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I don’t want our scientists beige

I was one of those who was more upset by seeing Matt Taylor reduced to tears at a press conference than I was by his shirt. My reaction was not because I thought the row distracted us from a wonderful science story. Most of the mainstream media chose to ignore the row anyway, and it appears to have done little to dampen the huge public appetite for this enthralling story. And of course if the furore had been caused by a scientist acting really badly then we wouldn’t be arguing to ignore it on the grounds that something quite beautiful was also going on.

Nor is it unusual for debates to explode on the blogosphere and social media around the fringe issues raised by these spectacular science stories. Ed Yong once told me the most useful thing about being on the SMC’s press lists was that it helped him work out what to avoid writing about. The SMC and science journalists do news, our best science bloggers and commentators do something different, and I think the debate around the shirt raised some really interesting issues for those of us who obsess about science in the media and science communication.

While most of the commentary focused on sexism in science, I want to concentrate on a different issue raised in the debate which is much discussed at the SMC, about the extent to which we need to manage scientists like Matt Taylor who are about to be put in front of the global media. It was quite striking how many of those with concerns saw the solution as more training for and control over scientists as a way of avoiding such pitfalls in future. Some suggested that if science communications professionals had more power this would never have happened, and asked where Matt’s employers were when he donned the shirt. Others suggested that Matt be exonerated because it should be the role of the European Space Agency to protect scientists from themselves in these circumstances, and wondered what on earth the science journalists were doing when they interviewed him in that shirt. The implication of all these calls is that scientists would behave better if only employers, science communications professionals and journalists had more control over the way in which they present themselves. I am not so sure, and while I know that these commentators are trying to work out ways to reduce sexism in science, I would say be careful what you wish for. Any more controls on scientists introduced by managers will not just be used to tackle sexism.

I spend part of my life with senior corporate PR officers who would love nothing more than to wield more power and influence on what their scientists say, do and wear. And you will not find a science press officer who has not been dismissed by senior scientists refusing to heed our advice, so more power sounds alluring. But I am really wary of this agenda. I don’t want my scientists all polished and trained and managed and terrified of going off-message, and this desire to sanitise and homogenise scientists worries me. I want the public and media to access the knowledge and years of research of our best scientists, and if that sometimes comes with off-message mavericks, open toed sandals and technical language that’s fine with me. In short, I don’t want our scientists beige and sticking to a line. We get enough of that from our politicians.

I started to feel like this early on in this job. Just months in, I was invited to sit in on a meeting of all the press offices planning an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA in 2003. Francis Crick was dead by then, so the big name guest speaker was James Watson. The meeting was dominated by a discussion of how to stop Watson revisiting his questionable views on the potential of genetic engineering to reduce the numbers of disabled people, a point he had apparently made in an interview where he said he wished he could have used genetic engineering to correct his own son’s disability. I was too new in science to speak up at that meeting, but left feeling depressed that a group of clever young press officers were putting so much energy into controlling an 80-year-old Nobel Prize winner who was talking from sixty years as a geneticist and from his own personal experience. I have felt that same discomfort many times since. The worst briefings at the SMC are the ones where the scientist has obviously been through a gruelling training exercise focused on what he or she can say without getting their institution into trouble. It’s always obvious to the journalists when scientists are holding back, and I would argue that the possibility of poor coverage dramatically increases as journalists start to feel they are being spun rather than getting to the truth.

Of course part of our job as science press officers is to help our academics to navigate the stormy and often cruel seas of the media, and of course we should use our expertise to prepare scientists for the difficult questions and bear traps. As part of being profiled for Nature last year, I was invited to a photocall where the photographer asked me to place my high-heeled boot firmly onto a carefully prepared pile of newspapers with the Daily Mail on top. You wouldn’t have to be Alastair Campbell to refuse to play ball. I now partly wish that some savvy press officer had taken Matt Taylor aside to say why not lose the shirt, if for no other reason than to save him a lot of misery in what should have been the best week of his life. But that is a world away from employers, science communicators, journalists and trainers stepping in to sort out scientists who might go off-message.

Let me emphasise that I am not justifying sexist or offensive language or behaviour in science. As well as differing with those who dismissed this row as an ugly stain on a beautiful science story, I am also not with the camp who say “lighten up” every time someone raises these kinds of concern. But for me there is an issue of perspective. In twelve years of running press briefings twice a week, I have never encountered an example of sexist or offensive language (or dress). In contrast, it is not at all uncommon for speakers to be pulled from SMC panels at the last minute, or for briefings to be completely sabotaged by faceless senior corporate PR people or senior managers who believe it is OK to stop their academics speaking out. I have lost count of how many scientists have told me that they want to speak out on animal research and other contentious issues but are not allowed to by their institution.

