Q & A with Science News Editor Colin Norman
[Colin Norman has been on the staff of Science as a reporter and editor for nearly 25 yearsthe past 10 as the journal's news editor. In that role, he has been instrumental in planning the 125th Anniversary special edition that will consider 25 Big Questions that science has yet to answer. With that issue due for publication on 1 July 2005, AAAS senior writer Edward W. Lempinen interviewed Norman by telephone on 20 June 2005. They spoke about a range of issuesfrom the mystery of dark energy and the attraction of neuroscience to the evolution of Science and how the 25 Big Questions were chosen.]
I want to start with a couple of questions that will give readers context about you, and your background as the news editor of Science. And so perhaps you could tell me: What drew you to science journalism?
I graduated in the 1960s, and having spent a whole year working in an industrial chemistry lab, I realized that was not something I wanted to do at the time. I'd always liked to write about scienceI'd written about science a little bit when I was an undergrad, and was fortunate enough when I left college [the University of Manchester in the U.K.] to get a job working for Nature.
Why didn't you want to work in industry?
I found it enjoyable enough, but I was working in a fertilizer research lab and spent a whole year between high school and college with a group that was trying to make a kind of phosphate more soluble. And I thoughtis this really the kind of narrow-based question I want to pursue? I went on to college, in the U.K., to read chemistry, but I began to question whether I really wanted to confine myself to one area of science.
So I ended up doing a very broad liberal studies course, particularly physics with politics and economics, and that allowed me to range very broadly within the sciences and outside the sciences as well. That gave me a good view of science and politics and the issues that arise there. And I realized that that was the direction I really wanted to take. Reporting on science from the inside and the outside seemed to me to be a very interesting thing to do.
Are there any journalists who were a significant influence on you as you came up in the field?
My predecessor both at Nature and here at Science, Nicholas Wade, now at The New York Times, has been a big influence on me. He was my first editor at Nature. I happened to follow him to the United States, and later to Science. I've always liked his workhe's got a great writing style and always gets right to the heart of things, even very controversial issues of science. When reporting about science wasn't always very critical, he was one of those who would really hold things up to the light.
And Dan Greenberg, one of the first people who wrote extensively about science and science policyhe put the News section here at Science on the map in the 1960s. He's someone whose reporting I've always admired.
This year marks your 10th as news editor as Science, and next year would mark your 25th overall at Science. When you look back over your career, are there moments that resonate in your memory? Are there stories that resonate above and beyond the others?
Before I came to Science, the big story that probably shaped my reporting as much as anything, and was just an amazing experience, was the Asilomar Conference in the 1970sthe big conference in which biologists who had called a moratorium on recombinant DNA, splicing genes from one organism to another, met to try to decide how to proceed with this enormously exciting new area of research. There were forces on both sidesthose that wanted to carry on very quickly, and those who wanted to proceed very carefully. The meeting took place over three or four days in Asilomar, on Monterey Bay in California, with all of these people together and just a handful of reporters, and it was really fascinating to watch the dynamics play out. In the end, there was general agreement that the work should proceed using organisms that had been modified so they would be unlikely to survive outside the lab. That idea saved the conference from falling apart. Reporting from that meeting was a great experiencethat's certainly one of the highlights.
And how about since you've come to Sciencewhat have been the high points? You've certainly seen a lot of change since you came on board in 1981.
In the past 15 to 20 years, we've gone from being a news operation based almost entirely in Washington, D.C., that was almost entirely staff-written, to one in which we now have reporters or bureaus around the worldfour in North America, three in Europe, one in Asia, and fairly regular correspondents in many other places. And we've gone from a section that was separated fairly rigidly into reporting on policy and reporting on science to a section that combines the two.
We've made, I think, great strides in putting more process into the science writing, not just about the discoveries but how they came aboutthe competition in science, the aspirations for what science can deliver, profiles of scientists, which is something we never used to do, looking at the personalities and what really drives the science rather than just the results. And, on the other hand, rather than cover policy for policy's sake, we try to relate it to people on the bench. Our reporters generally cover both science and policy. That's really enhanced their insights about what's happening in science and broadened the perspective about the context in which science takes place.
