This is a series of Q&As with young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They have recently hatched in the Incubators (science writing programs at schools of journalism), have even more recently fledged (graduated), and are now making their mark as wonderful new voices explaining science to the public.
Victoria is a young science journalist who is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London, UK. She writes a column, Science Means Business for I, Science whereby she scrutinises the science industry, investigating the politics involved and its “money issues”.
With her strong voice and a determination to shed light on the very-often overlooked business side of science, Victoria stands out. She is one to look forward to in the near future. I am pleased that she’s agreed to answer a few questions about her writing life for The SA Incubator.
Hello and welcome to The SA Incubator. How did you get into science writing?
Hi, and thanks for taking an interest.
Books and science – especially medical science – have been my big obsessions ever since I was really young. When I was in my early teens I discovered that you could combine the two in popular science writing and I never really looked back. (My friends still laugh at me for my constantly overflowing and very eclectic bookshelves.)
By the time I left school I knew that I wanted to find a career where I could read and write about science every day, and I chose to study Natural Sciences, a really broad degree, because I thought it would be the best foundation for that. I studied cell biology, environmental science, psychology, organic chemistry, philosophy – you name it really, I just loved the variety.
I found out about the Imperial MSc in Science Communication whilst I was still an undergraduate and I knew that it was something that I wanted to do, but after 16 years of school I just felt that I needed some time in the “real world” first. Looking back, I was very naïve when I first graduated – I knew very little about society or politics or business, and had been cocooned in this wonderful world of academia for most of my life. So I joined a Big Four accounting firm on their graduate scheme, passed my professional exams and spent six years providing strategic advice to large companies. Then, after four years in London and two in New York, having travelled all over the world and having worked in lots of different industries, I felt that I had enough life experience to be getting on with and decided it was time to get back to what I really wanted to do.
Your primary outlet is Science Means Business, your column for I, Science, Imperial College London’s student-run science publication. How has this been going for you so far?
It’s been great. The editorial team at I, Science are fantastic and have let me write about whatever interests me. And it’s been a privilege to be hosted by a site that’s bred (and is currently incubating) so many successful science communicators. It’s been an amazing forum for me to hone my skills and really find my voice.
The reception to Science Means Business has also been very positive – perhaps unexpectedly so, given that our audience are mostly scientists. A few people have said to me that they didn’t think that they understood or were interested in business, but that the blog has helped to change their attitude. It feels really good when you hear that.
Science Means Business looks at the politics and “money issues” of the science industry, if you will. Although those are very important issues, many science journalists, especially younger ones, shy away from such matters. But you, on the contrary, appear to have turned them into your niche. How important do you think it is to address those matters?
I’m glad you’ve said that, because it does feel like I’m operating in a really underpopulated niche. And, in my opinion, that’s crazy. You can’t separate science from business because neither operates in a vacuum – they both happen within, and supposedly for the benefit of, society. And ultimately, a lot of science is performed for commercial reasons.
I think that the business-side of science is often overlooked because there are very few people, including science journalists, who feel comfortable straddling both sides of the divide. I wrote a piece a few weeks ago about how scientists and business-people both figuratively and literally speak different languages, leaving the public stranded in the middle, often feeling unable to understand what either side is talking about.
I think that this is very harmful. There’s been a real backlash against big business in the last couple of years, and I think that a lot of people feel that science is somehow sullied when it is undertaken by industry. But science needs business and business needs science. We can’t just pretend that science isn’t part of the economic debate, or that economics isn’t part of the scientific debate.
Of course, I assume that having an accounting background also helps you in your writings. Speaking of, a number of science journalists nowadays have non-science backgrounds. How strong an asset to do think that is?
Personally, I think that it’s essential for really good science journalists to have some experience outside of science and academia, whether that’s from working in a different area, like me, or just from being “out there”, reading the papers, learning about other subjects, talking to non-scientists and thinking about the relationship that science has with the rest of society. Science can be very insular, and I don’t think that benefits anyone.
But at the same time, I think that a science background is invaluable to good science writing, if nothing else because it shows a real love of the subject. Writers who feel passionate about their topic I think come across as much more authentic, and are much more engaging to read.
People generally consider accountancy as a static, even boring, field while science journalism is usually perceived as vibrant and exciting. How different do you find those two fields to be?
Well, I’m not going to lie – I found accounting itself pretty dull! But it’s like any other skill; you need to learn the nuts and bolts before you can get to the interesting stuff.
I am a chartered accountant, but my qualification was focused on breeding commerciality and a “business brain” rather than purely technical skills. I’ve never prepared a set of accounts in my life, but I understand the underlying concepts and that means that I understand commercially how a business works (or doesn’t, as the case may be). I think that accounting is boring in the same way that preparing a microscopic slide isn’t much fun – it’s what they lead to that’s fascinating. When you get away from the basics, both science journalism and business are about what’s new in the world, and that’s what makes them exciting.
Which articles of yours did you find most gratifying to write?
I really enjoyed writing “Mirror mirror on the wall” because it was slightly self-indulgent; it described my own brainchild on how we might be able to harness market forces to increase the environmental sustainability of large companies. I also found my last post, “Access Denied”, on the open access debate, very satisfying to write because it’s an issue that I was undecided about and writing the piece helped me to clarify my own thinking.
For my next blog, I’m going to be talking about the UK government’s plans to move to a value-based pricing approach for pharmaceuticals, and I’m looking forward to that. To my mind, it’s a really important policy change – it would mean that the government would set the price for new drugs, rather than the drug companies themselves – and it has huge potential ramifications for how we distribute healthcare resources in this country. But it’s just not being talked about in public, and I find that scary. It’s a real collision of science, economics, politics and ethics, and it’s a topic that I’m really into at the moment.
Often, it’s the thinking that I enjoy as much as the writing. I love getting stuck into really difficult, complicated, multifaceted issues.
What are your plans for the future? Do you intend to keep writing about science?
Absolutely – I’m enjoying it far too much to give it up! I’ve loved every minute of this year but I’ll be graduating in a couple of months so I’m hoping to start freelancing, and I’d also love to keep blogging if I can find a new host, as I, Science will soon belong to a whole new batch of budding Imperial science writers.
I’m also keen on pursuing a career in science policy. It’s something that I’ve become really interested in over the last few years, especially health policy, and my unusual mix of skills and experiences should be well suited to the field.
I have a slightly odd CV, but I know that the perfect career is out there for me somewhere – I just need to find it!
Previously in this series: