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a lesson from the last 10 years: ‘take courage’

When a House of Lords Inquiry on science recommended a new initiative to sit on the ‘front line’ between science and the media ten years ago, the terminology reflected the mood of a scientific community left battered by successive media furores over BSE, GM crops and MMR.

Back then scientists blamed the media for undermining public trust in science, the collapse of a safe and effective vaccination campaign and the public rejection of promising new technologies. Journalists turned the blame back on scientists, scoffing at these crusty academics who emerged from their ivory towers expecting the media to educate the British public in science.

Yet ten years on I found myself giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry praising the UK’s science journalists and suggesting that a dysfunctional relationship had turned into something more positive.

One of the best examples of the dramatic change in the scientific community can be seen in the new approach of GM scientists. In 2000 when tabloid headlines screamed out that Mutant Crops Kill and carried front page graphics of a pro GM Tony Blair as Frankenstein, the majority of plant scientists ran in the opposite direction. Bewildered by the media hysteria these mild mannered researchers left the airwaves and front pages to the media savvy campaigners and watched helplessly as the public and policy makers turned against this technology. The message that scientists had to engage proactively with these media storms was learned the hard way. But learned it was.

Ten years on look, at the confident and effective response by the scientists at Rothamsted Research to the public call by anti-GM activists to destroy their new GM field trial. The researchers published an open letter to the activists, uploaded a passionate YouTube video and attracted 1000s of people, many suspicious of GM, to sign a petition in favour of allowing the experiment to proceed. Just this  week we saw plant scientists  racing to the media to expose a series of flaws in a new study showing  health effects in rats fed with GM foods within half an hour of publication – leading many journalists to abandon the story. Compare that to similar claims by Arpad Pusztai 10 years ago that dominated the headlines for months before a learned committee of the Royal Society published the damning critique that finally discredited the claims.

And a similar boldness can be seen in the scientific community’s reaction to the proposed ban on human animal embryos, the sacking of David Nutt, and the ill-fated libel action against Simon Singh. When scientists finally found their voice it was a strong and confident one, as effective as any campaign group.

And the media has changed too. Stung by criticisms of inaccurate and sensational reporting on MMR, newsrooms deferred more to specialist science reporters who care more about accuracy and can explain complex science.

But before I have you swinging from the rafters let me add a note of caution. There are plenty of ways that the scientific community could mess things up.

The professionalisation of media relations in science, which has helped science hugely, has in some cases gone way too far, with slick new ‘corporate’ communications professionals who take a risk averse approach and substitute ‘key messages’ for openness and truth telling. Too many of the quangos and science organisations set up to be at arm’s length from government put fear of upsetting their paymasters above the responsibility to use their independent voice to full effect. And during Fukushima the SMC was left struggling to meet the huge media demand when apologetic press officers at government-funded bodies admitted they had been told not to speak out.

And after all this time we have still not won the argument with everyone that science splashed over the headlines is an opportunity as well as a threat. The SMC struggled to persuade climate researchers to speak out during the dark days of ‘climategate’. Fearful that they would be questioned over whether the scientists at the heart of the crisis should resign, too many researchers preferred to allow their critics free reign than seize the opportunity to emphasise the strength of climate science to an attentive public. What scientists still need to recognise is that it is precisely when their area of research becomes politicised and polarised that their voice is most needed by the public.

So my message to the scientific community is ‘take courage’. Having amassed plenty of data from the front line over 10 years, the SMC is something of a scientific experiment itself. The findings overwhelmingly demonstrate that engaging proactively with the media improves the way science is covered. The risks of not doing so remain all too real.

 

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

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