From News Wire to News Weekly: 75 Years of Science Service

Article excerpt

Week in and week out for 75 years, Science Service has delivered news about scientific discoveries and happenings to subscribers' doors, first through Science News Letter and more recently via Science News. Its wide-ranging coverage provides an accurate barometer of scientific interests and concerns during those years.

"Use of Pneumonia Vaccine Still in Experimental Stage" shared the first issue, on March 13, 1922, with articles reporting the government's first allocation of radio wavelengths. In 1926, "Returning Elgin Marbles to Athens Argued" made the news. "Smears Endanger Nation" reported physicists' concerns in 1948 that the Communist-hunting tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee threatened atomic energy research. A lead story in January 1996 hailed the discovery of two previously unseen planets.

The initial mission of Science Service, however, was not to publish a magazine but to provide a science news service for daily newspapers.

When newspaperman E.W. Scripps provided the seed money for Science Service in 1920, he intended to fund an organization that would provide accurate, timely research news to counter the sensationalism and superstition that passed for science reporting at the time. He believed that democracy would be safe only if the electorate understood science.

In a 1919 memo now at the Smithsonian Archives in Washington, D.C., Scripps said that the mission of the American Society for the Dissemination of Science (as he called what would become Science Service) should be the "reverse of propaganda. . . . Its objects should never be to furnish argument or facts for the purpose of producing partisans for any particular cause." That lofty goal was later modified slightly. A report in a 1921 issue of Science announced that the new organization "will not indulge in propaganda unless it be propaganda to urge the value of research and the usefulness of science."

Scripps entrusted the task of finding researchers, scientific societies, and journalists who would cooperate in the venture to his friend William Ritter, a University of California zoologist. Ritter viewed Science Service as a means of building financial support for science and encouraging the "mental attitude of science" among newspaper readers.

He quickly received help from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, and many leading scientists, including A.A. Noyes, R.A. Millikan, and R.M. Yerkes. The first board of Science Service was made up of 15 scientists and 5 journalists.

Ritter was instrumental in hiring Edwin Slosson as the service's first editor. Slosson had a Ph.D. in chemistry and years of experience as a literary editor. His job at Science Service, said Slosson, was to "keep on the lookout for new movements in the various sciences for the press, to get the press the first news of important discoveries or at least the first authoritative explanation of their significance, [and] to hunt up and cultivate young writers of promise." Subsequent editors have retained those goals.

Among Slosson's early hires was 25-year-old Watson Davis, a civil engineer turned journalist who was reportedly waiting to ask the new editor for a position on Jan. 1, 1921, Slosson's first day on the job. Davis became managing editor shortly thereafter, and the next year, Slosson told the board that Davis "had worked up by himself a scientific column in the Washington Herald and is remarkably successful in extracting material out of more or less reluctant scientists and getting it into a shape so that it will be taken by more or less reluctant editors."

Slosson thought the popular press portrayed scientists as either "an enemy of society inventing infernal machines, or as a curious, half-crazy creature talking a jargon of his own and absorbed in pursuit of futilities." He and Davis worked tirelessly to change this perception, distributing the Science News Bulletin to newspaper clients. …