Hayley Dunning

Science needs journalists

Dr Rosie Redfield, her pink hair, and challenging NASA

Since the video Gudrun Jonsdottir, Golnaz Fakhari and I created for our J-School class has been gaining some of the attention I’d always hoped for it, it’s time to detail a little more of the background and the process of creating it.

First, here’s the finished product:

When we were tasked, in groups of three, to create a video project under 5 minutes of anything of our choosing, Gudrun and I wanted to do science. We originally wanted to do it about a guy who received a huge grant to study the decline of honey bees, but we really weren’t sure if the bees would be all that active in the winter, and the guy was away anyway. Then I remembered Dr Rosie Redfield appearing in Nature’s 10 people who mattered this year. She was challenging NASA scientists’ claim that a bacteria had substituted phosphorus for arsenic in the backbone of its DNA, essentially proving there was a whole different way of being alive, right here on Earth. This was a big deal, and she was right here at UBC!

When Gudrun and I went to talk to her to see if she’d be up for being our video subject, three things stood out:

1. She was excited we were there. She knew there was a science specialty in the  journalism Masters program, and wondered why we hadn’t been beating down the doors of her and her colleagues.

2. Her hair was now pink, not blue as it had been in her Nature photoshoot.

3. She had, in fact, just proven that those bacteria do not take up arsenic into their DNA, and was preparing her manuscript for Science.

This was all terribly exciting, and when we pitched the idea to our class and profs the next day (film-maker Dan McKinney and New York Times producer David Rummel), we were fired up. The profs, not so much. Part of the problem was probably that Gudrun and I both have Masters in science (Gudrun even more specialized, with biochemistry), so we were a little too close to the subject. But we both felt strongly that this was an incredibly important and newsworthy subject (something the J-School are always pushing on us). We knew it was big. And as I put it to the class: “We want to be science journalists. If we can’t make this exciting, we might as well give up now!”

We prevailed, but we knew we needed help. So our dear friend Golnaz Fakhari (Goli), Iranian firecracker and definitely-not-a-scientist came on board with us, to keep our jargony ways under check. We encouraged her to be our interviewer, to make sure Rosie kept the conversation casual. Goli was a terrific interviewer, and even better, Rosie was a terrific interviewee. Many groups had an hour or more of interview to sift through to create their story; Rosie gave us everything we needed in a succinct, entertaining 20 minutes.

And more. The narrative you see in the video is the story of her spunky, candid personality telling the tale of NASA’s bad research and how she challenged it. Her openness and willingness to say exactly what she thinks is refreshing (one of my favourite lines is “Hang on, this is not high quality research At All“). But a part of the story we didn’t get to include was her blogging, and her commitment to open research.

Here’s a little excerpt from the interview transcript with Rosie:

“I’ve been blogging openly about every step of my research for 5 or 6 years now, partly as an example for other scientists: ‘look, you could too, you don’t have to do all your research behind closed doors, keeping it all secret until it appears in the journal. You could work openly, encourage cooperation and collaboration.’ And the other advantage of working openly is that the public gets a peek at how the science is really done. Instead of the scrubbed and sanitized version that comes at the end in the research paper, they could actually see what goes on in the lab: how the process of the research works.”

Research is taxpayer funded, yet it has always amazed me, and many others, how that research ends up behind published journal pay-walls, prohibitively expensive to the public who wants to be able to read broadly on one or many topics. In the science communication class I’m a teaching assistant for, we had a class on peer review the other day, and there were audible gasps from the audience when it was revealed scientists often have to pay to have their articles published, then pay to be able to read other scientific literature. Seems backwards doesn’t it? It’s been that way for a long time though. But as the internet demands openness and sharing, so more people are reacting against this system (for example, the recent attention-grabbing campaign by one disgruntled maths professor to boycott the publishing giant Elsevier).

Rosie has taken another route: to blog everything her lab does. Every step of the experiment, every result. Criticisms of this kind of open science include leaking results that collaborators are working hard to publish, and circumventing peer review, so that unfinished science can reach the impressionable public. Some of these criticisms come from the man you all know I love, Prof Brian Cox, but while I can see some of his points, I’m swaying towards Rosie’s way of thinking. During our time with her, she submitted the draft of her arsenic-life-refuting paper to Science, and simultaneously posted it online to arXiv.org. She encourages open peer review, just as she had encouraged scientists from around the world to comment on her methods and problems as she went about the arsenic bacteria experiments.

The NASA scientists, on the other hand, have consistently refused to answer any of the criticisms and comment on Rosie’s paper until it’s peer-reviewed and published properly in the journal. It’s hard to see why they would act this way, when Rosie’s refutations have received such wide coverage. The two sides are acting on opposite ends of the open-research spectrum: The NASA scientists keeping it all in, and Rosie letting it all out. Even more importantly, I think, Rosie is letting it all out to the public: highlighting the way science works, by reporting on her lab; and highlighting some of the ways it doesn’t work, when scientists hide in the ivory tower.

It’s important for us to know that even NASA screws up. And it’s important for them to acknowledge that, and act in a way the public can relate to; by admitting mistakes like anybody else and not snubbing open criticism, keeping the perception of elitist scientists alive and well. I salute you Rosie, and your ever-changing hair colour!

2 comments on “Dr Rosie Redfield, her pink hair, and challenging NASA

  1. M Paul Lloyd
    February 23, 2012

    Well done, and, may all your interviews go so well. ;)

    • Flakkarin
      February 23, 2012

      Thanks, although Goli really conducted the interview well, I’m not actually that good at them! Practice makes perfect though…

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This entry was posted on February 23, 2012 by in My science journalism and tagged , , , , .
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