But, aside from the evolution of the section, are there stories that you look back on and think: "That was one of the stories of our era!" Or: "That's one I still think about after all these years!"
I think our coverage over the years of the whole HIV/AIDS epidemic has really broken a lot of new ground and it's some of the reporting and editing work that I've been most proud of. We had a really in-depth report on HIV/AIDS research in Africa, a 23-page section, six years ago, before the AIDS meeting in Capetown. And we followed that up last year with an extended report on AIDS in Asia. It broke a lot of new ground. Our reporter, Jon Cohen, who has done virtually all of our AIDS coverage, traveled extensively around Asia. He went to Burma-Myanmarand did the first in-depth reporting on AIDS in that country. He reported from China, and found a real change in their attitude toward HIV/AIDS, especially at the way drug-treatment is evolving in China in ways that are quite surprising for that country.
In the past two or three years, we have won awards for our reporting on the SARS outbreak, the campaign to eradicate polio, mental health research, neutron stars. So those are the sorts of stories that I'm proud of.
Let's talk about the 1 July issueyou lay out 125 questions that define what we don't know, and 25 in particular that we might call the Big Questions. Was it difficult to settle on these questions? Are there any that aren't in the list, but that perhaps could have been or ought to have been?
Let me tell you about the process we went through to settle on these questions. We asked our Senior Editorial Board and our Board of Reviewing Editorsover 100 scientiststo come up with three questions eachtwo in their own field and one outside their fieldwhich they felt were really quite critical gaps in the scientific knowledge. We asked our own editors and writers here to do the same thing. Frankly what we expected to do was to take the 25 questions on which there was some convergence, which we felt really pointed to the big gaps in knowledge and then explore each of those 25. But when all of these questions came in, we realized that selecting just 25 wouldn't do justice to the grand sweep of science behind all of these suggestions.
So we decided to look at 125 questions, and picked 25 of them to explore in a little greater depth, and listed the other 100 with some description of why they were important. We went through many meetings with a small group of us hereDon Kennedy [editor-in-chief of Science], plus a group of editors and writersto whittle all the suggestions that came in. We got to 25 using basically three or four criteriahow fundamental the questions are, whether answering them is like to have a broad impact across several areas of science, and to some extent whether or not they have critical societal implications. Obviously that wasn't an absolute factor, but one thing to remember about this is that we weren't looking at the big challenges in which science can play a role. We were doing a survey of our ignorance, looking at the gaps in basic scientific knowledge.
In any case, at least a couple of the Big Questions have immediate societal implicationsone is whether or not an effective vaccine for HIV is even feasible, and a second is the extent to which the planet is likely to warm, given the doubling of CO2, or probably more, in the coming century. Others, like what is the universe made of, what is the nature of dark matter and dark energy, they have very little societal implication but they are big and very fundamental questions.
And though we selected 125, I'm sure there are plenty of very important questions that are not on the list. So we're actually asking our readers, in the introduction to the special issue, to tell us the ones that we missed, and I expect we'll come back to them later on.
For you personally, are there one or two questions, three questions, that you would most like to know the answers to?
The first one we list: What is the universe made of? If we could get an answer to dark matter, which I think we will get in the next 25 years, I think that would be an immense intellectual advance. More difficult is the other, major unknown in the universe, which is dark energy, the odd force that appears to be pushing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate. I'd love to know the answer to that onethat's a much more difficult nut to crack. And who knows? It could be that although all the signs now point to their being this strange, puzzling force out theredark energyat some point there could be an explanation that does away with it.
From a societal point of view, our last question among the 25: Can we live sustainably on the planet, given the expected near-doubling of the population and the great increases in consumption we're seeing in the industrial world, can we sustain that? Will we drive the world's ecosystems to a point of no return? Those are immensely important questions, and I hope they're answered before it's too late.
