The European Union of Science Journalists (EUSJA) has passed turbulent times. However, a new board is in place since 2023. The new president of EUSJA, Mari Heikkilä, is science journalist and member of the Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists (FASEJ). TELI board member Peter Knoll spoke to her about initial activities and the next steps.
Mari Heikkilä (right) is delighted to have the support of long-standing EUSJA pioneers and is venturing a new start with numerous projects after the Covid pandemic. Screenshots © Peter Knoll.
Mrs. Heikkilä, the EUSJA made a fresh start with the meeting in Milan in January 2023. What was the mood like back then? What has changed?
The EUSJA meeting in Milan was great. The atmosphere was really nice and warm, and the study trip program for science journalists was excellent. The news in Milan was good: the financial difficulties of EUSJA are now solved. I think in that way it is a good time to make a fresh start. In Milan I really noticed the core role of these kinds of international associations: to enlarge one’s view of the world. I heard so many interesting things! I had great discussions, for example with the delegates of Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Sweden.
What and who motivated you to become president of the EUSJA, which has experienced a great deal of turbulence in recent years?
I was highly motivated and supported – or maybe you could say that I was put under some pressure – by the other EUSJA delegates. Finland’s FASEJ is the biggest association in EUSJA with about 1200 members, and therefore it seemed that it was our turn to take responsibility. On the other hand, one significant factor was that Jens Degett, former president of EUSJA, promised to become vice president. He, along with many other EUSJA delegates, promised to support me in every way. That was very important because I am a newcomer.
What has been your best experience so far as the new EUSJA president?
It has been nice to work with the board, and I have also had discussions with other old EUSJA pioneers. Everybody has been extremely helpful, and I have a very good feeling about the whole EUSJA community; there are many extremely nice and friendly people there. It is a pleasure to plan things together.
Successful EUSJA meeting in Milan: Nice and warm atmosphere. Photo: Cinzia Boschiero
An open statement by Russian science journalists that is very critical of Putin is published on the EUSJA website. How is the contact with regime-critical science journalists from Russia today?
Unfortunately, the situation in Russia is extremely challenging for journalists. The people are suffering because of the war, and they are desperately desirous of peace. We do have some contacts, but (for obvious reasons) I will not mention details.
What goals have you set yourself?
Our goal is to make EUSJA more vibrant after the challenges posed by the pandemic and other difficulties.
I conducted a survey in the spring, asking EUSJA members about the activities they would like the organization to implement. Many responses highlighted the appreciation for study trips to research centers, companies, and other destinations. Webinars, newsletters, and discussions about science journalism were also mentioned.
Next year, we are planning to host the EUSJA general assembly and a study trip to Helsinki on March 13-14. The general assembly on March 13th serves as the yearly meeting for EUSJA delegates from all member associations. Following that, we will embark on a study trip to various institutions, including Aalto University, the University of Helsinki and Yleisradio, the Finnish public broadcasting company. The Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists (FASEJ) is organizing this event.
I have restarted EUSJA newsletters and also reached out to the organizers of science events, such as Berlin Falling Walls, to inform our members about grants for science journalists. There are also plans in some countries to organize study trips, for example, in the Czech Republic. Hopefully we will see more study trips in the future.
Do you see AI more as an opportunity or a threat to scientific journalism?
I view AI more as an opportunity. I use tools like chatGPT to enhance my work as a science journalist, particularly when brainstorming topics for radio programs. For instance, if I’m interested in creating a program about black holes, I can ask chatGPT about the most intriguing popular science questions people would like to know about them. I can also request chatGPT to draft a short explanation of what black holes are. While the explanations may not be perfect and useful directly, they serve as valuable starting points and can spark new ideas.
I firmly believe that AI is a useful tool for science journalists. It won’t replace us; it’s essentially a sophisticated computer program with the sole skill of predicting the next word based on vast amounts of text from the internet and books.
Personally, I often use it to refine my English writing, fixing mistakes and making the language more fluent.
What strategy is the EUSJA pursuing against fake news?
I believe the most effective approach is to educate people through comprehensive and high-quality science journalism. It is our responsibility as science journalists to provide accurate and in-depth information. I hope that as a community, EUSJA can contribute to the fight against fake news by sharing information and promoting best practices.
What advantages does the EUSJA offer an association like the TELI?
As you may be aware, EUSJA is established by national science journalists’ associations. The organization’s existence is contingent on the goals and interests of these national associations.
It is crucial to understand whether they still perceive the importance of having such an international community for science journalists. The opportunity to meet, share insights, and learn about developments in science journalism across different European countries, from Eastern, Western, Southern, and Northern Europe, is invaluable.
This understanding becomes even more apparent against the backdrop of incidents such as the current war in Europe, reinforcing the significance of maintaining a united and informed international science journalism community.
Mrs. Heikkilä, thank you very much.