All good journalists are storytellers, and science writers are simply journalists who like to tell stories about science. Still, it has only been in the last few decades that science writing has become a profession in its own right, with journalists specifically trained to cover research ranging from genetics to particle physics.
The Growth of Specialization
Previously, most publications put so little emphasis on science that they did not need a specialized reporter. More and more, though, news organizations regard scientific results as necessary information, part of the everyday reporting of news. After all, science and technology have radically altered the way we live. For example, consider the development of antibiotics and vaccines, nuclear weapons, computer technologies, lasers, and fiber optics. Advances in science and technology will undoubtedly continue to occur in ways that we can not fully predict. The Human Genome Project, with all its promise and ethical unknowns, illustrates this perfectly.
The fast pace of scientific and technological advance has led to an increasing demand for science writers who understand science, and who can make others understand it as well. The membership of the National Association of Science Writers is now nearly 2,500. Science writing programs have sprung up at Boston University, Northwestern University, the University of California in Santa Cruz, the University of Maryland, and many other institutions. Most of these programs are aimed at journalists who wish to learn how to write about science, to more deftly translate jargon, explain complex experiments, and illuminate the people and the politics behind the science. A few, such as the program at Santa Cruz, are geared for science majors who wish to learn about journalism.
Breaking into the Field
While lack of science training is not a bar to working as a science journalist, a growing number of working science writers have undergraduate science degrees, or a combined degree in science and journalism. The bigger publications and broadcast organizations place a premium on good writers with scientific training. Beyond that, being a trained researcher enables a journalist to ask questions that a colleague less knowledgeable might miss. Writers who do more specialized types of writing, such as medical writing for a physician audience, especially benefit from background in their field. Very few working science writers have advanced degrees, but there are advantages, both for the skills and knowledge gained and the credentials, which may lead to opportunities not otherwise available.
While valuing a scientific background, many media organizations put an even higher premium on good writing and the ability to make a difficult subject accessible to nonspecialist readers. A talented and hardworking journalist who is willing to do the necessary research and homework is thus often a valuable commodity even without specific science training.
Opportunities in Science Journalism
Opportunities for science writers continue to expand beyond such traditional media as newspapers, magazines, television, and radio. For example, there are on-line publications, some of which specialize only in research topics. Science writers are also hired as public information officers, to explain research at universities and government agencies. There are comparable jobs in private industry, working for specific companies or trade publications. Many of the big science associations publish their own journals or magazines and hire science-trained journalists for their news and comment sections.
The latter jobs mean writing for a science-literate audience. For the most part, however, science journalists explain a technical world to a nontechnical audience. Their goal is not to teach people how to do the science, just how to appreciate it, evaluate it, and even enjoy it. Continually learning new science, and explaining it to those who are interested, is one of the great benefits of being a science writer.
Beginning science writers may earn a starting salary of around $20,000 to $25,000, depending on their training, the type of job, the resources of the employer, and the region of the country. More experienced writers may earn between $35,000 and $60,000, and some writers earn even more. The highest salaries are paid to top-tier writers employed by major publications, or experienced medical writers working for pharmaceutical companies.
see also Technical Writer.
Blum, Deborah, and Mary Knudson, eds. A Field Guide for Science Writers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Friedman, Sharon M., Sharon Dunwoody, and Carol L. Rogers, eds. Communicating Uncertainty: Media Coverage of New and Controversial Science. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999.
Gastel, Barbara. The Health Writers Handbook. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1998.
American Association for the Advancement of Science: Media Relations. <http://www.eurekalert.org>.
National Association of Science Writers. <http://www.nasw.org>.
Society of Environmental Journalists. <http://www.sej.org>.
"Science Writer." Genetics. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/medical-magazines/science-writer
"Science Writer." Genetics. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/medical-magazines/science-writer
In 1999, gene therapy researchers accidentally killed a healthy nineteen-year-old boy and then covered up the evidence. Only the work of two newspaper reporters—one a science writer—brought the story to light. The science writer's work showed that the scientists had continued risky experiments on humans for months.
A science writer is a person who writes about science for newspapers, magazines, television shows, or university public information offices. Anyone with a talent for writing can become a science writer. Most science writers have at least a college degree. Some have no training in science and learn what they need to know on the job by talking to scientists. Others have at least a B.A. in a science such as biology or chemistry.
To become a science writer, you can just start writing articles and try to get them published, perhaps in a college newspaper. Once you have "clips" from your volunteer work, you can show them to an editor and find paying work. Many students enter a graduate program in science writing, then launch their careers by taking an internship or job at a newspaper, radio station, or magazine.
National Association of Science Writers. <http://www.nasw.org>.
"Science Writer." Biology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/science-writer
"Science Writer." Biology. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/science-writer