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Interview with David Shukman

Updated: Sep 9, 2020


📷 The Times

Journalist: Haleema Ahmed



Haleema: Hello everyone and welcome back to SciSection. I’m Haleema, your journalist for this week and today we’re honoured to have David Shukman, all the way from London, England (thank you)! David is a British journalist, author, world explorer, and the very first science editor for the world renowned BBC News. Thank you David for joining us.


David: Well it's a great pleasure to be here, thank you for asking me.


Haleema: Well, I guess to begin, I understand your career didn’t really begin with science but actually world affairs and politics. What was your early career like before being engulfed into the current really interesting world you are in right now.


David: Well going further back, I am actually a child of Apollo. I mean I was 11 when Aldrin Armstrong walked on the surface of the Moon in 1969 and I cut out pictures and newspapers stories from magazines and papers and kept a scrapbook and I was looking for it the other day and I couldn’t find - it must have got chucked out in some house move over the years but I was fascinated by the technology, the immense inventiveness of the people who organized that mission and got those guys their and back again and obviously impressed with the astronauts themselves but that was kind of like a little seed of science that got me going and you are absolutely right - various jobs in the course of my career were not directly involved in science but I found myself drawn that way. For example, I was covering what we call the troubles which was a great period of violence in Northern Ireland in the 80s and of course there was an easing dropping wall, surveillance technology was incredibly important. There was bomb technology, the terrorists were designing new weapons, the military was trying to overcome them so actually there was a science thread there, without me really thinking about that too much. And then when I moved on to a job in defense covering military affairs, you might also think that is a very long way from science and I certainly I wasn't thinking about science at all but actually I found myself drawn to the cutting edge of military research; obviously a huge amount of money, taxpayers money, is spent on developing new weapons and often the people who do that work aren’t well known and I was very keen to delve into the laboratories and to the research centres to try and understand what was going on there. So eventually, when a proper science job came along and I was thinking about it and I sort of dug back into my life and I realized that although I definitely hadn’t planned it, there was a science theme running through it.


Haleema: Absolutely, and I think with all the travelling and things you did before you did science journalism I guess a lot of that interest must have peaked and I guess you mentioned that your fascination with science began after visiting a secret nuclear lab some time ago. For those who may not be familiar with that, could you please tell us what that was and what really sparked your current passion.


David: So yes I was interested in military research and actually had the great privilege to visit the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory in New Mexico where they did all the work on the first atomic bombs but I also had a great set of contacts with what was then the Soviet Union, now is Russia, and it had also been very very difficult for Western journalists to get access to anything like nuclear research programs in the United States and it was a few years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident there and it was very sensitive btu I had some good contacts their in moscow and after months of trying, a great persistence not just by me but by a fantastic translator, Fixer a friend in Moscow, we actually got access to one of the previously secret nuclear research centres on the edge of Moscow and it was an extraordinary time because this place had been closed to Westerners for decades, they never had a TV news crew come from a Western country so they were not quite sure what to make of me and my cameramen but they showed us around and a guide was allocated to escort us and as we were walking around the campus from building to building with different experimental reactors, the guy was carrying a little geiger counter and kept checking the readings on this geiger counter and it suddenly occurred to me that he was actually quite nervous of all the safety of his own facilities. He didn’t trust his own scientists after the chernobyl accident - you know when they say something is safe, is it really? And one building we went into had above the door a great, big, electronic geiger counter thing that was broken so they all said it was safe to go in and he was checking his geiger counter and we walked in, we were taken into this reactor and this amazing scene with these guys in white suits and they wer removing the cooling rods around and actually to me it looked pretty ropy quite scary and I didn’t feel safe and I asked the escort what the geiger counter said it had gone to zero and obviously it was overloaded, it was broken, or whatever but what I loved was the fact that he here we were, this was at that point a science super power, and here we were and there were these scientists short of money, they didn’t have any of the computers we had in the West, and yet they were carrying on their work very diligently, they loved it when I asked for interviews, they wanted to talk about what they were doing, and despite the terrible conditions and possible dangers and the lack of funding and there were light bulbs missing in the corridors, and what I loved, and this, sorry this is a long way to answer your question, is I loved their passion. They were just these guys were just really really emotional about their work, what they were discovering, what they were trying to find out, the questions they were framing, and I guess with science is a passion that drives the curiosity to ask questions, to find out how to answer a question, and so that stuck with me for a very long time. And I guess confirmed my fascination with the way scientists think. I realized I kind of liked being around them and I kind of wanted more of that.


