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I’d like to blog about the Drayson / Goldacre debate before the topic gets too cold, but before I do I thought I’d mention Futurity. It’s interesting because it’s supposedly, an attempt to address a decline in science journalism. “In an increasingly complex world, the public needs access to clear, reliable research news. Futurity does the work of gathering that news,” says the about page of the site. That’s fascinating because, if they’re right, I’ve completely misunderstood what science journalism means.

Here’s an example. First up, a press release from the University of Michigan, Researchers find gene that protects high-fat-diet mice from obesity, which starts like this:

U-M researchers have identified a gene that acts as a master switch to control obesity in mice. When the switch is turned off, even high-fat-diet mice remain thin.

Deleting the gene, called IKKE, also appears to protect mice against conditions that, in humans, lead to Type 2 diabetes, which is associated with obesity and is on the rise among Americans, including children and adolescents.

Next there’s the press release on the publicly accessible Eurekalert, U-M researchers find gene that protects high-fat-diet mice from obesity. That reads:

University of Michigan researchers have identified a gene that acts as a master switch to control obesity in mice. When the switch is turned off, even high-fat-diet mice remain thin.

Deleting the gene, called IKKE, also appears to protect mice against conditions that, in humans, lead to Type 2 diabetes, which is associated with obesity and is on the rise among Americans, including children and adolescents.

Finally there’s the public-targetted story: Gene—not diet—makes mice obese?:

Researchers have identified a gene that acts as a master switch to control obesity in mice. When the switch is turned off, even mice on high-fat diets remain thin.

Deleting the gene, called IKKE, also appears to protect mice against conditions that, in humans, lead to Type 2 diabetes, which is associated with obesity and is on the rise among Americans, including children and adolescents.

“Futurity is aimed at general audience rather than reporters” said one of the sites founders in the Columbia Journalism Review. I’ve looked at a few stories and compared them with their Eurekalert counterparts. What Futurity offers is a different headline and an occasionally re-ordered display of information. The link to the National Bureau of Economic Research working paper in the Futurity story above comes further down the page. Is this quality science journalism? I wouldn’t have thought so. I’d have called it a press release. I’m not exactly sure how you measure the quality of science journalism, but I would have thought there would have been more to reporting than parroting the press release. Is this an isolated incident? Does Futurity offer something that a press-release doesn’t. Here’s the top four stories today on Futurity compared with their counterparts on Eurekalert.

Futurity Eurekalert
‘Punk-size’ T. rex found in China
CHICAGO—A 9-foot dinosaur from northeastern China had evolved all the hallmark anatomical features of Tyrannosaurus rex at least 125 million years ago, including a large head compared to its torso, tiny arms, and lanky feet well-suited for running.

University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno and five coauthors describe the newly discovered dinosaur in the Sept. 17 Science Express, advanced online edition of the journal Science.

T. rex body plan debuted in Raptorex, but 100th the size
A 9-foot dinosaur from northeastern China had evolved all the hallmark anatomical features of Tyrannosaurus rex at least 125 million years ago. University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno and five co-authors describe the newly discovered dinosaur in the Sept. 17 Science Express, advanced online edition of the journal Science.

Raptorex shows that tyrannosaur design evolved at “punk size,” said Sereno, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, “basically our bodyweight. And that’s pretty staggering, because there’s no other example that I can think of where an animal has been so finely designed at about 100th the size that it would eventually become.”

Photo reveals Africa’s cryptic cat
YALE—An anthropologist has captured photographic images of a rare, cougar-like cat ranging at night in an endangered Ugandan forest.

The images of the African golden cat (Profelis aurata) were taken by a digital infrared camera trap set last year by the anthropologist who was studying primate behavior in the wild.

No equivalent on Eurekalert, but Yale’s press release reads:
New Haven, Conn. — A Yale anthropologist has captured photographic images of a rare, cougar-like cat ranging at night in an endangered Ugandan forest.

The images of the African golden cat (Profelis aurata) were taken by a digital infrared camera trap set last year by the anthropologist who was studying primate behavior in the wild.

Same name, different lung cancer
Lung cancer in patients who have never smoked is a very different disease than the lung cancer smokers get, and should be treated as such, new research finds.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the genetic, cellular, and molecular nature of lung cancer in many never-smokers is different from that of smoking-related lung cancers, and there is good evidence now that the best treatment and prevention strategies for never-smokers may be different as well,” says Charles Rudin, associate director for clinical research at the Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Guide on lung cancer in ‘never-smokers’: A different disease and different treatments
A committee of scientists led by Johns Hopkins investigators has published a new guide to the biology, diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer in never-smokers, fortifying measures for what physicians have long known is a very different disease than in smokers.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the genetic, cellular, and molecular nature of lung cancer in many never-smokers is different from that of smoking-related lung cancers, and there is good evidence now that the best treatment and prevention strategies for never-smokers may be different as well,” says Charles M. Rudin, M.D., Ph.D., associate director for Clinical Research at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. Lung cancer in never-smokers is the sixth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S.

Nanotubes may yield greener solar cells
CORNELL—Using a carbon nanotube instead of traditional silicon, researchers have created the basic elements of a solar cell that may lead to much more efficient ways of converting light to electricity.

The researchers fabricated, tested, and measured a simple solar cell called a photodiode, formed from an individual carbon nanotube. Reported online Sept. 11 in the journal Science, the researchers describe how their device converts light to electricity in an extremely efficient process that multiplies the amount of electrical current that flows. This process could prove important for next-generation high efficiency solar cells, the researchers say.

Carbon nanotubes could make efficient solar cells

Using a carbon nanotube instead of traditional silicon, Cornell researchers have created the basic elements of a solar cell that hopefully will lead to much more efficient ways of converting light to electricity than now used in calculators and on rooftops.

The researchers fabricated, tested and measured a simple solar cell called a photodiode, formed from an individual carbon nanotube. Reported online Sept. 11 in the journal Science, the researchers — led by Paul McEuen, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics, and Jiwoong Park, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology — describe how their device converts light to electricity in an extremely efficient process that multiplies the amount of electrical current that flows. This process could prove important for next-generation high efficiency solar cells, the researchers say.

To me the stories on Futurity look like re-headlined and slightly tweaked press-releases. The table above is not an entirely fair comparison so if you’re sceptical you can click on the links to see the stories in full. Futurity has a yellow masthead.

One of the points Ben Goldacre made in the Times Higher debate was that not every published study is worth a whole news story. The end result would be the Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project which follows the Daily Mail’s attempt to classify everything in the world as things that cause or cure cancer. In the case above obesity is a complex problem with dietary, hereditary and social factors. There’s no magic bullet to solve the problem. It’s a complex story that needs context to make sense but you’re not going to get that from a press release. What is probably a very good piece of research has been turned into quite a bad story.

It might be more interesting to ask “Why are around 35 top universities releasing warmed-over press releases on a website when the public already have access to Eurekalert?” You could make it sound quite sinister. Are the rich universities attempting to hive off public interest away from Eurekalert so they don’t have to compete with Hicksville State University? Alternatively is it an attempt to distance the universities from some of Eurekalert’s more eccentric contributors?

There’ll be more from me on science communication over the next month as I’ve been thinking about it for a few months now. One idea I’m not keen on is that the problem is the mass media. Clearly they contribute, but Futurity shows that when you bypass science journalists altogether the result looks amazingly similar to the kind of reporting people complain about.

I’ll concede that there could be something really clever about Futurity which couldn’t be done by tweaking Eurekalert. I’m no media expert so it’s entrirely possible that there’s some big problem that Futurity is the perfect shape fix, but if Futurity is the answer, then I don’t understand the question.