Should public relations officials be allowed to serve as leaders of the country’s oldest organization for science journalists? For the second time in two years, that question is up for a vote this weekend at the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) meeting in Washington, D.C.
Founded by a group of reporters in 1934, NASW’s membership has expanded over the years to include other types of science writers, including public information officers (PIOs) who work for universities, research institutes, and non-profit advocacy organizations. These members can serve on the board and have full voting rights within NASW, but the positions of president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer are reserved for members whose work is largely journalistic in nature.
While these officers hold no more power than other members of the organization, excluding those in public relations is unfair, critics argue, with some even going as far as to compare the restriction to apartheid or opposing gay rights.
Such arguably clumsy comparisons aside, NASW’s PIO committee argues that because the journalism landscape is constantly changing and many freelancers now take on assignments that cross over into public relations, restricting leadership eligibility may mean that officers are no longer representative of their general members. At the same time, these officers are expected to serve in the crucial role of speaking on behalf of the organization — and it’s this function, journalists counter, that makes limiting who can hold these positions necessary.
In writing for Undark ahead of a nearly identical vote in 2016, NASW board member Seth Mnookin questioned what would happen if the association’s president happened to work for a federal agency that was refusing to release information to the public. “It wouldn’t be fair to ask that person sign a letter protesting a policy she was also responsible for enforcing,” Mnookin wrote, “just as it wouldn’t be fair to open NASW to charges of outside influence if its board chose not to protest the decision.”
Such a potential conflict of interest has nothing to do with who is more or less ethical, journalists argue, but it is important to recognize that while both groups share an interest in science, journalists and public relations personnel have very different goals — and their missions are often fundamentally at odds.
“Whether they are public information officers making statements, media affairs officers handling press inquiries, or university science writers composing narratives for magazines and websites, their chief responsibility is to represent their agency or institution in a positive and comprehensive way,” dozens of high-profile journalists wrote in an open letter opposing the proposed change. Journalists, on the other hand, have a duty only to their readers.
While the majority of NASW’s current board members oppose the officer amendment (which failed to pass in 2016 by 38 votes) it’s success this time around could have profound effects on the future of the organization. In a survey conducted as part of a report ahead of the earlier vote, nearly a tenth of the organization’s members — many of them high-profile journalists — said they would leave if the amendment passed. Five percent of members said they would leave if it didn’t.
Also in the news:
• Hurricane Michael was forecast to be a tropical storm; by the time it made landfall on Wednesday afternoon, it was a category 4 hurricane, the most powerful to ever hit the Florida Panhandle, and the third-most intense hurricane to hit the continental U.S. With winds topping 155 miles per hour, it toppled trees, ripped apart homes, and decimated at least one school. So far, the hurricane has been blamed for 11 deaths, although authorities fear they may find more bodies in its aftermath. In the city of Apalachicola, on the shore of Apalachicola Bay, the storm produced a record-breaking 7-foot surge, submerging neighborhoods and destroying roads. “It’s absolutely horrendous. Catastrophic,” one resident said. “There’s flooding. Boats on the highway. A house on the highway. Houses that have been there forever are just shattered.” In Panama City, trees were uprooted and power lines downed, leaving more than 380,000 homes and businesses without power. On Thursday, remnants of the storm swept through Georgia and toward the Carolinas. As water temperatures continue to rise due to human-induced global warming, experts predict an increase in the regularity and intensity of rapidly intensifying hurricanes. (Sun Sentinel)
• In honor of World Mental Health Day, Britain on Wednesday appointed Jackie Doyle-Price as its first-ever minister for suicide prevention. This new position comes at a time of increased demand for mental health services amid budget cuts that have left many people unable to get adequate treatment. About 4,500 people commit suicide every year in England, where it is the leading cause of death for men under 45. The government aims to prevent suicide and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues by providing more funding to the National Health Service and the Samaritans’ 24-hour phone help line, and by creating specialist teams that will work in schools to support students’ mental health. “The truth is that, for an awfully long time, mental health has simply not had the same level of support — both in terms of resources, but also in terms of how we as a society talk about it — compared to physical health, and we want to change that,” said health secretary Matt Hancock in an interview with BBC Radio 4. Price’s appointment as suicide prevention minister follows the appointment of Tracey Crouch as Britain’s first-ever minister for loneliness earlier this year. (The New York Times)
