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Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Another year, another books prize

They don't call them the COPUS awards any more, the annual bunfight to find the best science books of the year outlived the body that first came up with the idea. (Well, it was really Bernard Dixon's idea, stolen by me when I was a member of COPUS.) So now we have the Royal Society Prizes for Science Books.

The Royal Society has just launched this year's competition, the 19th year of what the RS, probably with good cause, calls "the world's most prestigious award for popular science writing".

Doubtless most of the books will cover the usual subjects. Last year's winner, Electric Universe, How Electricity Switched on the Modern World by David Bodanis, was something of a surprise, in not dealing with evolution or black holes.

It will also be interesting to see how many recognised science writers make it on to the short list.

There is a total of of £30,000 on offer, £1000 if you make the short list, £10,000 for the winners in the general and junior categories.

As in previous years, Aventis is sponsoring the awards. But the RS "is presently seeking a new sponsor for the prizes". All offers welcome.

Details of how to enter and a video of the "genesis of the Royal Society’s prizes for science books" are all on a separate area of the RS's web site.

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Monday, 22 January 2007

Scientific publications conference

This is one for members of the ABSW who work on journals. On 15 and 16 February the EU will hold a Scientific publications conference in Brussels "on scientific publication issues".

The goal of the conference is to bring together stakeholders concerned with access, dissemination and preservation issues in connection with scientific publication and data in an effort to provide policy options for scientific publishing under FP7 and in the European Research Area.
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Friday, 12 January 2007

Fellowships for Science Reporters

Chinese reporters are the focus for this year's Fellowships for Science Reporters in Developing Regions. These awards will pay for "six promising journalists from the region to attend and cover the AAAS Annual Meeting in February".

The announcement has some comments on science writing in China from William Chang of the US National Science Foundation's Beijing office who was the independent judge for the selection process. According to Chang, open and unbiased news reporting is on the rise in China, "but there is still great room for further improvement. I feel that all the applicants recognized this, and made their best efforts under the present constraints."

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Thursday, 11 January 2007

IT Security Journalism Awards

The ABSW's ever versatile members can even end up writing about such arcane subjects as IT security. That's why they might want to check out the 2007 BT UK IT Security Journalism Awards.

"BT launched its UK IT Security Journalism Awards to recognise the vital role that security journalism plays in educating the public and businesses about what they can do to help ensure they are as secure as possible, as well as help build a closer relationship between the industry and the media."
The top prize is £2000 for "IT security journalist of the year," with five other £500 cheques on offer. The deadline for submissions is Friday 23 February 2007.

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Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Communicating science

A page on what the EU is up to on Communicating science. Follow the links to land on some useful bits and pieces.

"There is a general lack of understanding of how advances in science and technology affect our lives. Against this background, controversial or sensational reporting on food safety, GMOs, bird flu, global warming or, for example, stem cell research can leave citizens confused and frightened and science misunderstood. This is why scientists are increasingly asked to communicate their work to a wider audience and science communicators and the media to act as the responsible bridge between the scientists and society."

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PBS consults the viewers

Consulting the audience is one thing, but would you let them pick which programme you should air? That is what they seem to be up to at PBS, in the USA. (Public Broadcasting Service is sort of their equivalent to the public service broadcasts we get in Europe, albeit funded by sponsors rather than through 'taxes'.) They have a new science programme in the works and want viewers to help them to pick the format.

As the web site puts it: "Throughout January, PBS will broadcast three new science programs. Only one program will become a regular science series on PBS. We want you to help us decide."

They do not, perhaps wisely, say how much weighting they will give to viewers. They just invite them to visit three mini sites where each broadcast will be there for instant replay.

The first programme goes under the banner of Science Investigators and deals with questions from viewers. The other two, 22nd Century and Wired Science, associated with the magazine of that name, come later.

Maybe they would like some input from the professional broadcasters in the Association of British Science Writers. They will probably have more influence than they would allow over at the BBC, where the idea of voting for a format would probably cause a mass fit of the vapours.

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Monday, 8 January 2007

Another nail in the coffin for expensive journals?

A note has gone out on AlphaGalileo about yet another open access operation. We read in UK PubMed Central launched that "From today scientists will be able to access a vast collection of biomedical research and to submit their own published results for inclusion in a new online resource."

Yet another way for the biomeds to fill the media with their promises of cures tomorrow. Maybe the physical sciences will get their show on the road before too long.

