Tuesday June 25 at 11:00-12:30
The biggest science controversy in 2012 was caused by two studies that showed how a handful of mutations can make H5N1, the avian flu virus, more transmissible between mammals, and, as a result, more likely to trigger a flu pandemic. Their publication was halted after a U.S. biosecurity panel reviewed them and concluded that some key details should not be made public, because they might provide aspiring bioterrorists with a recipe. The panel later reversed its decision, and both papers were eventually published, one in Science, the other in Nature.
The controversy created an unprecedented situation for science writers, who had to write about research they had not seen and that might never be published. Influenza scientists offered sharply divergent views on the risks posed by the research. Reporters had to walk a fine line between hyping the risks and providing false reassurances; they also had to grapple with an extremely complex legal and ethical framework for this type of work, known as “dual use research of concern.”
Complicating matters, one of the two lead researchers stayed mum during most of the controversy; the other did talk to some reporters but revealed few details, and later accused reporters of exaggerating the dangers. Key discussions about the papers took place behind closed doors, and intelligence assessments about which groups or governments might be willing and able to mis-use the findings was never publicly discussed.
The H5N1 debate was unique, but it won’t be the last to confront reporters with a volatile mix of science, secrecy and security. Influenza researchers will continue to create problematic flu strains. Meanwhile, the emerging field of synthetic biology is opening a potential Pandora’s box full of designer organisms.
This workshop will explore the role of science journalists in these debates. Speakers will look back to analyze how media in different parts of the world covered the controversy, and what went wrong. They will place the controversy in a broader context, draw lessons from the H5N1 episode — including tips and tricks on dealing with secret science and complex regulatory systems — and discuss reporting on synthetic biology.
Producer and moderator:
Martin Enserink, Science. Martin Enserink, a native of the Netherlands, is a reporter and contributing editor for the news pages of Science. He specializes in infectious diseases, global health, and science policy. He has covered many infectious disease outbreaks and has written extensively about basic research, epidemiology, ecology, and drug and vaccine development for diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, and influenza.
Enserink is a three-time winner of the Communications Award of the American Society for Microbiology, and a member of the Science team that won the 2011 Communications Award of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene for outstanding reporting. After five years at Science’s headquarters in Washington and eight as a correspondent in Paris, he is currently based in Amsterdam.
Helen Branswell, Canadian Press. Helen Branswell has been the medical reporter for The Canadian Press, Canada’s news agency, since June 2000. Based in Toronto, her work focuses heavily on infectious diseases, notably SARS, avian and pandemic influenza and the global effort to eradicate polio.
Branswell was a 2011 Nieman Global Health Fellow at Harvard University. She was awarded a 2004 Knight Public Health Journalism Fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where she spent three months working with scientists in the nosocomial infections and influenza branches.
David Malakoff, Science. A native of Washington, D.C., David Malakoff is on the news staff of Science, where he covers the politics of science and research discoveries. A veteran science journalist, he has worked as a science editor and on-air correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), the Editor At Large for Conservation Magazine, and a freelancer for many print and online outlets. He helped create and edit NPR’s year-long Climate Connections series, which won numerous awards.
Malakoff was part of the team at Science that covered the H5N1 controversy, and has covered past debates over the balance between science and security. He is a graduate of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Volker Stollorz, Freelance. Volker Stollorz was a scientist before he became a science writer in 1991. He has been involved in the creation of science sections in three German weekly newspapers: Die Zeit, Die Woche, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FASZ). He still is a regular contributor to the FASZ and writes freelance for German weekly newspapers and monthly magazines like Stern, Geo, and NZZ-Folio. He co-authored documentaries for National Public Television and three books.
Stollorz founded and edited WPK-Quarterly, a magazine for professional science writers. He currently works as a peer review editor at Medien-Doktor.de, a website aimed at rating and improving the quality of medical journalism in Germany, and serves on the program committee for Wissenswerte, an annual meeting about science journalism and science communication in Bremen. He has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Stefan von Holtzbrinck Prize for Science Journalism. He lives in Cologne, where he helped create a local Cancer Research Foundation.