• Biologists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have reported a new first: They bred a mouse without a mom. The researchers used CRISPR technology to create nearly 500 embryos that each paired genetic material from two fathers. Of those, 12 yielded live mice, though only two survived for two days or more and none matured into adulthood. The scientists fared better in their efforts to rear mice with two genetic mothers. From an initial set of 200 “bimaternal” embryos, dozens reached adulthood — and a few even delivered viable pups of their own. Although scientists have been breeding bimaternal mice for more than a decade, this marks the first time that offspring of same-sex parents have given birth. Experts caution that researchers are unlikely to pull off the same feat with humans anytime soon. And, even if they could, the endeavor would be fraught with legal and ethical issues. “The amount of work that is necessary to convince us that doing this in humans will do no harm is enormous, and is very much ahead of us,” Fyodor Urnov, deputy director of Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences in Seattle, told Scientific American. (STAT)
• A Russian Soyuz rocket failed to lift off properly Thursday morning from a base in Kazakhstan, forcing the Russian cosmonaut and American astronaut aboard to deploy their capsule as an escape vehicle, in what experts called a “ballistic descent.” Cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague, buoyed by the capsule’s parachutes, landed safely some 200 miles from the launch pad. But the steep and rapid nature of the descent meant that they traveled for at least part of the journey under more than six times the force of gravity. “Thank God the crew is alive,” said a Kremlin spokesman. The two men were set to join the crew currently working on the International Space Station and the failure means that a return trip is unlikely until next year. Russia has delayed any further launches until its rocket program goes through a thorough review. And NASA no longer launches manned vehicles. It has contracted with both Boeing and SpaceX to take over that program but, so far, the “commercial crew” project is behind schedule. The earliest test date being considered by either company is mid-2019. (The Washington Post)
• While activists and some scientists have long extolled the virtues of a meat-free or meat-limited diet (it can make both you and the planet healthier, the arguments go), those messages have largely fallen on deaf ears. Indeed, according to recent polling, fewer Americans identify as vegan or vegetarian today than two decades ago, and global per capita meat consumption continues ever upward. Usually this is attributed to expanding population and rising levels of affluence, but a new study adds a bit of nuance to all that: status. In three separate experiments, a pair of Australian researchers used a combination of questionnaires, self-assessments, images of pork tacos, and real-life beef jerky, among other things, to assess the relationship between perceived social status and a desire for meat. The upshot: Subjects who felt less powerful socially were more likely to crave animal flesh than those who felt themselves to have a high social status. Far more research would need to be done to corroborate these results, of course, but the authors of the study say the findings could be helpful to both green groups and doctors attempting to convince people to cut back on meat consumption. “In mankind’s evolutionary past, those who consumed meat were strong and powerful and thus man saw meat as indicative of social status,” the authors note in the journal Appetite. “This symbolic connection between meat and status persists today.” (Pacific Standard)
• And finally: Perceptions and desires aside, feeding the world while attempting to curb climate change is going to require major changes in the way we produce and consume food, according to a new study published in Nature. As the global population reaches an expected 9 to 10 billion by 2050, the environmental effects of our food system could increase by 50 to 90 percent compared to 2010 — that is, if we do nothing to mitigate our impact. The study, a collaboration between 23 authors from Europe, the United States, Australia, and Lebanon, follows another major international report released this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned that a 1.5-degree Celsius rise in temperatures could have more dire consequences than previously reported. The Nature report, titled “Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits,” says that a shift to more plant-based diets and reducing food waste are the two actions that will have the biggest impact for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. (The Washington Post)