The View from the Rhine, Wolfgang C. Goede

When the German Federal Republic was founded in 1949 it became a democracy, from a formal point of view, but inside it remained very authoritarian and, of course, so did the media. Science journalism were  in the first place not journalists, but scientists who did not make it in science so they got into writing. Their peers remained academics and the public was sort of excluded. In East Germany science and science writing were tightly controlled by the communist parties. Furthermore, natural sciences were considered an outstanding productive power and to top it off the whole communist ideology was embedded in science — so how could a science writer dare to criticize a scientist?


Professional science writing was basically only born in 1980 when the Bosch foundation  launched a ten year programm to sponsor and enhance science writing. Bosch is producing electrical appliances and had a true self-interest in making people more literate on technology. 150 students were trained by sending them for six months into various media — print, radio, television. Not only students of natural sciences but also people like me who specialized in sociology and political science participated of the programm. At the end of the project a department for science communication was established at the University of Berlin, the only one in Germany until today.


These days we experience a boom in science communication in Germany. Although the media is stuck in a severe crisis since the end of new economy and the traumatic events of September 11. Why? Science can provide orientation and is something stable to hold on to. National Geographic has been launched very successfully, right now „Technology Review“ of Massachussetts Inst. of Technology (MIT) has come out in a German version and, of course, there is a typical German creation, PM magazine / Knowledge matters which I work for and which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in October 2003. PM is published abroad under various names like Focus in Italy, Ça m’interesse in France, or Muy Interesante in Spain and Latin America. Altogether it reaches a circulation of over 2 million copies.


Apart from the print media there are almost ten science programms on German television. For 30 years the „broadcast with the mouse“ has been a hit which explains on Sunday mornings the world to children. The credo of the inventor: At the beginning of any research I am dumb. This attitude which I also comply with in my work makes you come up with very basical explanations. Another very successful event has become the children‘s university of Tübingen and major cities in the country. Once a week professors are confronted with an auditorium full of elementary pupils and explain what is life and why there are rich and poor people. Tough job, but excellent training for scientists and science communicators.


Moreover, Germany hosted the first national citizens‘ jury on gene diagnosis and technology. This method of community participation orginates in Scandanavia. Out of 10 000 people 19 women and men are selected who conduct a hearing with experts on technological and scientific subjects and then make recommendations. Another approach to disseminate science: Science centers which are flourishing throughout the country. Very popular has become Bremen‘s Universum Science Center which tries to integrate the visitors, provide fun and adventure, communication and interaction and, above all, tries to address people on the emotional level.


In the year of chemistry there have been exhibitions and events througout the country, among others a ship with a chemistry show traveling on the Rhine which explains very practical things like for example: If you spill red wine fight the spots with white wine rather than salt. Very controversial has been the exhibition „Body World“. A professor for anatomy Gunther von Hagens has specialized in a technique applying plastic with the help of which dead human bodies are transformed into transparent sculptures which show bones, muscles, nerves, blood vessels in a very impressive way. A disgusting show as the church an the medical professions claimed or a new  method to ecucate people about the wonder of their body? I went with my children and they found it highly interesting and educating.


A noncontroversial and very encouraging development: Multiple German science writing groups – about a dozen different groups – move toward consolidation and strenghten their power. For many years, science writers have seen themselves more as members of regional or state organizations than as part of any national group. A new „Federation of Science and Technology Journalists“ may be on the horizon. A recent conference of journalists produced a blueprint for national consolidation and cooperation. According to the press release issued after the meeting: „German science and technology journalists need to build links between the more than ten different organizations which now represent them in an effort to achieve more cooperation along the model of the British and American associations. This is important because the European Commission  more often recognizes  science and technology journalists in neighboring countries simply because they are better organized than their German colleagues. In future, however, a strong German organization could make its voice heard and participate in important matters, such as establishment of a pan-European research news agency.“


Last not least a recent study funded by the Bertelsmann Foundation found that the need for expanded science reporting is on the rise in Germany. Over 60 per cent  of journalists questioned in the study saw a growing public interest in science topics, especially the „life sciences“. Topics such as nutrition, health, medicine, genetics, and bio-technology will become central themes  and play an important role in maintaining readership. Over 70 per cent of media executives thought journalists needed further education in these areas of interest.


In response, the Bertelsmann Foundation, BASF, and the Volkswagen Foundation have begun a  joint 5-year-project to help journalists to brush up on their science skills. In addition, scientists will also be trained in how to deal with the media and to become journalists. A special mentoring programm will offer training to selected scientists and offer a crash course  in writing as well as two work placements in print, radio, online and televison. The mentee becomes part of a tandem in which he is coached by an experienced journalist on the one side and a scientist on the other side who provides access to themes and background information. Thus the gap between science and public shall be bridged.


Above all, German science writers must learn to do their own national research and not just rely on magazines like „Nature“ and „Science“. An investigation of professor Winfried Göpfert, university of Berlin shows, that prestigous daily newspapers like „Frankfurter Allgemeine“ and „Süddeutsche Zeitung“ rely heavily in its science section on foreign journals. Almost a half of the articles deal with medicine and refer to Nature or Science. „Is that serious?“ asks Göpfert.


This article is based on a talk given at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, BA Festival of Science, University of Salford, September 2003.




Wolfgang C. Goede holds a master‘s degree in political and communication science. He engages in civil society projects, community organizing, scientific citizenship and is co-founder of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ)



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