Science and technology are important aspects of humanity’s engagement with space. On the one hand, engaging with space improves our understanding of the universe and thus advances our science and technology. On the other hand, science and technology are what allow us to engage with space in the first place – they let us make the machines that take us to the cosmos. As the space industry grows and becomes a more central feature of society, it is important for people to be literate about science and technology. Science and technology journalism is one way to advance such literacy. To learn more about what it’s like working as a science and technology journalist, we spoke to Neel Patel, The Daily Beast’s Senior Editor for Science and Innovation.
How did you end up as a science and tech journalist with a space focus?
It wasn’t exactly a natural transition. I’ve been working as a science and tech journalist since 2013, but my focus for my first few years was in the life sciences and climate change. But throughout all the newsrooms I interned for early on, and most especially at a fellowship I did at Wired, I found myself writing more and more about space. I started to get quite comfortable with and knowledgeable about how the industry was growing, especially as companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin were proving out rocket booster reusability.
I started working at a startup media site called Inverse in 2015, and as one of three science and tech writers there, I was the one handling most of the hard science stories. Space was very popular among our readers, and my editors eventually asked me if I would write about space fulltime. I basically built our space coverage from the ground up. I departed in 2017 to begin freelancing, during which time I returned to writing about topics I had missed in the last couple years. But space continued to be a primary focus for me.
I returned to reporting fulltime on space when I joined MIT Technology Reviewas a space reporter in 2019. Apart from several months covering the pandemic, I was laser-focused on space for two years. I found myself especially embedded in covering the more nitty-gritty scientific and engineering aspects of astronomy, astrophysics, and space travel.
I’m now the editor for science and innovation at The Daily Beast. While we plan on covering many different topics in science and tech, space will be a big part of our coverage.
What role do you think science and tech journalism plays in society?
I think the pandemic certainly reaffirmed that science and tech journalism is a critical part of society. It helps give us essential information and context for things that aren’t easily understood by most people without advanced degrees. We also learned that science and tech affect so many parts of society that almost any story can be a science and tech story in some way. Science and tech journalism isn’t just about covering new research papers and quoting scientists about how neat a new discovery is and taking their word for why it matters. It’s also about understanding how social inequalities distort the way science and tech progress. It’s about highlighting the chasm between what experts prescribe as a solution to a crisis and the difficulties in implementing those solutions as working policy. It’s about shining a light on the people who are falling through the cracks.
During the pandemic, I also noticed there was a huge appetite for people to learn about things that gave them a bit of optimism and hope for the future. Science and technology, at their best, are about finding solutions that can help transform the world and make it better. It’s important to avoid overhyping events that won’t go anywhere, but science and tech journalism is often an avenue for simply giving people something to look forward to.
What advice do you have for aspiring space journalists?
A good beat journalist is passionate about their subject – but passion also includes skepticism. Your job isn’t to celebrate space, it’s to cover it – good and bad. Be prepared to confront some realities about space that aren’t always pretty. You’ll have to understand some of the systemic problems that plague the space industry, the flaws in big agencies, the politicization of space by groups and parties around the world, and the fact that much of the public has something of a disdain for space in the face of so many other pressing issues. Don’t shy away from those things – keep digging. A good journalist knows which experts to talk to, but a great journalist is an expert on their beat in their own right.