It seems that one of the driving forces behind the show was the Wellcome Trust. The trust has, as in other things, dragged the public sector kicking and screaming into the 21st century, pushing up PhD grants for example, and generally being a force for good while the Research Councils dithered, perhaps because they had to check with their political paymasters before jumping to attention. The trust, being independent with a mere £10 billion or more in the bank, can go its own sweet way.

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Guidelines for scientists

Perish the thought that scientists should talk to the media without some prior thought. They might make fools of themselves. That's one reason why the EU funded the MESSENGER project. This has now come up with a bunch of reports, including "Guidelines for scientists on communicating with the media".

The introduction to the guidelines point out why they think it helps to have this sort of thing:

"While there are numerous examples of how the media have ‘hyped’ science stories and generated unnecessary anxieties in the absence of real empirical evidence, there are equally examples of where scientists have communicated, say, data relating to risks in such a manner that public misunderstandings have been almost inevitable."
MESSENGER's outputs also include "A layperson's guide to decoding science and health stories". What a nerve, giving away all those nasty trade secrets.

There is also a draft of the "Messenger Final Report". (Be warned, this is a big file at 4MB.) At more than 400 pages, it will be a bit of time before we can digest this document, and see if it really is dangerous and subversive stuff.

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Thursday, 4 January 2007

ESA communication activities in 2007

Science writers who stare into space might like to mark in their diaries the dates that appear in the Overview of ESA communication activities in 2007 relevant to the media.

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Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Career opportunities for fact checkers to the stars

A campaign is under way to debunk some of the sillier personality endorsements of wacky science. First we read the item on the BBC web site Stars must 'check science facts', and then there is the article in The Guardian Neutralise radiation and stay off milk: the truth about celebrity health claims.

Unfortunately, the BBC story is thin on juicy bits. The anonymous item offers not one example of a celebrity suffering from scientific foot-in-mouth syndrome. We just get some quotes from some of the usual rent-a-gob mob of scientists and an exhortation from Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science, urging celebs to call this shadowy outfit before they go public.

It would be much better if they urged the people who passed on this tosh to check it before putting it into their magazines and newspapers. But that would not garner quite as much publicity as going for the celebs.

If you want to read to examples of celebrity tosh, you will have to download the brochure promoting the venture. We like the one from Jo Wood "wife of famous musician" who is quoted as saying "what you put on your skin goes into your bloodstream". She is mouthing off about why she uses organic beauty products.

Sadly, the response is a bit unscientific for us. It quotes Dr Gary Moss, a pharmacologist from the University of Hertfordshire, as saying "Ingredients in cosmetics are normally quite large and cannot get across your skin and into your bloodstream." We think this is a reference to the size of the molecules in all that gunk. He is right, though, when he continues "Your skin feels different when you apply cosmetics because their effect is on the outer surface of the skin."

The Guardian picks up the same story. Unlike the BBC, James Randerson has some of the quotes from the brochure. For example, he includes Madonna's comments on nuclear waste. "I mean, one of the biggest problems that exists right now in the world is nuclear waste ... that's something I've been involved with for a while with a group of scientists - finding a way to neutralise radiation."

The response here is even more suspect. Nick Evans, an environmental radiochemist at Loughborough University tells us that "Radioactivity cannot be 'neutralised', it can only be moved from one place to another until it decays away at its own rate. It comes in many different types: some last for billions of years, others decay away in a few minutes. There are no magical solutions."

Up to a point Lord Copper. By coincidence, we recently read an item on the EU's excellent Cordis web site, German researchers find solution to radioactive waste disposal. This reports that "German physicists ... have come up with a way of speeding up the decay of nuclear waste. The technique involves embedding the waste in metal and cooling it to ultra-low temperatures."

There have been other reports over the years of using accelerators and the like to transmute radioactive isotopes into something safer. Madonna may be talking tosh, but it is unwise to blind her with science that she can easily counter.

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Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Upcoming science books

In what is, unless he has been busy reading proofs, probably one of those "I didn't write the headlines" moments, last Saturday's Guardian says Tim Radford previews the best upcoming science books.

No matter, it is a chance to see what is coming along in the first half of the year, and to line up reviews, especially of books written by ABSW members. We like the bit about what is "probably" book number 102 from the Gribbin word machine.

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Stories that clicked on

Any editor worth the title wants to know what the punters like to read before going on and ignoring their input. So it is worth catching up on's most popular stories of 2006.

Top of the list of "the ones you clicked on the most" was "Imagine Earth without people," and rounding off the list was "Revealed: What mosquitoes hate about humans".

As an aside, it was nice to see that New Scientist chose to list the top 13, thus poking fun at two cherished notions, that numbers can be unlucky, and that you have to draw up silly lists to grab the reader's attention.

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