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Wednesday, 2 September 2009

EDITORIAL: Call me the awkward squad

You'll see a piece about the Templeton Fellowship in this issue, and I don't feel I can let it stand without at least some comment. When Mike Hanlon suggested writing the piece I felt snookered. On the one hand I felt it would be giving the wrong kind of publicity to an organization that seems to me to be both pro-religion and anti-science, and that, it could be claimed, uses wads of cash to bypass the integrity of otherwise decent scientists and journalists. On the other hand, holding this view made it impossible for me to claim that I could make an objective decision on the subject, so I couldn't in good conscience say no.

I'm not going to say anything more about the Templeton Foundation here, except that I will, some time in the next few months, write explaining the evidence behind my concerns.

As far as this issue's debate is concerned, I'm in an awkward position there too. For years I myself had moaned about the poor quality of science journalism, and to this day I'm a bit of a fan of Ben Goldacre's scathing approach. On the other hand, I've seen how a good story can be butchered by a bad editor, and how a bad story can be seized upon by an editor who can only see the shocking headline and increased sales. That's not down to the journalist.

I think there's a link here. We're all incredibly lucky to work in science journalism, but it's only worth doing if we can do it well, if we can make a contribution. If not, there are a thousands of other jobs that are interesting, allow us to use the same skills, earn a decent salary, and not lose sleep at night. I choose only to work for publications where I have respect for the publications and my immediate editors (and they at least pretend to have respect for me). And I know my own limitations in terms of the subjects I can write about well and with insight, and I stick to those (whether they're fashionable or not).That means some years I get more freelance work, others less. I have to make sure that I have other work -- teaching and editing -- to pay the mortgage. But I'm not embarrassed about the work I produce.

Of course I want to be paid well for my journalism. That would be ideal. But I'd rather be paid nothing (I write a blog when I have time) than compromise on the quality of the work that I produce, or be paid to forward the agenda of an organization whose values I know I don't share.

That might sound priggish, but, after attending the WCSJ, I think there are a lot of others out there with the same sensibility. I think there might even be more of us than there are chancers who will write anything as long as they can get a byline and a paycheck. So Steve Connor is right (talking about the former), and Ben Goldacre is right (talking about the latter).

And Mike Hanlon? He could be talking about being funded by any foundation, Templeton or otherwise, but I personally think his piece displays both a cynicism and a casualness about accepting money that make him dead wrong.

Sunny Bains
Editor, The Science Reporter