Archive for the ‘AAAS’ Category

Post AAAS: The Future of (Science) Journalism


The Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT, a unique nine-month sabbatical for science writers, celebrated its 25th anniversary this week with a symposium examining journalism’s future. Nearly 200 people attended, many past fellows as well as freelancers, editors and students, all curious (and slightly anxious) to know where the field is heading. The surprise verdict: The future is already here.

For nearly a decade, the Internet has been viewed by print journalists as television was once seen by radio folk – the beginning of the end. We learned from television that multiple mediums can coexist, but the Internet poses the historically unique possibility of convergence, since print, audio, video and more can be accessed in a single space. The intense competition for readers became the least of print media’s worries with the onset of Web. 2.0 whe bloggers and other news aggregators-like Google-have made it impossible for a story to end after it is filed. News today is discussed, dissected and corrected.

This “Digital Age,” as named by Boyce Rensberger, a veteran science journalist and current director of the Knight Fellowship, is an epoch where the journalist is no longer a gatekeeper for scientific information. Now all sorts of facts and fictions are seeping through to a knowledge-hungry public, from the scientist with his own blog, the pharmaceutical-funded documentary or a politician’s book. It is now the role of the science journalist to be an authenticator.

Dianne Lynch, an expert in independent media and dean of journalism at Ithaca College, tried to calm a room of traditional journalists by arguing that journalism is not changing, just the medium “Journalism does not equal newspapers,” she said. “Journalism has never been more dynamic or exciting-it is being conflated with dying business models.” This means the same quality, standards, and dedication to one’s audience will subsist, but the move online requires journalists to frame their work in new ways. This could mean through visuals, graphs, video, podcasts, or 51 other ways to accompany print.

Mindy McAdams, a digital media professor at the University of Florida seconded this train of thought by arguing the 5,000-word piece just does not get read on the Internet. Although there is no data to support this statement, it makes sense. People who go online are looking for specific kinds of information, in particular, entertainment. A science video featuring talking heads does not reach audiences the way an animation or puzzle would.

Not all journalists are ready to accept this news. Carl Zimmer, a freelance writer and widely known blogger, as well as Michael Balter, a contributing writer for Science, expressed concerns that at least one victim of this movement will be writing. They question whether or not the Millenium generation (those 22 and under) are going to absorb the style and content of good writing if they only rely on blogs or short online articles.

Tom Rosensteil, co-author of The Elements of Journalism, was also skeptical. “There is a lot of experimentation going on,” he said. “Lot of risk taking and faddism and some of it is a mistake, overkill or overreaction.” While this may be true, the advocates for new media, those journalists who blog, twitter, Facebook and YouTube are able to earn a decent living, and the explosion of the more successful fads are now defining the Web experience.

To be prepared for what’s to come, science journalism students must be trained not necessarily to produce online content, but to learn how to think digital. They should be able to have a conversation with a graphic artist for a Flash Animation and know the difference between a video for a television broadcast and a video for the Web. Maintaining a blog and developing an online presence is the equivalent to writing obituaries 25 years ago.

Journalism students don’t have anything to fear if they can make this conversion now. Even if newspapers and books are replaced by e-ink and magazines go extinct, there will always be a place for good reporting. Besides, we need journalists for something to blog about.

Posted by Joseph, under AAAS, science writing  |  Date: February 23, 2008
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AAAS: Quantifying Baseball in the Information Age



(Credit: Aspasia Daskalopoulou)

— Story by Lauren Rugani

Statistically, Derek Jeter is the worst defensive shortstop in major league baseball, giving Red Sox fans every right to shout, “Overrated!” when he takes the field at Fenway Park. Ironically, Yankee management parked one of the (statistically) best shortstops in the league, A-Rod, at third base.

A panel of researchers at February’s AAAS meeting in Boston discussed these two sub-fields of baseball statistics – fielding and managerial decision-making – and how mathematics can be applied to analyze and predict performance. This adds to the growing field of “sabrmetrics,” the quantitative and objective study of baseball performance. The term stems from the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research, and, “adding ‘metrics’ to the end of anything just makes it sound smarter,” joked panelist Shane T. Jensen of the University of Pennsylvania.

