By Eric Freedman
Many scientists look at the “big picture” – curing cancer, reversing climate change, saving the rainforest, engineering pothole-proof roadways, developing new alternative energy sources – but sometimes small results are more fascinating and intriguing because they pique our interest as human beings.
Most such aha-moment or quirky-sounding studies don’t appear in the marquis prestige journals that mainstream journalists follow –Nature say, or Science, PNSA or the Journal of the American Medical Association – but in niche journals read by virtually no one outside the discipline or specialty. That means general audiences – often the taxpayers who directly and indirectly fund much scientific research – never hear the results.
It’s the enterprising journalist who finds such findings and shares them with his or her audience.
Are they earthshaking discoveries that will change the course of medicine or meteorology or ornithology or nuclear physics? Not at all. However, such discoveries may provoke a few comments at the dinner table and remind the public that science isn’t an alien force unconnected with stuff that is, well, just plain interesting.
Here are a few examples:
A study from Brazil in Tropical Conservation Science used fake snakes to show that drivers intentionally run over snakes – possibly threatening the survival of some species. Another in the Journal of Medical Microbiology linked leprosy in medieval England to eating squirrel meat and using squirrel fur. Still another in Tropical Ecology found that sacred groves in India play a crucial role as refuges for endangered endemic plants, while the groves themselves are threatened by deforestation and urbanization.
These otherwise-overlooked studies also offer insights to the general public on creative ways that scientists collect data. For instance, Canadian researchers used epoxy to attach transmitters to the shells of endangered Blanding’s turtles for radio-tracking in a study of how an aggressive invasive weed is threatening the turtles’ wetlands habitat. That paper appeared in the Journal of Wetlands Management. Eco-groups in England and Wales collected and froze more than 650 Eurasian otter carcasses – about 90 percent of them road-killed – for a UK team investigating the iconic mammals for a study in Parasitology. And Turkish scientists explored cemeteries to see how graveyards can serve as arks protecting rare and endangered orchids for a study in the journal Welldenowia.
As the director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism who writes for scholarly and general audiences, I look through lots of new articles every week or so through the online Web of Science database. A principal reason for these searches is to find studies that our environmental journalism students can turn into news stories for Great Lakes Echo, the center’s regional environmental online news service.
For example, our students reported on a study in Environmental Science and Technology showing how ballast water entering the Great Lakes may contain viruses dangerous to wildlife and people. Another, in Landscape and Urban Planning, explained how the invasive emerald ash borer may increase crime in pest-infested urban neighborhoods, possibly because living trees and vegetation create more foot traffic in a community and deter criminals.
Virtually all of these studies fly under the radar of professional journalists. Thus their readers, viewers and listeners miss such talk-around-the-dinner.
Eric Freedman is the director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism