New Outlet for Sharing Science

Leading universities, frustrated by shrinking space in mainstream media for research coverage, decide to go right to the public with their news.
September 15, 2009

Last year, CNN announced that it was going to eliminate its entire reporting team focused on science and technology.

To a group of public affairs administrators at research universities, it was but the latest sign that science news was going to have a more and more difficult time reaching the public. Many daily newspapers that once had science reporters or science pages have eliminated them, and many traditional print publications are these days struggling to survive.

So the university administrators decided to create a Web site in which they could distribute writing about their researchers and their work directly to the public -- without counting on journalists. The result is Futurity, which today shifts from beta to an officially live site. The site features writing about research at 35 universities in the United States and Canada (all of them members of the Association of American Universities). Among the kickoff articles are pieces on the Arctic climate (from the University of Colorado at Boulder), worm genetics (from Yale University), and nanomedicine (from Northwestern University).

While the articles are in some ways similar to those produced by university news offices for press releases or articles in faculty/staff newsletters, some of the Futurity articles are edited to have fewer mentions of university names and the kinds of references that shout "press release." There is no advertising on the site.

The goal of the Web site is not to compete with Science and Nature, but rather to reach interested members of the general public, said Bill Murphy, one of the co-founders and vice president for communications at the University of Rochester. Imagining the intended reader, Murphy said, the founders saw as the typical reader "a person who is not a scientist, but the person who used to read a news magazine or newspaper and look forward to finding the science section."

Each university contributed $2,000 to help get the site off the ground, and the goal is to build traffic through viral (and largely free) techniques. Murphy said that at some point in the future, the project may reconsider the limit on participation to AAU members, but that the universities involved believed that some measure was needed to group the institutions.

The announcement comes amid growing discussion among scientists about whether they have sufficient avenues to reach the public. An article in Nature in March noted that as science journalism has struggled for space outside of science publications, science blogging has been on the rise -- and is now used by science journalists for story ideas. An while the article noted a range of views among scientists about whether these trends are good, it suggested that many see as long gone the day that science reached the public through an orderly process of journal publication, followed by mainstream press coverage.

As the article noted, some universities have already tried to promote science discussion through Web sites that try to produce the kind of journalism many scientists miss.

For example, the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale (one of the Futurity universities) produces a Web site Yale Environment 360, with news, analysis and opinion articles about environmental issues -- with an emphasis on the research behind the issues.


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