The BBC editor and New Scientist alum has ambitions to reimagine the way society thinks about the future.
When Richard Fisher realized that he was having more fun writing reviews of DJ nights for a Durham University student website than pursuing his degree in geology, he figured that he should try to get paid to write. This decision would take him to City University of London, where he earned a post-graduate degree in magazine journalism, and eventually to a number of editor positions, first at New Scientist and, most recently, at the BBC. Now it has brought him to MIT, where, as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow, he has ambitions to reimagine the way society thinks about the future.
It’s a fitting goal for Fisher, who for the past five years has been the editor of BBC Future, the science, technology, and health website of BBC.com. Though he got into journalism through writing, Fisher says he enjoys the problem-solving element of editing. Each writer he works with has a different style, requiring a different approach, and it’s Fisher’s job to figure out what a piece needs. “Some writers leave lots of gaps, so you have to fill them. Some writers write too much detail, so you have to take the details out,” he explains.
At BBC Future, Fisher spends time finding new writers for the site, and he enjoys working with journalists in the early stages of their career. “You realize that you can help them write an amazing piece that will help catapult their career,” he says. “Editors have the ability to do that.”
Fisher may have left geology in 2002, but he has kept a geologist’s ability to see the world in a long-term way, a mindset at odds with a contemporary society dominated by short-term cycles: four-year political terms, three-month financial quarters, ever-shortening news cycles. For Fisher this is a serious issue. “The major problems that we need to solve in the 21st century — climate change, antibiotic resistance, inequality, poverty — are helped by a long-term view,” he explains. He gives the example of a politician up for re-election who represents coal-mining voters, but knows that the world is moving towards renewables. “Politicians themselves are not incentivized to think about the long-term.”
Politicians aren’t the only ones. “There are big problems we need to tackle, like climate change, and we haven’t worked out how much sacrifice we are willing to bear in the present day for the sake of future generations,” Fisher says. Society, in other words, has proven unable to think beyond the short-term to make a better world for tomorrow.
Fisher’s project as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow is to understand this short-termism, particularly how it became so pervasive, and whether it is part of human nature or a recent phenomenon. He believes his temporary hiatus from day-to-day writing and editing has helped him break out of the journalistic mindset and be open-minded about where his project goes. “You don’t know where your influence will come from on your research project,” he says. He points out that some of his favorite science writing draws from a number of sources, from philosophy and literature to culture and political science. “I think that’s what I’m trying to do here.”
This is the sixth in a series of profiles of the 2019-20 Knight Science Journalism fellows, written by students in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.