A unifying cause

Published online 24 March 2011

Nature Editorial,  Nature 471 , 410 (24 March 2011)

Conference of science journalists can strengthen ties between the Arab world and the West.

With the recent awakening in the Arab world of movements for democracy and free speech, it is timely that the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ), on 27–29 June, will for the first time be held in an Arab country. Even organizing the conference in Qatar has, in its own small way, promoted collaboration between the Western and Arab journalists involved. It can only be hoped that the mingling of science reporters at the event will have a similar, and lasting, effect. Western journalists attending the conference should take the opportunity to see the Middle East, meet its scientists and learn more about how science might contribute to sustainable development of the region, and the substantial challenges it faces, in particular at this crucial and historic moment in the region's history. Support for science in the Arab world has long been at levels far below those in other countries, although there have been some recent improvements (see Nature 470, 147–149; 2011). A twinning between the young Arab Science Journalists Association and the well-established US National Association of Science Writers in 2007 made the joint bid to bring the conference to the Arab world possible. That twinning also built powerful ties between science journalists in the Arab world and in the United States. Arab journalists were invited to American science and science journalism conferences, and American journalists attended the first Arab science journalists conference in 2008. There was much to learn for both sides as they shared challenges, advice and opportunities. It created mutual understanding between two regions that are often perceived as being at odds with one another.

It is a great pity, although understandable given the recent unrest and uncertainty in Egypt, that the organizers decided to relocate the conference from its original planned venue in Cairo to Doha in Qatar. It would have been symbolic to hold a major conference of journalists in a nation that has just overthrown the shackles of a dictatorship that repressed free speech and the critical thought and questioning that science and science journalism thrive on. But at least the venue has been kept in the Arab world, and has not been moved to the United States, which was discussed as an alternative venue at one point.

Holding the conference in Qatar will hopefully also provide a boost to science journalism in the region, which has suffered, as has all journalism and civil society, under authoritarian regimes. There are no dedicated science journalism courses in any of the universities in Arab states and, although there have been improvements, much of the science journalism there remains poor. The conference is a chance for Arab science journalists to rub shoulders with colleagues from all over the world and exchange their experiences. The connections made will be invaluable as science becomes more global. Many local and regional organizations are now thinking about projects they can put together to train and support science journalists. This will create a momentum to support the profession long after the conference has come and gone.

Past conferences have catered too much to Western issues, but this year's WCSJ, with a rich programme and speakers from more than 40 countries, promises to begin providing greater balance. Speakers from the Arab World, Africa, Latin America and Asia will give delegates greater insights into the science needs and challenges of the developing world. There is much reconstruction of civil society to do in the fledgling democracies of Tunisia and Egypt, and science journalism can play its own small part in prompting debate on crucial science-based issues in every sector, as well as bringing greater scrutiny to the glaring needs in research and higher education.

This article is reproduced with permission from Nature online 23 March 2011