Haleema: Absolutely and would you say that that moment where, meeting the people from the nuclear lab and were able to see the passion that emanated from them talking about their work was very pivotal in your career and kind of establishing your place in the science world and where you wanted to go from there.


David: Well I think that there is a terrible division in society between people who understand science, love science, see the value of science and people who may see the value but just don’t get it. They just don't understand what people are talking about, they don't like the terminology, they find it off putting, they find the words of scientists express themselves comprehensible. There is a kind of barrier event that even the most well intentioned people reach quite quickly in their exploration of science. I mean people are gripped aren’t they by space exploration, or what do we do know about this coronavirus, or kind of really what's going to happen with the climate as we keep adding carbon emissions. As soon as a scientist and many cases, obviously there are incredible exceptions, but in many cases if you ask a scientist a direct question about any of those fields, you might well get answers that many people in the public wouldn't really get, wouldn't feel comfortable with, and they may be sympathetic to the scientists, and they may desperately want to understand but would they get it? As for I think, science journalism plays a potentially useful role as a kind of interpreter; if i don't get it, and read a lot of science and I spend time with scientists and I am not a scientist and as I explained I like the way they think and I think I have become a reasonable judge of scientific papers and work and so forth. I think it is critically important that as many possible get a chance to have a clear explanation of what's happening. You know there was this amazing moment some years ago when the large hadron collider, a particle accelerator in Geneva, and they made this amazing discovery of the Higgs Boson - this theoretical particle that gives other particles mass and that had been dreamt up as a theory 60 years before. Actually, the machine worked and they found this thing and the temptation for an editor of an evening newspaper or a popular news paper kind of not to bother, you know it's quite complicated, what's that all about, its so weird and I was delighted that my editors were keen to try, you know on the main evening news along with stories about crime and politics, sports, there is an item about the discovery of the Higgs Boson. And I think the burden is on us science journalists to find out ways to make it clear. I think there is no good in us saying well I'm not sure, it's a bit and how are we going to explain that - I think we really have to sweat and we do to try and find language and visuals and whatever, analogies, to make it clear. And I think it's a pivotal role because we are in a point in our lives where science is so important, it's so often not understood and I think that's my passion.


Haleema: Absolutely and as a science editor and also science journalism I guess it is not really a career or a position many people know exists. So guess from your day to day work, what does it look like?


David: I am a journalist first and foremost I am a science journalist. The title some would say is a bit over blown, been a bit of job inflation, job title inflation, there was a feeling you know we had a political editor, we had ane economics editor, a business editor, a Middle East editor, there was a big push for our coverage of science to be given a similar status within the newsroom and it was a signal to our audience that we were taking it seriously. So after many years and a long discussion, they did create this post and I was fortunate enough to get it and I think, I think it was obviously positive for me but i think it sends a signal that the BBC was, well it always had taken science seriously, but it was in the news world it was giving it a new emphasis. And I gather from people in the world of science that that was appreciated but I am not alone - we have a fantastic team and I am one of that team but I just happen to have that grand title.


Haleema: Absolutely that is amazing and I think with the work that you do you have the opportunity to travel to Antarctica, the Amazon, really some of the coolest places on Earth, so with all the journeys that you have had filming documentaries and things like that for BBC, what has been your favourite trip?


