"Science journalists help bring science to the masses"

The 11th World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) is being held in Lausanne this week, attracting some 1,200 visitors to our city. As one of the event’s partner universities, EPFL is proud to be hosting the WCSJ at its SwissTech Convention Center. We spoke with Olivier Dessibourg, head of the organizing team and president of the Swiss Association of Science Journalists, about what he hopes the event will achieve.
Olivier Dessibourg, head of the organizing team and president of the Swiss Association of Science Journalists, at the STCC © Alain Herzog / 2019 EPFL

What is the WCSJ and why was it created?

The WCSJ was set up by the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) to provide a forum for science journalists to discuss the state of their profession, share best practices and outline new goals to aspire to. It’s held every two years and attracts over a thousand science journalists from around the world.

The conference – which is run by science journalists for their peers – also aims to enable science journalists from different continents to meet each other and therefore start working together more efficiently. The conference is a hotbed of ideas! But more generally, it’s an opportunity for our industry to show that we strive for independent, fact-based science journalism through a healthy critical eye, in both the specialist and mainstream press. The hope is that by sharing best practices, we can raise the overall level of our profession.

What is science journalism?

It’s a specific branch of journalism, although it has the same fundamental role: to investigate important issues, uncover the facts, compare different points of view, go behind the scenes, interview key people and get the background story. The main objective is to provide information to our readers. But since that information is scientific, we also have to explain complicated concepts in a simple way. So our job is to make science easy to understand, yet through a critical approach so that we are sure to describe it accurately and objectively. We step into laymen’s shoes, and we enter into a kind of tacit agreement with the scientists whose findings we report so that we can explain their research clearly and stay true to the scientific facts.

But science journalists aren’t the only people whose job it is to explain high-tech concepts in laymen’s terms? No, of course not. That’s also the job of communications officers working in the science world, for example. These professionals – some of whom are attending our conference – play an important role in the information chain. But unlike science journalists, they are not independent; they usually work for a research institution. One of the talks at our conference will be on the role that YouTubers can play in disseminating scientific knowledge. Personally I believe social media is a vector we mustn’t ignore, provided that the science is described as accurately as possible. And social media can let us reach people – especially today’s youth – who don’t necessarily read magazines or newspapers.

What does the WCSJ offer to partner organizations like EPFL?

This year’s event is bringing some 1,200 science journalists and communications officers from 83 different countries to the EPFL campus, as well as to the campuses of other partner organizations like UNIL, CHUV, CERN and the University of Geneva. Attendees will visit these organizations’ research labs and meet the researchers during the Lunch@Labs tours we are holding every day during the week of the conference. These tours will give researchers a unique opportunity to speak with journalists who would have never come to the school otherwise, and to build an international network.

What do you hope will be the long-term impact of the conference?

The WCSJ offers huge networking potential. Journalists get to speak directly with researchers and vice versa, meaning that partner organizations can forge lasting ties with science journalists the world over. And for science journalists, the WCSJ enables them to build a peer network that helps them do their jobs faster and more efficiently. I’m still in touch with researchers I met at previous editions of the WCSJ – and with journalists from other countries, whom I sometimes ask for assistance when writing an article about something related to their country.

As the head of the organizing committee, you’ve been able to step behind the scenes. What has that taught you?

It definitely pulled me out of my comfort zone! I had to don the hat of a professional conference organizer – but fortunately I had a team of 45 talented people behind me, based in France, Switzerland, Italy and even Montreal where the WFSJ headquarters is located. Working with them was a fantastic experience and I’d like to thank them personally. The process also forced me to take a deep look at our profession and think about what’s important to us and our community. The answers to those questions are what informed the conference program.

I learned more about the field of science communications by working with the WCSJ’s partner businesses, research institutes and philanthropic organizations. It’s gratifying to put on an event that’s useful for so many people and that adheres to its founders’ original vision of a global conference that’s independent, open-minded and innovative, and that encourages journalists to think critically yet positively.