CSET at Vandy: The Evolution of Science Writing
Why STEM communications has gained significance at Vanderbilt and beyond
Stuti Jain | November 13th, 2023
An Introduction to CSET and Science Writing
CSET, which stands for the Communication of Science and Technology, is the only undergraduate program in science communication in the United States. Effective communication is the biggest obstacle between science and the general public, and this is exactly why this major was created. David Wright, Director of CSET, notes in his welcome that due to this lack of communication, there is a “complete disconnect between the public and the value of science.” The purpose of the CSET major is to help students learn skills that will help them to be better suited to inform the public of developments in science and bridge this gap that we see (3).
One of the most crucial aspects of CSET is being able to define the difference between scientific writing and science writing. Scientific writing is technical writing that is written by a scientist or expert in the field for other technical audiences. An example of this would be a research paper published in a scientific journal. Science writing, which is often referred to as science communications or science journalism, is writing about science for the general public. The audience of such writing is more general and a different level of knowledge has to be assumed, therefore dramatically altering the content and structure of this writing compared to technical writing. This writing is usually done in layman’s terms to make it as simple as possible for the reader to understand. However, science writing is critical because it is a way to keep the public informed about a variety of topics ranging from climate change to the newest advancements in car technology (3).
The landscape of science writing itself has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Before the 1960s, science news was still technical writing that was written for publication in trade or specialized journals. However, the form of science journalism that we are most familiar with emerged shortly after, during the ‘race to the Moon.’ Because of this, by the 1970s, newspapers and TV networks were assigning reporters to focus specifically on science news. Even further, technical science journals themselves started to engage in science writing. For example, Science magazine, one of the foremost scientific journals, hired journalists to write science news for nonscientists. This led to the media slowly advancing to tackle topics such as DNA and pollution. However, this all changed in the 1990s when the Internet gained immense popularity. Science news stopped being consumed from newspapers and TVs as people could just find things on the Internet. This led to the loss of many jobs and the frustration of scientists due to the spread of misinformation. Today, misinformation is the biggest problem that science journalism combats (1)
An Interview with Professor Stephen Ornes
Vanderbilt Professor Stephen Ornes has been teaching at Vanderbilt for over 10 years and teaches the CSET intro class, CSET 2100. However, he has also been a freelance science writer for almost two decades. Professor Ornes first started his career as a math teacher, but went back to graduate school to study science writing about 17 years ago when his friend who worked at a newspaper told him that there was an emergence of science journalists. Professor Ornes had always wanted to have a career in writing and went on to have internships at Discover Magazine and the NPR Science Friday show. In our interview, I spoke with Professor Ornes about the significance of the CSET, why science writing is important to us as students, and its role in misinformation.
What is your favorite part about the CSET major and being a CSET professor?
“I think that science writing plays a critical role in reaching a wider audience and building trust in science, but I think it’s also important to think about evolving ways that we communicate. That feeds directly into what I want the next generation to be able to do. I want them to see the world critically and to be able to recognize what to do and how to work with words, sound or video to tell stories about science. So, as a CSET professor, it is very exciting to me to be a part of setting the groundwork for this.”
How do you define science writing?
“Writing skills sort of have to underlie all these different modes of science communication, so when I say science writing, I still mean writing for audio, or writing for video, or even writing for social media. However, I see the role of science journalists as being distinct from researchers that are very eloquent about amplifying their findings and are really specialists in their field and good at that. It’s our job as science writers to, you know, to reach out and tell the stories of our time and not only to amplify those findings, but also to give perspective and put them in context of the larger picture of science. It is the responsibility of science writers today to be equal parts excited and skeptical. To ask questions about funding and conflicts of interest and the implications and the study design, but also get excited and be hopeful.”
How have you seen science writing change over the course of your career?
“This is a hard question to answer while you’re in the thick of it. But I will say that, on one hand, we have seen the number of newspapers with science sections decline and we’ve seen the number of science specific magazines decline. And that was happening even before I got into the field. In the early 1980s, there were a lot of science magazines and now there aren’t. So that’s one way to look at it. At the same time, we see an explosion in science podcasts and social media channels that tend to have younger hosts, but present good information in an engaging and exciting way. It is exciting to see this explosion of new ways to reach people. So our challenge now is figuring out how to use those in the best way to reach an audience.
You know, even in the course of my career, I would say one thing that has changed is this increase in transparency in science. We’ve seen more stories about errors in science or the story behind retractions. It’s a little bit easier to report on conflict and what goes wrong with science, in an honest way, without seeming like you’re undermining science. And we’ve also seen better, so much better reporting and investigative reporting on the culture of science, shining the light on sexual harassment in laboratories, or the pressures that scientists feel due to finances, or biases in how science is done and whose stories we amplify. It’s so much more transparent, in many ways.”
Why is science writing important and why should students focus on it?
“I think it is valuable in developing a critical perspective on the world we live in. So even if you don’t go into communication, or writing, if you’re a biologist, you have learned to recognize your audience, and how to communicate your findings to that audience. We have many pre med majors who come out of CSET or who come into CSET because they want to lay the groundwork for being able to talk to patients and families. I think it is valuable as a professional skill.”
What is your view on misinformation and how science writing either contributes to it or combats it?
“I think there’s a way of thinking about misinformation as a failure of scientific communication where the information and the context are not being accurately reported or spun. And sometimes that’s intentional and malicious. We’ve seen people weaponize science. And in some ways, I do think that our modes of science communication have left open these gaps and these vulnerabilities and the ability to increase the misinformation crisis. But, it’s not a matter of pointing blame, whether that be the scientists themselves or the journalists. It’s more like figuring out where the cracks in the dam are. By doing this, we can develop new ways of science writing. We can look at what works. If we’re intentional about wanting to bring about change, and stem the flow of misinformation, then I think it’s possible to write our stories and present our stories in a way that both inspires trust and reduces misinformation.”
- Fleischman, John, and Christina Szalinski. “So you want to be a science writer.” Molecular biology of the cell vol. 25,13 (2014): 1938-41. doi:10.1091/mbc.E14-04-0857
- Jain, Stuti. “Professor Ornes Interview .” 16 Oct. 2023.
- “Program in Communication of Science and Technology.” Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt University, as.vanderbilt.edu/communication-science-technology/. Accessed 18 Oct. 2023.