How do we make things better?

Over at the Other 95% Kevin Z picks up where I left off on high school science education, publishing science books, and the barriers that he and I both face in our quest to become science writers (among other things). Most interesting, though, is his response to a somewhat off-the-cuff remark I made about making cheaper (if not free) science books available to the public. As someone who is working on a book and would like to write plenty more, there has to be a way for science writers to make a living. (If I could I would drop whatever else I was doing at the moment and focus on writing, but such a move would be so risky that it is not a reasonable option.) Given the way the publishing business works and the need for writers to keep the lights on, how can we bring down the high prices of science books while still producing high-quality material? Kevin has a few ideas;

Is it possible for foundations, non-profits, government agencies and the like to fork over grant money for book proposals? Agencies can put out calls for proposals to write about aspects of their funded research (or have open calls). Additionally, inclined investigators can include funds in research grants for outreach via books. This can be done by the investigator or to fund a science writer interested in their research, or perhaps to support a graduate student in science journalism/english under the auspices of a co-advisor in that department. In particular, there are many benefits to the last approach. A graduate student in journalism or english could be co-advised by an advisors in science and journalism/english. A year of support from the scientist’s grant to carry out all literature research, interviews and gathering of materials necessary to write a book about an area of mutual interest with the scientist. The rest of the student’s support can be gained through teaching assistants or fellowships through the journalism/english program. Is there something like this in place somewhere?

There are definitely some interesting notions in there. I have no idea how feasible they might be, but Kevin presents more to work with than the mere complaints I listed. Beyond this, though, how can we create more incentives for talented writers with a good scientific background to get involved in communicating science? There are many television shows and books that co-opt the language and attitude of science to make their points seem reasonable but a lot of it is crap, and even some of what are considered “the best” media are fraught with errors. I really do think that we can do better and there seem to be plenty of people who want to do something about it; the trick is figuring out how to turn our frustration into something that will make things better.

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