Is Science Friday on the Endangered List?

It’s Nobel Prize Week and science geeks the world over are finally getting deserved recognition for their groundbreaking work in chemisty, physics and medicine. But how about a little love for the journalists who help us make sense of all those mind-bending, esoteric and complex discoveries?

Where do you get your science news? Science Friday with Ira Flatow? The program is celebrating its 20th anniversary on the air this month. Whether SciFri will make it to the legal drinking age, though, is a more than a hypothetical question.

It seems that the popular weekly NPR program, once commonly called Talk of the Nation Science Friday, is now calling out for a little life support. Huffington Post reported that the program is facing a funding crisis. The post quoted host Ira Flatow:

“We at SciFri are facing severe financial difficulties, i.e. raising money. NSF [National Science Foundation] has turned us down for continuing funding, saying they love what we do, we are sorely needed, but it’s not their job to fund us. At the same time, NPR has said the same thing, telling us that if we want to stay on the air, etc, we now have to raise all our own money. Despite what listeners may think, NPR only gives us about 10 percent of our funding.”

Science Friday has set up a way for listeners to make direct donations to support the program through Science Friday Initiative, the nonprofit educational arm of the show. This is an unusual direct fundraising appeal for an NPR program. All donations made through the end of the 2010 calendar year will be matched 2-to-1 by the Noyce Foundation.

Just in case anyone in the public radio system gets their knickers in a twist over this, Ira Flatow did post a comment on the Huffington Post, and his own blog post, urging listeners to support him by pledging to their local public radio stations which air Science Friday. 

Science Friday is a program that has vastly improved and expanded over time. It now includes a Spanish language version of its website called Ciencia Cierta, a webpage devoted to the intersection of Science and the Arts, a free SciFri iphone app, a SciFri Island in Second Life, and some wonderful multimedia produced by regular guest Flora Lichtman, such as this clever must-see video about New York City’s bedbug crisis. (Sorry I couldn’t embed, but these bedbugs don’t bite…I promise)

Also part of the SciFri family is the Talking Science blog for science enthusiasts, Talking Science cabarets, and a special urban gardening site called Down to Earth. It’s become a cross-platform media brand.

Who knew Sci Fri was so cool? But, let’s face it: Science is Cool. What’s cool about science? Just ask Ira Flatow:

Science Friday isn’t the only science programming available in public media, to be sure.

There’s RadioLab. There’s CBC’s Quirks & Quarks. There’s Nature and Nova on PBS. From PRI, Living on Earth covers environmental science and The World has a science podcast and website.

There are long-running module series, such as Pulse of the Planet, Earth & Sky, StarDate. Let’s not forget The Loh Down on Science and Indiana Public Media’s A Moment of Science. And, you must check out The Naked Scientists from the BBC. 

Dr. Michio Kaku’s program Explorations airs on a handful of community radio stations. Producers from Are We Alone? from the SETI Institute were at a recent public radio program directors’ conference, hoping to pick up some more stations.

And last week, PBS NewsHour hired CNN’s Miles O’Brien to head its new science unit.

Plus, there are plenty of science podcasts out there in cyberspace, produced and presented by museums and associations and magazines, such as the National Academies’ Sounds of Science, Science Update from AAAS, Scientific American, as well as an explosion of science-related websites.

Alas, there are even a handful of science programs in AIR’s Sounds of Silence: Public Radio’s Canceled Program Archive. 

But, Sci Fri is a unique and friendly place where smart, engaging conversations about the mysteries of the universe take place, where your-there-are-no-dumb questions can sometimes get asked and answered, where discoveries, science news and other stuff are explained and made relevant. And that’s what makes it quality journalism and excellent radio. 

Meanwhile, if you are a science journalist yourself, or aspire to become one, let me give a shout out to a few other great resources to tap:

1. SoundVision offers science literacy intesives for public radio producers. The seminar takes place at the University of California at Berkeley next April. The deadline to apply to participate is December 10. More info is here.  

2. Knight Science Journalism Tracker is a central site for peer review of science reporting and an excellent way to follow what other science reporters are up to.

3. The Lay Scientist blog in The Guardian is both clever and wickedly funny.

UPDATE 10/7/10:  In response to my inquiry, NPR’s Dana Rehm has posted a letter to listeners on the NPR Blog. In the post, she explains NPR’s relationship with Science Friday, an independently produced program (like Fresh Air and the Diane Rehm Show) that is acquired and distributed by the network.