Technology & Science

Scientists take a page from online journalists

And now another word on science journalism and its place in a media world where no one is quite sure whether this kind of content is evolving or devolving.

And now another word on science journalism and its place in a media world where no one is quite sure whether this kind of content is evolving or devolving.

Nature Magazine recently wondered in both an article and an editorial whether the science blog was in the process of becoming the usual method by which scientific research will soon be conveyed to Joe and Jane public. A survey it did of nearly 500 science journalists around the world showed that:

  • Five years ago, 18 per cent of science journalists found stories by perusing scientists' blogs; the number today is 63 per cent. 
  • Five years ago, four per cent reported that they found stories regularly on blogs; today the number is 33 per cent.
  • Five years ago, four per cent of the science writers reported they wrote blogs; today it is 33 per cent.

And it's not just journalists who are paying more attention to what the scientific community is saying online. Some of the science blogs written by scientists are becoming quite popular; one called Pipeline about drug discovery and written by Derek Lowe in Cambridge, Mass., has 200,000 page views a week.

Reshaping science

When combined with the nearly precipitous decrease in specialized science reporting in traditional media, the Nature editorial argued that scientists have to pay increasing attention to science blogs both as places to get news about their science out and as an activity to support either by blogging or encouraging blogging themselves.

I see something else potentially happening.

As the distance between a science journalist acting as a kind of translator to the general public of science and scientists doing that translation narrows, maybe science itself will be reshaped by a feeling of urgency to communicate findings to the public. Maybe science itself will become more journalized.

I raise this issue in light of an informative exchange I had with Charles Deber and Arianna Rath — a post-doctoral fellow in his laboratory — of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children.

The two of them and their colleagues had recently published an interesting, but highly technical, paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We found a solution to a problem nobody really knew existed," was one way that Deber described the paper's meaning to me as the three of us sat in his office.

The problem was the speed at which non-water-soluble proteins found in the genome worked their way through what is perhaps the most pervasive laboratory technology in biochemistry. What the procedure known as SDS-PAGE does is use an electric current to draw the proteins through a soapy solution — the same material used in shampoos — and in so doing isolates them for later experimentation. You have to use soap because the proteins won't dissolve in water.

The problem was that over the past 30-plus years scientists had noted that proteins of roughly the same size seemed to move at very different speeds through the soap — often 50 per cent slower or faster than simple physics suggested they should travel.

What the Toronto group discovered is that the speed changes occur because detergent used in the experiment sticks to the proteins' surfaces in unequal amounts.  A further analysis suggested that the proteins sieving the quickest through the soapy gel had one of two characteristics: Either they were the most hardy variants of the proteins — the least likely to be ripped apart by the detergent — or they had a mutation causing them to completely unravel.

A second test allowed the Toronto group to differentiate the unwound mutants from their hardy cousins. 

I can almost hear you readers yawn here. You don't ever use the SDS-PAGE test in your lives. So what difference does this answer to a previously unknown problem make to you?

Well, these proteins are embedded in cell surfaces and allow movement in and out of the cell for various substances, including human-designed drugs. As a consequence, the targets of 69 per cent of the drugs approved by the FDA between 1996 and 2006 were membrane-soluble proteins.

But what is much, much more significant is that an early analysis of a few protein samples by the Toronto group suggests that the most tightly wound protein variants — think the most hardy of proteins — are the ones which have been most successful in making it through clinical trials. This would have major implications, because drug discovery has gone into the doldrums. A U.S. study a few years ago indicated a new drug entering early stage clinical trials had only an eight per cent chance of reaching market. This was down from 14 per cent about 15 years before.

So if there is a causal link between the speed at which a protein made it through the gel and the best candidates for drug discovery research, then maybe the Toronto group had figured out a way to take one big roadblock out of the drug discovery process.

The problem was that to really determine this you needed to have lots of lab results as to how fast some variants had moved throught the soapy solution in relationship to other variants. This would allow you to correlate speed with successful drug trials. Only that data isn't available, because scientists didn't think speed differences told them anything and they didn't report them in their published papers. The proteins that didn't interact with the drugs — and vice versa — were in essence just failures.

Finding 'the hook'

Then: Bingo. A light went on in my head because during the interview I was searching for what is known in the journalism business as a "news hook" to pitch the story. That is: a reason for more than a select few — the select few who had probably seen the piece in PNAS — to pay attention and read about the study.

What appeared to me was a headline: "Toronto researchers ask fellow scientists to send them their 'failures' to speed up drug discovery."

My journalistic instincts started to tingle. I could sell that reconfiguration of the research findings to non-scientific readers, I thought. Even more importantly (to me as a writer), I could sell it to editors at probably a number of publications because the idea of scientists looking for other scientists' failures was, well, cute.

Initially Deber and Rath were taken with the proposal, because they too appreciated its appeal. But I told them to think about it because I realized, and indeed said at the time, that I was pushing the bounds of science journalism. I was telling scientists what their next research direction should be.

Accordingly, a little while later I wrote up the pitch to be sent to a British science magazine and sent it back to Deber and Rath to consider. It came back with a few corrections and the "send us your failures" side removed.

I sighed. Without the hook it was going to be hard to sell the story to a general audience, and I wrote that in an email to Deber.

Demands, rhythm and funding formulas

His emailed reply said: "We totally understand 'the hook,' but the reality is that our research reached a certain logical point: Now we know why membrane proteins move funny on SDS-PAGE gels, so if you are in the membrane protein business, better check your proteins and see how you should best interpret the biology of your particular system. And our results indeed offer the possibility — the generality of which is as yet unproven by us — that proteins that resist the SDS detergent therefore fold the most tightly and might be the best candidates for further structural studies. Beyond that, we can't say much more and it would not be my wish to invite people to send us any samples. We're in no position to handle that."

In other words, the demands and rhythm — not to mention funding formulas — of our science take preference over the demands and rhythms of journalism and its efforts to make information appealing to a wide audience.

I perfectly understand and appreciate their view: traditionally science and journalism really are two different worlds and two different instincts.

But in a universe where scientists and non-scientists increasingly blog about science my suggestion could well have a currency it never had before.

Blogging scientists probably already have discovered the vanity that feeds journalists' egos. You want people — lots of people — to read and comment on your blog entries. The bigger the splash, the bigger and more important it makes what you wrote feel. And if that is the case, you can't just report things directly; you have to think about news hooks.

Ergo, when faced with the same issue with which Deber and Rath were confronted, I can see blogging scientists trying to figure out a way of mentioning it that will appeal to a large audience. I can see journalists such as myself figuring out a way of mentioning the idea in their blogs. I can see journalism pushing science to become more journalistic.

And I can see it happening not some time in the future, but now.

As indeed, in a certain way, has just happened in this column.