The Royal Society’s Science Book Prize - Is science writing the solution?

During a year of chaos, science publishing has been more important than ever – and The Royal Society’s Science Book Prize couldn’t be more timely! Delivered live over YouTube rather than at The Society, it was a fantastic panel of speakers, and an exciting announcement. The panel discussed if science writing is the solution through a time when everyone is looking for answers, and involved geneticist and author Professor Steve Jones, writer and Director of the Science Media Centre Fiona Fox, and Head of Features at New Scientist magazine Rowan Hooper.

It may have been a year of chaos, but it has also been a year of science. At New Scientist, and reflected across STM publishing, there’s naturally been a lot of space given to Covid with it being one of the biggest stories of a science journalist’s life, although this Covid-heavy content has been interspersed with other topical content too – there’s only so much you can take! But it has made more people become acutely aware of the effect of science communication, and how popular science books can prepare us for crises. Already published books and papers can offer immediacy to the audience and, alongside other current media, can have a strong influence in forming a public narrative with it constantly changing and adapting to an ever growing market of not just scientists, but also non-experts who want to learn. It’s not necessarily about preparing us for a situation like a pandemic, but more arming us with the curiosity to know what’s going on. The real value in science writing comes from the ability it gives to readers to scrutinise information they’ve seen from various sources, specialised and general, from different angles.

Now, in a time where the public are seeing scientists as critical to solving our problems it’s more important than ever that the literature is not just seen as being great “science books”, but great books. This is reflected in growing the space given to science publishing in book stores to an ever expanding market. In many ways, science book bridge different forms of writing to make science accessible to those who don’t necessarily hold expertise in a specific area. With more people being interested in science now, science communicators need to find ways to make it exciting and humanise it to change the age-old perceptions of lab-based science and science communications.

One thing the panellists mentioned as being a cause for concern was the reliability of a lot of the scientific information available across media outlets, primarily social media, which are saturated with misinformation and can be detrimental. How can we know if what we’re reading is reliable or not? Luckily, a lot of institutions have been doing great work with trusted media sources which the majority of people do turn to for actual news. It was a collective opinion that we are very lucky here in the UK that we have lots of science and health journalists who have been able to continue to work, where other countries have lost theirs.

The main worry with social media is that it is designed to have a high output of information using algorithms, which is what some people do rely on to get their news globally; more people than ever, for example, are finding information on vaccinations from social media. However, it was found that the majority of people do dismiss this “news” in favour of more reliable sources so it is only a minority who are seen to be influenced negatively. The importance of scientists, science publishers and communicators to challenge this in mainstream media and literature.

Popular science books can change the way the world thinks and their authors play an important part in public culture. The importance of transparency from literature cannot be underestimated as the public might not necessarily be getting it from the government. Science communication offers a direct way to get knowledge from a reliable source. More scientists are speaking out, and speaking simply so everyone can understand it addressing what we don’t know as well as what we do know through research and experiences. With a fantastic shortlist of authors with books spanning a variety of subject areas, the winner had written her thoughts and experiences of navigating life with autism; Dr Camilla Pang wrote Explaining Humans – now the youngest ever winner of the prize, and the first writer of colour – was surprised, saying that “if [she] knew what people liked, there would be no book!” It’s amazing that the voice of diversity can contribute through science literature and has spread enough to be heard. She felt a real sense of community through a time of such disconnect when talking with the other wonderful authors on the shortlist. For her, the whole experience has really highlighted the incredible power science holds through uncertainty.

You can watch the event here to catch up and hear from the other amazing shortlisted authors!