On the biomedical end, the question that has to do with stem cells, the question of how you take an adult cell and transform it into a different type of cell. It's a two-step process, making it into something like a stem cell and then directing the path of that stem cell into a very particular kind of cell that will be required for regenerative medicine. There are dozens of questions involving both of those processes. If we could manage that process itself, there are huge societal implications, but also tremendous potential benefits.
You've brought the discussion to a crucial pointthe tension or conflict between science and some parts of society on issues like embryonic stem cell research. In at least a few of the Big Questions, there are existing or potential social conflicts. And the teaching of evolution in public schoolsthat's another. Why do you think this tension has reached such a pitch? In the time that you've been a science journalist, have you ever seen that tension as acute as it is now?
As I mentioned before, we went through that period in the 1970s of immense debate over the ethics and safety of gene-splicing and recombinant DNAso it's not new. The argument about evolution is certainly not new. What's different about the current atmosphere, at least in the United Statesand I suspect it's different in Western Europe and in Japanthe influence of religious views on political discourse. It's most obvious in the pressures to include creationism in science teaching.
When I travel back in Europe, people there find it really quite extraordinary the degree to which political debates and election politics here revolve around religious issues. That's something that is not new but is certainly much more pronounced than it has been in my 25 years or so at this magazine.
Do you have any sense of why it's happening now?
Just the usual ones that are included in most political evaluationsthe whole movement toward moral values. Why it's happening, as a societal phenomenon just now, is hard for me to explain. That could have been one of our big questions in the social sciences. I think the rise in creationism in its various forms, including Intelligent Design, and the fact that more than half the population apparently doesn't believe in evolution, says a lot about the state of education in this country.
Sometimes, as I watch this tension between science and society, it seems to me there are different interpretations of what constitutes a slippery slopeor how steep the slope is. Looking at the stem cell debate, for example, there is sensitivity on the point that, if you begin creating life for utilitarian purposes, that could, in the long run, take us to places that we don't want to go. Critics on the left complain about genetically modified foods and say we shouldn't be interfering with nature. How do you answer such concerns? Or how should science answer such concerns?
Certainly I can understand the argument about a slippery slope. But a great majority in this country, if you believe the opinion polls, believes that therapeutic cloning, as it's known, is acceptable. And I think you would have almost no argument that cloning for reproductive purposes is unjustified, morally and at the moment scientifically. The risks are very, very high and that the risks are such that you wouldn't want to go there. My own personal belief is that provided there are strong safeguards in place and public vigilance, as a society we can guard against moving down the slippery slope.
But, you know, I find it hard to answer your question about how should science answer such concerns. I've spent my career as a journalist rather than an advocate on one side of these kinds of issues. We cover these issues in the news section of Science and try to look at the facts. We try to look at the debates that are going on, we try to analyze the developments, and we try to present a relatively balanced view of what's happening and the arguments on both sides. But I don't think it's our place to take a standnot on the news side.
Let's go back to the 125 questions that are the focus of the special edition of Science that will come out on July 1st. One of the questions concerns the search for life beyond Earthand that question, clearly, is one that has long fascinated humans, not just in science but in popular culture. Suppose that we are able to confirm some primitive form of life existed in the past on Marsbeyond the scientific ramifications, what social or cultural impact might we see from that?
If we found life or the remnants of life on Marswe're unlikely to find it nowI think that would change our conception about life on Earth being unique. I think it would certainly encourage us to look carefully at other places within the solar system where forms of life might be possible.
But I think an even bigger change in our perception of ourselves would be if we found some signals from intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. That was the essence of that Big Questionare we alone in the universe? It really speaks to the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere. Obviously, it's very hard to prove that it doesn't exist. New technology and techniques for searching for signals are improving dramatically, so at least we'll narrow the oddsif we see no signals in the next 25 years, that will at least somewhat narrow the odds.
But a positive signal would be pretty exciting and that would fundamentally change our conception of ourselves as being unique.
We've made such extraordinary progress in the past 500 years, the past 100 years, it leads me to wonder: Will we ever come to the point when the secrets of the physical world are fundamentally solved?
I think we're a long, long way from that. One of the interesting things about doing this whole exercise has been to look at how the questions have changed. Several of the Big Questionsthe 25 that we focused onwould not have been in the realm of the Big Questions, say, 25 years ago.
Dark energy, for exampleit was only in the late 1990s that astronomers realized from studies of supernovas that the expansion of the universe was actually accelerating as some people had proposed a long time ago. Now two or three different lines of evidence point in the same directionthat the expansion really is taking place. So had we been going through this exercise for our centenary, rather than the 125th anniversary, that's a question that probably wouldn't have made it onto the list.
The whole question about how the fate of stem cells is determined, what is the range of signals that shape an embryonic stem cell into a particular type of nerve cell, for examplewhat steers the process called differentiation? It's always been a big question, but it's become much, much more relevant and urgent now that we can culture stem cells.
As we push back the frontiers and look more and more at the way molecules and proteins interact, we have generated a wealth of data that raises many new questions as to how all of this comes together. One of our questionshow do you see the big picture in a mass of molecular data?that's become probably one of the most fundamental questions in biology over the past decade or 20 years. How do you put all this molecular stuff together and get an understanding of how complex systems actually work out of it? That goes to the merging of computer science with biology and engineering principles.
So as we find new pieces of information, new questions just keep on arising. Many times over the past century people have wondered, including scientists, whether we're finally just connecting the dots. But new, fundamental questions keep on coming. A few on the list have been around more than a century. And it's likely to continue to be that way for some time, I think.
What do you think the top future challenges will be for the journalif not in the next 125 years, then in the next decade, the next quarter-century?
In the 25 years that I've been here, the journal has gone through enormous changes in how it's produced. At the time I started, we usually wrote our stories on typewriters, and sent them to the typesetters, who keyed them in, at that point, to hot-metal type. We'd get back galleys and make as few changes as possible on the galleys because it was very expensive to make them. We would then paste them up, physically, on a layout board, and then go through many more labor-intensive processes. Now we get copy from all over the world and it's virtually never printed out until it gets into the journal. So we've gone through fundamental technological changes.
Now we're going through another whole set of changes that will transform and is transforming how information is deliveredthrough the Worldwide Web. You can read the journal online on the Web as soon as it is published, from anywhere in the world, we're doing daily news on the Web, and eventually more and more, of our primary publication of research results, will be on the Web. More of our readers will be reading us not on paper, but rather electronically.
So that's transforming the nature of how science information is conveyed, and I think you're going to see an acceleration of that. One consequence is that scientists are coming into the journal Web site, and the Web sites of other journals, searching for papers and results within their specific disciplines. This can have a narrowing effect. As a result, there's a growing need to do what Science has been doing for a long timesynthesize the information that's out there, on the Web, in other journals and Science itself, provide an overview and put it in context. I think that the news, analysis, reviews, perspectives, letters, those parts of the journal can only grow in importance.
Let's end this with a question that's more whimsical: If you were going to take a leave-of-absence from your job for one year of science-related research, what would the research be?
I'd have to think about that one a bit. One of the great joys of this job is you get a tremendous vantage point across all areas of research. As I said in response to your first question, when you asked me how I got into science journalism, I really didn't want to confine myself to one area of science. I find it difficult to get away from the very broad perspective. [Pause] I think the area I would really like to learn more about is neuroscience, some aspect of neuroscience. Neuroscience has made enormous strides, but it's still just scratching the surface about how the mind works. Not just the brainwe're moving into the decade of the mind, and how it all comes together. Some aspect of neurosciencememory formation, cognitive neuroscienceI think that's got to be one of the most exciting areas to work in over the next 25 years.
Edward W. Lempinen
30 June 2005