26 Sep 2019

Stan van Pelt used to work as a researcher at the Donders Institute until he decided to change course and become a journalist. He has been an editor at Vox since 1 September. Stan is in charge of the science portfolio. How does he view his old field of work now? This is part 1 of a series of columns about the journalist versus the scientist.

Back when I was a researcher, there was always one question I feared when talking to journalists. They didn’t call me weekly, but now and then it happened – for instance, after I had just published a scientific article.

‘What is the relevance of this discovery?’

Sigh. Relevance. I never considered that important in my research. What I wanted most was to understand how our brain works. I wanted to acquire new knowledge and to get a better understanding of ourselves and the world. The question of how it can help us in the real world at this particular time always seemed a bit of a hopeless question. As if every research needs to be useful. I was averse to that kind of neoliberal thinking.

Sure, there was a link between the brain waves I was measuring and certain brain disorders. I always had a standard reply ready. For instance, I would tell journalists how the brain waves of people with schizophrenia look different from those of healthy people. And if you better understand how these brain waves occur, you are able to focus on treatment. Maybe. Someday. Sometime in the future.

And of course, that answer was exactly the answer that was focused on in those articles. Not on that great theory about what happens on a molecular level. ‘It wouldn’t be interesting for the readers otherwise.’ Annoying journalists. They don’t understand what is truly important.

And now I am one of those annoying journalists myself. My list of questions when I call a scientist always has the word RELEVANCE in capital letters written on it. Creating blood vessels in the lab? Very impressive, but who wants that? A new theory that states that the brain is a ‘predictive machine’? Interesting, but mostly if you can link this to reading minds and brain disorders.

I sometimes hear a familiar sigh on the other end of the line, when I start talking about practical applications. They will try to tell me that ‘Fundamental scientific research is also very valuable’. And ‘As humans, we just want to understand how the world works.’

The journalist in me thinks ‘Maybe so, but that isn’t what the readers want to read’. Annoying scientists. They don’t understand what is truly important.

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