'Wondrous' function of science journalists

They help explain the significance of discoveries and the 'eureka' moments

As part of my job, I sit on a panel that interviews students seeking internships at this newspaper.

Most are about to enter university and want a scholarship to study locally or overseas. Scholarships from Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) come with a bond, so applicants also expect to start their careers as full-time journalists.

As one might expect, many applicants want to study subjects like mass communications, economics or sociology, so this one girl who walked in the door a few weeks ago made me sit up.

For starters, Clara was stick-thin but had represented her college in touch rugby. She was also an out-and-out science student, having participated in school science competitions, and was keen to study chemistry or natural science at a British university.

And when I asked her why she was applying for an SPH scholarship, her reply was simple: "I want to be a science journalist."

How very rare, I thought. I've been in journalism long enough to know that very few would-be graduates in the so-called "hard sciences" ever contemplate a career in journalism, being fairly confident that they have neither the skills nor the inclination.

Conversely, we know only too well that career journalists end up in this profession precisely because they were awful at maths and science in school, and many struggle with both through their adult lives.

I thought of Clara last week when I was at an Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) lunch. The agency's chairman, Mr Lim Chuan Poh, was talking about some of the scientific breakthroughs that have the potential to radically change the world in the near future.

Like the fact that we can now make animal meat in a lab.

Scientists have found a way to culture muscle cells into slabs of "in vitro" meat, Mr Lim explained. In 2013, they even served a lab-made hamburger patty to diners, who affirmed that it tasted acceptably like the real thing. And in less than two years, the price of producing that patty has plunged from US$325,000 to just US$12 (from S$433,200 to S$16).

I was frankly blown away, and suddenly suspicious of the slices of beef cheek on my plate.

I felt the need to immediately repeat this fact to everyone I knew, given the immense implications for everything from food security to the environment and organised religion.

But before I could recover, Mr Lim was already talking about epigenetics, which is redefining the nature-versus-nurture debate.

Scientists have long known that certain diseases or behaviours are the result of our genetic coding, he said. But evidence has emerged that external factors such as stress or pollutants can imprint themselves on a person's DNA and cause his genes to behave differently.

These epigenetic modifications can even be passed on to the next generation, effectively becoming "genetic"!

As I sat through lunch, utterly fascinated by the potential applications of neural prosthetics, and how water can be made to bounce like a ball off the surface of molecularly altered glass, I wondered why there are not more science journalists around.

Not just to help ordinary people like me make sense of our fast- changing world but to also signpost the implications these scientific discoveries will have on the way we organise our societies and make our regulations and laws.

Many of the most important philosophical theories throughout history were formulated in response to major scientific discoveries about the human body and the mind, as well as the nature of physical matter, time and space.

Today, lawmakers all over the world are still grappling with the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by the Cartesian divide between mind and body, such as cloning and artificial intelligence, or the legal authority to act on behalf of brain-dead patients.

This is, of course, over and above all the practical questions posed by scientific innovation. How do governments deal with people who live progressively longer, or may wake decades from now from their cryogenically frozen state?

How will weather-resistant crops or lab-grown food affect world trade? What is the effect of nano-technology on the way we consume products or wage war?

As the science behind our world grows ever more complex, it is not just the demand for science journalists that is growing. The demands on science journalists are especially heavy.

Science stories have an air of truth around them but are often hard to follow. Press statements are often full of jargon and data that may well have been manipulated, so readers rely more than usual on a journalist's expert powers of investigation, interpretation and storytelling.

And given science's potentially wide-ranging implications on moral and legal codes, neutrality and independence of thought become even more important hallmarks of good science journalism.

Because science can be hard to understand, editors are either not interested or prefer to put their resources into covering other news beats.

This newspaper still has pages devoted to science, but like many others around the world, wonders if it can continue to find the people who will fill them with the wondrous stories and ideas that inspired me so much throughout that A*Star lunch.

So this call goes out to the many current and would-be scientists out there in Singapore. Consider a different way of practising your craft.

And maybe one day, the Claras of this world won't be such a rare phenomenon any more.

ignatius@sph.com.sg