Science

Opinion: Space companies could try talking for a change

These are tough times for science. One look at the March for Science will tell you there's concern. But scientists, especially in the private sector, need to get better at communicating, says DW's Zulfikar Abbany.

Deutschland, Matthias Maurer, neuer Astronaut Europäische Weltraumorganisation in Darmstadt (Reuters/R. Orlowski)

Science is under attack. It doesn't matter whether you're a lowly research assistant, the head of a university department, NASA, ESA, JAXA, or some commercial space company. People like to attack things they don't understand. It's a way to deal with irrational fear.

The opening day of the 7th European Conference on Space Debris was covered, I am told - and I mean smothered - by stories criticizing the idea of launching huge satellite constellations and the commercial companies developing them. The feeling is, why would we launch yet more satellites when there's so much junk polluting space as it is? It's a good question, but it caused a backlash.

So by the time I arrived at the conference on day two and asked a representative from OneWeb, a company working on such constellations, whether they were allowed to do interviews, they politely said "no" and walked off. Mine was a leading question, I know, but then I suspected the answer.

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DW Science's Zulfikar Abbany

On day three I happened to spot someone from Orbital ATK, another space company. They said it was "company policy" not to give interviews.

"Why?" I asked, "All the scientists here are talking. Wouldn't it help our understanding of what you do if you talked?"

"I don't know. It's just company policy," they said, and walked off.

Now we know there's a lack of understanding of space science among the public and, dare I say it, journalists - even the easy bits are tough (try reading Richard Feynman's classic "Six Easy Pieces" if you don't have the requisite background).

And then there's the natural inclination among journos to beat up a story, as one UK scientist at the conference suggested to me.

I agree, even when I've been guilty of it myself. It distorts what could be a positive story into a clickable critique - often for no good reason other than that it's clickable. "Scientists warn ... we're all doomed." Add sex, nudity, etc., and we're set.

It needn't even be gratuitous. Whilst in London over Easter, I heard a British radio report on the first day of this conference, saying some scientist was warning about the threat of space debris, without even a passing mention of the meeting in Darmstadt - as if this scientist had popped up out of nowhere with something we didn't know. It's what we call "making the news." But it's not really. It's fudging the news.

On the other hand, what are journalists supposed to do when there's a lack of reliable information to go on? And by that I mean information we can all process into readable/watchable/listenable stories. Space debris is a complex field. Even the scientists say they don't understand everything.

Infografik Raumschrott Vergleich

There are disparities between the geometry and physics and imperfect models - but the best we have at this stage. Few of the techniques for mitigating the threat posed by derelict satellites and other celestial junk have been tested in-situ, let alone fully applied. And we journalists are all working off the same stats, so we're forced to seek a unique angle. The easiest thing is to find a target, preferably one that won't talk back, and paint them black.

The one redeeming fact is that scientists at the space agencies are trying to get the message across. As ESA's Luisa Innocenti put it: "We know the threat. The question is how do we explain it to the people outside of this room?"

Well, for a start scientists need to help journalists come up with fresh angles. Spend time with us, drop the jargon, and make sure we understand the complexities, if not the physics. Fortunately I've found the space debris community of scientists to be one of the most welcoming and least complacent on this.

That leaves the commercial space companies who refuse to talk. For you, I have one ugly word: transparency. It works. I understand you may have cause for operating in secrecy. You distrust journalists, or simply wish to control the message. Yours are, after all, commercial activities. But secrecy breeds its own form of distrust.

So if you'd rather the public stopped concocting conspiracy theories, say, about the industry innovating at a breakneck speed only to avoid being regulated out of profit by new international regulations, then now is the time to talk.

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