David: Well I think it has to be one that actually took place in Canada (“really?”). Ya, ya, and I am not just saying it. Back in 2007 the European Space Agency satellites were keeping track of the Arctic ice which melts in the summer and regrows in the winter with a steady decline in the last few years and they spotted North West passage, that sea route that links the Atlantic the Bowfered Sea and then the Pacfic, was cleared of ice for the first time in the satellite record and I was kind of mesmerized by this idea because I had read about the history of all these expeditions and tried to get through and so forth, and many of them Royal Navy and the Brits and the throne of resources trying to find this passage and many of them dying trying to do so, so there is a kind of emotional connection for Brits and a romance abut it all and of course the profound implications with global warming and what's happening but an editor of mine said “we have go to” and a colleague of mine that I work with, a producer, he was incredibly fortunate, he was ringing around and talked to the science lead of an expedition by a Canadina coast guard. We got on board, we joined the resolute on the far North of Canada, we had a week on board sailing through waters which were open. I found it incredibly moving, the ships was amazing; there was a woman captain who couldn't have been more helpful, the scientists were amazing, we got to fly on a helicopter, we went on all the boats, we did all the science, it was incredible the access we got, we loved them all to bits. But there was this feeling where we are sailing through waters where lots of people have died trying to find a path through this wilderness and now as the world gets hotter, I am on a centrally heated ship just sailing through. They let us off as we came through the pain part of the passage, we were let off and the three of us walked to a little hotel. And I don’t mind admitting we were a bit tearful, we felt home sick from the ship, because we became sort of tight with everybody, it was an amazing experience. And so that for me by miles was an amazing experience and then the journey back to the UK as you encounter more and more people, more and more buildings, was quite a shock. We went to a shopping mall in Edmonton on our way home and I was overwhelmed by people but it reminded me of the powerful impression that had been made by that voyage through the Canadian Arctic at a time of great change and to be a witness of such profound change was amazing as well.


Haleema: Absolutely and with these amazing trips that you are going on all the time with the work that you do you obviously may feel some pressure. You know you are informing the public about important subjects and with that you have to always make sure the information is accurate and with journalism there is so many issues with that in general, people feeling dishonest about where they are getting their news from and now with science and the coronavirus and it's really just a big clash between the world, science, news, journalism, really just everything. So I think I wanted to ask how you kind of deal with those challenges and that kind of immense pressure.


David: So I think the key thing has to be a foundation of understanding where the best science lies. Where does the consistent science lye on a particular issue and that stems from published papers and teams of science around the world investigating issues, sending their work to journals, getting scrutinized by them, scrutinized by peer reviewers, it then gets published, maybe, we then see it and none of those steps are guarantees against falsehood or cheating or misinterpretation of results but they are hurdles that have go be crossed and by large, I feel happier reporting about a topic where i know that peer reviewed published science is underpinning it. Preferably with a large sample size as a colleague of mine once said if there is over excited press release announcing a cure to cancer and you look at the small print and they tested on a couple of mice over a long weekend, that that doesn’t meet the standard of large sample size and is it over a long period of time. And if you see a study with 10000 people over 10 years and its by reputable people from big research centres, that is going to give you more confidence and if you are cross kind of where the science lies and then reflect that in the broadcasting, i'd like to think that that is a reasonable offering for the public. And we get, I personally get bombarded by critics don't you realize that hardly carbon dioxide as a proportion of the atmosphere, how could it possibly influence the climate? I mean I get everything - the flat earthers, the Apollo hoax blander people, the coronavirus people it's all hoax, the answer for I think any science journalist has to be, what is the science saying, where is it from, where does it reach, how do you portray the strength of the evidence in the reporting and people watch a broadcast or read something you just gotta hope you have done your job that they have come away with an accurate understanding of where things are - you know we are sure about this but we don’t really know about this. So I think that is the best way to do it but it does come back to very basic things that any scientist would be familiar with or horribly familiar with if they are a researcher trying to get published, I think that those hurdles are a useful set of guides about how we might reflect the subject.


Haleema: I guess for people like myself, who love the literary and communicative aspects of being a journalist and also, as you mentioned, that inquiry involved in science, what is your advice to somebody who kind of wants to get involved with both because I guess you definitely have the dream job involved with that.


David: (laughs) Well I know I am lucky. I would tell people and this partly a reflection of age, in my day when I started in journalism in a local newspaper, I had an undergraduate degree in geography which had elements of science in it, but I didn’t do a journalism degree. Really everybody actually in my generation didn’t do a journalism degree and I know some some terrific journalists available in many places, I am sure in Canada as well, and for many people that may the best way to go but you are wondering about the fork in the road of science or journalism in terms of study, if you study science I would say you could always then become a journalist - you could even do a bit of journalism during the science. If you study journalism, I don't see how you would then get into science. So, if you are either undecided or you are interested in both, I would pick the science degree.


Haleema: Absolutely and on that note, we would like to thank you so much David for telling us all about the amazing work that you do. Don't forget to check out David’s amazing work on BBC.


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