Yet for all these misapprehensions and tendencies to fling blame in the wrong direction, there’s no doubt that most professional scientists have cause enough for genuine concern about their portrayal in the media. Alongside the often-unrecognized excellence of much popularization—particularly that done by science journalists working against the clock to condense arcane technical matter into accurate and enticing news stories—there is an uncomfortable load of sensationalism, error and hype.
European scientists have another grouse when they travel to the United States and find little or nothing in the media about their concerns and achievements. Despite the fabled internationality of science, Old World researchers are easily dismayed by New World treatment of their doings.
These scientists perceptions have recently found quantitative support from survey data published by Francoise Harrois Monin of the staff of L’Express in Paris. Her findings spell out the size of the problem vividly for the first time. The results are frankly astounding.
Harrois-Monin compared the coverage ot developments on opposite sides of the Atlantic as reflected in popular science periodicals of the United States and Europe. As detailed in the Journal of Information Science (vol. 13, 1987, pp. 307-311), the outcome was worse than even the most paranoid Europhile might have expected. Among monthly American science periodicals (in- cluding Discover and Science 85/86, which was still being published at the time of the study), Harrois-Monin found that 93 percent of the features and 92 percent of news items covered U.S. research. Only 9 percent of news stories reported developments in Europe and only 3 percent concerned the rest of the world. (The percentages exceed 100 because some items referred to more than one country.)
The figures for French monthlies such as Science et Vie and Science et Avenir were far more evenly balanced. Forty-two percent of their news items reported on French science, 11 percent on other European science, 29 percent on U.S. science, and 17 percent on science here.
Comparisons of weeklies (including the science section of the New York Times)
showed remarkably similar contrasts.
What could account for such striking imbalances? Do they perhaps simply reflect a disparity in R&D funding between Europe and the United States? Not at all. OECD statistics published in April 1986 show that France, the United Kingdom, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Ireland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Greece and Luxembourg together spend about two-thirds of the amount allocated by the United States to R&D. Proportionally, the number of scientists working on the two continents is almost exactly the same. Furthermore, the number of Nobel Prizes received on each side of the Atlantic is similar. It is difficult indeed to find any justification for the U.S. neglect of attainments in the Old World. Harris-Monin analyzed those occasions when Euro-science is mentioned in U.S. periodicals and discovered that European science seems to crop up when: " The article highlights the glories of the past by making historical references to Europeans such as Darwin, Bohr and Freud. " The story focuses on competition in fields such as AIDS research, with its rivalry between Robert Gab in the United States and Luc Montagnier in France over the discov ery of human immunodeficiency virus. " American scientists are seeking collaboration on major projects such as the superconducting supercollider. " Existing joint research programs are described. In this case, the locations of European laboratories (although usually not the names of individual scientists) tend to be mentioned. " Europeans give papers at international conferences held in the United States.
Clearly, language probably is one significant factor behind this unhappy saga. Another is the superiority of press facilities and public relations in the United States. But I fear that just as important is what Harrois-Monin calls the “best in the world” syndrome, which she illustrates with a catalog of important European stories (such as the Earth-observation SPOT satellite, which has 10 times the resolution of the United States’ Landsat) that have been totally ignored or only cursorily treated in U.S. periodicals. To what extent this reflects the views not of American reporters, but of American scientists, is something readers of THE SCIENTIST might care to ponder.
A microbiologist by training, Dixon is European editor of THE SCIENTIST.
- (The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.11, January 25, 1988)
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