Why isn’t William C Campbell more famous in Ireland?

There have been only two Irish winners of Nobel Prizes other than Literature and Peace – Dungarvan-born Ernest Walton for physics in 1951 and Ramelton-born William C Campbell for Physiology or Medicine in 2015.

My memory of being in school in the 1990s was that Ernest Walton loomed fairly large in science popularisation at the time. I recall quite vividly coverage of his death in 1995, but also recall his being quoted and profiled fairly extensively. Of course, I could be a victim of a recall bias – I probably am. Yet it does seem that William C Campbell has not had nearly as much coverage, especially when you consider how media-saturated we are now.

Or perhaps that is the whole point. It feels like a silly comparison, but is may be like the Eurovision; once we cared deeply about winning this competition and getting recognition, now there is a flurry of excitement if we get to the final. Having said that, it isn’t like we have had any other science Nobels to get excited about since 1995.

Of course there is a reasonable amount of coverage of Campbell, in the Irish Times in particular some of it quite recent. A fair percentage of online coverage seems to be from the Donegal papers of the hail-the-local-hero variety, which is fair enough.

A search for ‘William Campbell “Irish Independent”‘ starts with two articles from the Independent on Campbell, then has this , then a range of articles about unrelated topics.

I came across this excellent piece on “the fragile culture of Irish journalism” by Declan Fahy – the fragility exemplified by the coverage of Campbell’s prize:

The reporting of Campbell’s Nobel win illuminated several more general features of Irish media coverage of science. The story originated outside Ireland, yet its local dimension was stressed. Its tone was celebratory. It was not covered by specialist science journalists. Only The Irish Times probed deeper into the background of the scientist and his work.

The story was interesting also because of the aspects of Campbell’s story that were not developed. Reporters did not use the announcement as a jumping-off point to explore some of the novel dimensions of Campbell’s story, such as the rights and wrongs of pharmaceutical companies’ ownership of drugs that could help millions of the world’s poorest people, the unseen research work of an industry-based scientist, and the complex case of a scientist of faith with an admitted “complicated sense of religion”.

The superficial reporting of the Campbell story is not an isolated case. It reflects more generally the state of Irish science journalism, where there are few dedicated science journalists, a shortfall of science coverage compared to other countries, a neglect of science policy coverage, a reliance on one outlet for sustained coverage, a dependence on subsidies for the production of some forms of journalistic content, and a dominant style of reporting that lacks a critical edge.

(in passing, Walton was also a scientist of faith, although perhaps with less “complicated sense of religion” than Campbell)

Fahy goes on, in what is a an extract from a book co-edited by Fahy, “Little Country, Big Talk” to enumerate some fo the issues both within the structure of media institutions and within Irish society and culture overall which contribute to this relative neglect. While there is an Irish Science and Technology Journalists Association, there is not a critical mass of science journalists. Writing in 2017, Fahy observes:

Compared to the US and UK, Ireland has a far less developed culture of science journalism. There are currently no full-time science journalists in mainstream Irish newspapers and broadcasters. The Irish Times had a dedicated science editor in Dick Ahlstrom, who has now retired (and, during his tenure, he had other significant editorial duties at the news organisation).

The Irish Times also had a longtime environmental correspondent, Frank McDonald, who retired in recent years. Earlier this year, former editor Kevin O’Sullivan combined these two roles, becoming environment and science editor. The paper also has a health correspondent and a specialist medical writer. The Irish Independent has an environment editor, Paul Melia.

The public service broadcaster, RTÉ, has had specialists in science or technology, but its correspondents have usually had dual briefs, reporting on education or health as well as science, and tending to cover education or health more so than science. That tendency, identified by Brian Trench in 2007’s Mapping Irish Media, has continued. In 2016, the incumbent in the role is responsible for science and technology, and tends to cover technology more than science.

Fahy also discusses the wider place of science in Irish culture and society. There are many many fascinating stories to tell about science in Ireland, such as Erwin Schrodinger’s time here (perhaps illustrative of Fahy’s point is that the very first Google result for “Schrodinger in Ireland” is this) and the many many stories collected by Mary Mulvihill in Ingenious Ireland. As I have just posted on Seamus Sweeney, I only learnt while researching this post that Mary Mulvihill died in 2015.

Of course, some of these stories can be told with a celebratory, or I-can’t-believe-this-happened-in-little-auld-Ireland focus, which again illustrates Fahy’s point. My own perception is that in 1995 the situation was actually a little better than it is now – that Irish science journalism is not in stasis but actually in reverse .

One striking point made by Fahy is that the science beat is often combined with health or technology- and these tend to win out in terms of focus. And the hard , critical questions don’t tend to get asked – often there is a strong bang of barely rewritten press release about articles on science topics.

Another thought – the retirement of Dick Ahlstrom and death of Mary Mulvihill alone robbed the already small pool of Irish science writers of some of the finest practitioners. Irish journalism – like Irish anything- is pretty much a small world and a couple of such losses can have a huge impact.

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