Analyzing baseball is anything but a joke, however. Straightforward stats like batting average, on-base percentage and pitchers’ earned run averages are seen everywhere from the back of baseball cards to on-screen graphics during televised baseball games. Since baseball is a less interactive sport than say, football or basketball, much of a player’s stats are largely determined by his own performance. Now, statisticians are including parameters that account for interdependent performance on the field. If Derek Jeter fails to field a ground ball that results in the hitter getting on base, is it because of his poor fielding skills or because he was playing closer to second base than he normally does?

Researchers like Jensen, along with fellow speakers David Pinto and Steve C. Wang of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, dig deeper to determine whether stats are really a good measure of performance. For example, if Manny Ramirez goes 4-4 (padding his batting average) but none of his hits result in a run and the team loses, is he really worth that multi-million dollar contract?

Jensen’s research goes so far as to include the handedness of both pitcher and batter, the size of the park and the range of the outfielders to determine whether each play should have resulted in an out, based on similar plays from the past. Wang analyzes various managerial tactics such as deciding when to take pitchers out of the game or choosing to steal or bunt.

So does any of this actually matter to anyone other than stat-hungry fans? The researchers say yes. Baseball players make a lot of money, and some of them might not deserve it. Recognitions like the Cy Young Award and the Gold Glove are awarded primarily through subjective voting, and the winners often do not reflect the numbers.
Furthermore, analyzing not only a player’s individual performance but predicting his potential interaction with the rest of the team will help determine whether a player would be a beneficial addition. Compiling stats at the minor league level will help scouts make better decisions if they happen to catch a player on one of his worse days.

However, the researchers don’t see managers trading in chew tobacco for number crunching machines. Baseball involves a lot of gut feelings (like keeping J.D. Drew) that computers can’t provide, especially given that one game, one month, or even one season are extremely small sample sizes for measuring a player’s capabilities.

Posted by Joseph, under AAAS  |  Date: February 21, 2008
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AAAS: Life on Mars?


Harvard University biologist, Andrew H. Knoll was the final speaker at a Mars exploration symposium held Friday the 15th at the Boston convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The title of his talk “Mars as the Abode of Life?” was punctuated with an uncomfortable question mark – a concern for those of us hoping to hear good news about the search for life on Mars.He began comparing the geochemical properties of Earth rocks with Martian rocks. And put forth the idea that since they seem very similar, scientists can draw the conclusion that if life can or cannot live in a certain geochemical environment here on Earth, it probably will or will not be able to live in that same type of environment on Mars.

Five years into their 90-day mission, those spunky little Mars Exploration Rover (MER) bots, Spirit and Opportunity, continue to roll around Mars dutifully transmitting back to earth all that they discover about the red planet. And so far they have told the story that the rocks they’ve studied are mainly sulfates (a common sulfate found on Earth and Mars is Epsomite or Epsom salts). Long story short — the water that once flowed on Mars was very, very salty — so salty in fact that few respectable earth microbes would or could be caught alive in it.

But what about “extreme” environments, you say? Yes, we find lots of evidence for microbial life thriving in extreme environments here on Earth, but Professor Knoll noted that our earthly extreme environments are often located adjacent to less extreme environments – these neighboring environments provide a sort of food subsidy to help those extreme-loving bacteria survive. He noted that here on Earth, extreme environments are rare but Mars appears to be one great big extreme environment. So I guess it looks as if there is no such thing as a free lunch on Mars, either.

In addition to the harshness of the Martian environment, scientists believe that when water flowed on Mars, it was an episodic event as opposed to long-standing surface water — water rising to the surface after a meteorite impact, for example. Many biologists think that life is less likely to evolve under such conditions.

But, there’s a lot of Mars left to explore folks, and on May 25th at 4:40 PST, the spacecraft Phoenix will land on the Martian polar region to dig once again into the Martian soil looking for water and hopefully life.

— Story by Marilyn Rogers

Posted by Joseph, under AAAS  |  Date: February 19, 2008
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AAAS: Viral Forecasting


As President George W. Bush pressures the United States Congress to pass a $5 billion bill to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, Dr. Nathan E. Wolfe, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, is pinching pennies to prevent the world’s next pandemic. While large-scale funding is crucial for controlling current outbreaks, the U.S. has been slow to support research that could find new diseases before they find us, said Dr. Wolfe, in a lecture delivered at the AAAS meeting last Sunday.”If your doctor told you that you had all the signs for a heart attack but that he wanted to wait for you to have the heart attack before treating you, you’d find another doctor,” he said.

With funding from a National Institute of Health Pioneer Award, a grant given to “risky” research, Wolfe looks around the world for emerging diseases. The staff at his sites, located primarily in Malaysia, China, Congo and Cameroon, do this by interviewing and collecting blood samples from people who interact with wild animals on a daily basis, especially hunters.

Wolfe’s teams also gather blood samples from wild animals. With the blood, they are building a comprehensive database of viruses, which they use to produce detectors to catch and control new pathogens.

When researchers do find signs of a non-human virus, they try to link the blood to the type of animal the infected person works with. In Africa for example, cases of Simian Foamy Virus in humans, a benign infection with no symptoms, were traced to gorillas.

One surprise from Wolfe’s research is that viruses jump from animal to human quite often. However, because many of these jumps happen in locations far from urban areas, they have been difficult to track. This also has means, even if we cure the existing strains of disease like HIV, there is no guarantee others wouldn’t emerge.

With more interest in preventing pandemics, argues Wolfe, we won’t miss the boat like we did with HIV.

Posted by Joseph, under AAAS, health  |  Date: February 18, 2008
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AAAS Links


Here are some links to stories generated by the AAAS conference around the world:


Crusada un laptop por nino: Negroponte tiene pocas esperanzas en Chile” by Paula Leighton & Natalia Mackenzie, a Boston University Center for Science and Medical journalism student. (El Mercurio: 2/19/08)

El sistema solar tambien tiene mas que ofrecer” by Natalia Mackenzie. (El Mercurio: 2/19/08)


Especies invasoras llegan al ecosistema antartico: El calentamiento del mar acerca al continente helado a uncangrejo depredador de aguas menos frias” by Nuno Dominguez, a Boston University  Center for Science and Medical journalism student. ( 2/19/08)

United Kingdom 

Is HIV beating the scientists?” by Martin Hutchinson. (BBC News: 2/15/08)

Early Mars too salty for life” by Helen Briggs. (BBC News: 2/15/08)

‘Earth No. 2’ lies in deep freeze waiting to be born” by Jonathan Leake. (Times Online: 2/17/08)

‘Hundreds of worlds’ in milky way” by Helen Briggs. (BBC News: 2/17/08)

Birth control for fish” by James Randerson. (The Guardian: 2/17/08)

Caution! Reporters in the room” by Heidi Ledford. (Nature: 2/17/08)

Shark species face extinction, says research” by Nic Fleming. (The UK Telegraph: 2/18/08)

Welcome to the town that will make you lose weight” by Mark Henderson. (Times Online: 2/18/08)

Warm dust increases chances of alien life” by Nic Fleming. (The UK Telegraph: 2/18/08)

Toxins ’cause defects for future generations” by Nick Fleming. (The UK Telegraph: 2/18/108)

Men’s smoking and drinking can damage the health of future children” by Fiona Macrae. (Daily Mail: 2/19/08)

United States

Scientists: Be true to your school (board)” by Michael Balter, a Boston University Center for Science and Medical Journalism professor. (ScienceNOW: 2/15/08)

Antarctic warming creating predator ‘smorgasbord” by Larry O’Hanlon. (Discovery News: 2/15/08)

Human activity affecting oceans worldwide, maps show” by Randolph E. Schmid. (AP: 2/15/08)”Even oceans not spared by humans: study” by Abhishek Garg.(The Money Times: 2/15/08)

Saturn’s Titan found to be factory of organic chemicals” by Kandy Ringer. (BBS News: 2/15/08)

