All aboard for mission to explain

March 3, 1995

A pump made from human muscle and plastic is being developed at Glasgow University as an alternative to heart transplants.''

A first paragraph to please any news editor - catchy but informative, feeding the perennial fascination with disease and miracle cures. But the article on the "Glasgow Heart" is not by a journalist, but by immunology postgraduate Janet Spicer.

Spicer is president of Glasgow's science journalism society, set up a year ago with a grant from Enterprise in Higher Education. It has 70 members, postgraduate and undergraduate, and its own glossy magazine, Catalyst, which presents scientific subjects to a non-scientific audience.

Fiona Head, the society's secretary and a geology student, believes that many undergraduate members may see journalism as an alternative career to their subject disciplines. But the postgraduates appear committed to science as a career, and see the society as a vehicle for their "mission to explain". Some are also lured by the prospect of extra money from selling the occasional article.

Spicer says: "I think in Victorian times engineering and science were seen as pushing the way forward, but these days science seems to be seen as a monster - we're all going to produce alien tomatoes that run around supermarkets on their own. There's such a lot of good coming out of science and such a lot of potential and energy that we need to get people behind us again."

But the postgraduates admit that it is easier to write about a scientific discipline which is not their own. They are afraid of any oversimplification in their own subject which could leave them open to attack from their peers.

For example, Spicer feels confident criticising an academic who describes a pimp as "an agent for a professional sex worker". But when someone suffers an outbreak of malaria after it has been dormant, there is a crucial distinction between a relapse and a recrudescence, depending on whether the parasites have come from the liver or the blood, she says.

"People would normally use the word relapse, but that's not correct in the clinical sense. What if your supervisor read it, or other people in your field?"

The solution, says Mike Brown, the university's press officer, is a gloss such as "known to scientists as a recrudescence, which might be called a relapse". He strongly supports the society: "It's important that scientists have an awareness of how the popular media work,'' he says.

"It's not only a matter of being able to explain what they are doing but also understanding that the media will be interested in particular things at particular times. If you're a specialist in building in earthquake areas, you should expect your work to be of much more interest in the aftermath of an earthquake." Good communication is important whatever the students' subsequent career, he believes.

Mr Brown is one of several professional journalists who have run practical workshops for the society. Following a radio workshop, members are now producing four programmes for Glasgow School of Art's radio station.

There is, of course, another motive for many of the society's members - hard cash. The society runs an annual writing competition. The best articles are published in Catalyst, and win Pounds 50.

One journalist from a daily national newspaper told a workshop he would pay for suitable articles. "It's not very much," he said. "Between Pounds 70 and Pounds 200". Spicer says: "That to a student is a lot of money - Pounds 70 is ten hours' demonstrating, including preparation work which you're not paid for.

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