science does not have to be dumbed down. Just told like it is.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Dancing Bears rescue is a big success - but some still want bear paw soup

This week I went to the House of Lords for the tenth anniversary of International Animal Rescue  dancing bear project in India with Wildlife SOS.

One of my first foreign trips as science and environment editor  at the Daily Mirror was to go to India and see the rescued dancing bears in their sanctuary near Agra.

Me and kartick with a bear at Agra

The whole project, to take dancing bears off the streets of India after 400 years, has been a remarkable success and shows what can be done when animal charities focus on projects with a specific goal.

But, more interesting, is the way Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani, founders of Wildlife SOS, realised that if you just took the bears away, the owners would have nothing to live on and they would just go and get another bear.

To end the barbaric practice once and for all the nomadic Kalandar tribe, who had been parading the dancing bears in front of tourists for centuries, needed to be helped.

Geeta told the gathering of workers and supporters at the House of Lords reception: "Sloth bears are highly endangered. Over 200 cubs were being removed from the forests and their mothers killed every year to be made into dancing bears.

"The training tools were pain and fear, castrating the young ones and using a red hot iron to pierce the muzzle and force the rope through it. The bear spent the rest of its life tethered to a four foot rope, underfed and beaten. There seemed to be no emotional bonding. These were mere economic units for the Kalandars."

Over 18 months Geeta and her helpers  studied the Kalandars in 68 villages. "We had to make them realise centuries of bear dancing had brought them no prosperity and endless misery to the bears," she said.

"Our first breakthrough was the women of the tribe. They understood the need for change."

The women were encouraged to exploit their talents for needlework and patchwork and 14 villages across four states began selling their wares in markets.

Over 600 women benefited from funding and help and as they began to be encouraged to marry later. The charity also helped with wedding costs.

Next the children were encouraged to go to school and given money for uniforms so they did not look different to the other kids and began to learn to read and write and computer skills.

Finally the men were paid 50,000 rupees or around £750 to hand over their bears signing a pledge not to dance a bear again and were helped to set up independent businesses selling goods in markets instead.

As Baroness Smith, who hosted the reception,  said: "I sometimes think you look at animal campaigns and think: "Oh isn't it great we have won but we have only won because of hours and hours and days and weeks and months of really hard campaigning and negotiations and meetings. It does not happen easily."

600 bears have been freed from animal slavery in seven years. Their maggot-filled muzzles have been repaired along with their shattered teeth which left some barely able to eat.

But now there are 470 bears, which need looking after at three sanctuaries which  make up the biggest bear sanctuaries in the world.

The annual cost is £400,000, which is a lot to raise and the bears live to 25 years old and more

So the challenge goes on. The most horrific picture at the reception was of bear paws lined up from slaughtered bears

Bear cubs are still being hunted with bear parts used in Chinese medicine and bear paw soup is regarded as a delicacy in South east Asia.