Phytomining and the biomass backlash” by Alexis Madrigal. (Wired Science: 2/16/08)

Poverty mars formation of infant brains” by Clive Cookson. (Financial Times: 2/16/08)

50 years of the space age” by Matt Ford. (Ars Technical: 2/16/08)

Large-scale collaborations in physics” by Matt Ford. (Ars Technical: 2/16/08)

Presidential campaigns call for big boost of research funding” by Eli Kinitsch. (ScienceNOW: 2/16/08)

’08 may prove to be a watershed year in large-scale physics” by Eric Schwartz. (Arizona Daily Star: 2/17/08)

The other carbon: Reducing black carbon’s role in global warming” by Alex Madrigal. (Wired Science: 2/17/08)”The Chinese government’s plans for nanotechnology” by Alex Madrigal. (Wired Science: 2/17/08)

Why we suck at predicting the future” by Greta Lorge. (Wired Science: 2/17/08)

Quest for knowledge: Research from Antarctica to the kitchen cabinests, outer space to the womb” by Colin Nickerson, Beth Daley and Carey Goldberg,  (Boston Globe: 2/18/08)


Posted by Joseph, under AAAS  |  Date: February 17, 2008
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AAAS: Science for Tomorrow’s Citizens


American universities, concerned that their students are not being prepared to confront the scientific issues of the 21st century, such as climate change and personal genetics, are experimenting with new ways to make science classes relevant for the 98% of the population who choose not to become scientists.”We’re preparing people to read the Tuesday New York Times 20 years from now,” said Jon D. Miller, a professor at Michigan State University. Miller, along with science educators from George Mason University and the National Academy of Science spoke this afternoon at a AAAS symposium addressing how to teach science to tomorrow’s citizens.

This is a bigger task than it sounds. A 2005 study showed under a third of Americans can correctly answer what a proton is or explain why the Earth is warm in the summer and not in the winter, an improvement from just under a tenth of Americans in 1988. Scientific literacy, defined in today’s symposium as the knowledge people assume you possess about science or technology, is improving in the United States, but it may not be fast enough to deal with tomorrow’s policy challenges.

Educators, like George Mason University professor James Trefil, believes students become disenchanted with science because of the way it is taught in college. He doesn’t believe science should be presented as sections of facts to memorize, but rather as big ideas that can be applied across disciplines. It disturbs him when a first-year student is asked what’s the most important thing to learn in science, and she responds the steps of the Kreb’s cycle, which describes how cells use oxygen to create energy.

“The goal is not to produce students who can do science,” Trefil said. “I don’t have to perform music to appreciate it.”

He also believes math and mandatory lab components are also of little use to obtaining science literacy.

“What are kids getting from lab that will help them deal with that polar bear?” he asked, referring to the infamous 2006 TIME Magazine global warming cover story displaying the words, “Be Worried, Be Very Worried.”

While there were some differences in the specifics of what needs to change, all the speakers agreed that the way we teach science now prepares students for society in the time of Galileo instead of Craig Venter, one of the scientists who played a large role in the Human Genome Project.

Strategies to improve college science class include making classrooms learner-centered, which bases lessons around problems rather than a curriculum, and transforming traditional introductory science courses into a liberal-arts form. The speakers also emphasized the need for cultural change in academia. This could be done by hiring good teachers instead of good researchers and giving more attention to non-science students.

Whether or not these tactics work is currently being quantified by University of Michigan researchers keeping track of the progress in scientific literacy made by their student body of 7,000, whether they are exposed to one learner-centered introductory science class or are biology majors. The results should be ready in time for next year’s conference.

Posted by Joseph, under AAAS, science education  |  Date: February 16, 2008
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AAAS Special


Over the next few days, students at Boston University’s Center for Science and Medical Journalism will be publish here original reports from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual conference currently being held in Boston. This is the biggest gathering of scientists and sicence journalists in the world. This year, hundreds of talks and symposims will be held, covering the latest in science and technology, from the ethics of eating cloned animals to particle phyiscs and you’ll hear all about it on

Posted by Joseph, under AAAS  |  Date: February 15, 2008