I once had a tense exchange with a science communicator who made a speech about the need for scientists to undergo ‘listening’ training after objecting to researchers being too strident in their dismissal of homeopathy. The clear implication was that the listening training would make them less strident and more sympathetic to the arguments for. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to be nice and we should not be insulting people who choose homeopathy because of the very real limitations of medical science. But really?! Don’t we want some scientists to be strident while others are mild mannered, some that are bruisers while others are much more reflective and considered? Don’t we want scientists for all seasons? I’m a big fan of training scientists on how to translate a four year complex study into a sound bite for ITN news, but that feels very different to these sinister-sounding calls for re-education of scientists we have a problem with.

Good science press officers and communicators, of which there are very many, see their role as supporting and facilitating their researchers to share their knowledge and expertise with the wider public. I have no doubt that there were some great press officers behind the media operation around Rosetta, and where I agree with many of those commenting on this “shirtstorm” is that this interview is one of the best examples of both women in science and scientists unspun. My fear is that if we all go beige, we will inadvertently lose moments like this.


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

4 Responses to I don’t want our scientists beige

  1. SpaceKate says:

    Thank you for linking to my blog post Fiona. I agree that it is a great shame that someone with more media savvy didn’t step in and save Matt from the grief that came his way, but I think that there is still a difference between *that* shirt and any other shirt that could have been bright and colourful and break down the stereotype of all scientists wearing lab coats. There is of course another point here – that has slightly been overlooked in all this – individuality is a great thing, and we should encourage people to express themselves, but the Rosetta mission is a team project. A huge team at that, so it slightly irks me to now hear how Matt’s week has been spoiled, and how Matt’s work has (apparently) been ignored, and all the rest. This was never about Matt for me, it was about how best to present exciting science to a new generation of potential scientists – something that I think could have been done better without that shirt. While I feel sorry that Matt has ended up at the centre of this storm, I can’t help but have more sympathy for those sent death threats and insults for suggesting that in this context the shirt was a mistake. I’m also concerned that the conversation has moved so far beyond rational polite discussion that the original concerns, from people who work very hard to promote space and STEM, have been hijacked and turned into something else. There is still a problem of diversity in science and that is something that we all have a duty to address.

  2. Thanks for another great blog, Fiona.

    One of the most useful techniques I learned during my time at the SMC was to take time with a scientist talking about their story and giving them the probable, almost certain, headline they could expect, given the approach they were choosing.

    I use this all the time and if the scientist is happy with the predicted headline, great. And if not, then I will offer advice to mitigate.

    Just one caveat to this, though: Sometimes the predicted headline is seriously at odds with the vision/mission/values of the organisation to which the scientist is affiliated. Ignoring that would be ignoring my job as an in-house PRO, and ultimately I would be putting the spokesperson at risk of ruining their own reputation, being hauled across the coals by their boss, and damaging the reputation of our organisation. And in some organisations it’s the PRO who gets the blame, making a desire to control scientists all the more likely.

    PROs in organisations that operate a ‘blame culture’ are very vulnerable, indeed. And they may or may not be in a position to effect culture change. This is problem is a common one, in all kinds of organisations.

    I also totally agree with the need for “scientists for all seasons” and a good PRO picks their spokesperson carefully…if they can…

    …which brings me to the point about the PRO who wields power. A PRO who earns and is afforded the respect of their organisation’s executives, is enabled in their role to be free to choose spokespeople and direct the approach to ‘issues management’ (such as animals in research) is the best PRO there can be. And unfortunately many PROs are not in this position, and so it is perhaps tempting to wrest power from wherever it may be obtained.

    PROs who work in organisations where their expertise and/or the value of media relations is not respected, are, again, vulnerable. And, once more, it is culture change that is commonly required and difficult to obtain.

    Okay, so in some cases it is the PRO who buys into the culture and thinks that making the scientist beige is the best thing to do. My experience of dealing with product PR people would suggest that this is particularly the case for them – when you’re dealing with the bottom line, all else goes out the window? Maybe.

    But for all the sane pro-science PROs we encounter who are still beiging their scientists in the face of an unworkable organisational culture, the best thing we can do is to support, advise, and mentor. The SMC staff are great at doing this. And there are people out there (me included) who are trained to coach and mentor in a professional context. But are enough PROs taking this up? If not, why not?

    And for what it’s worth, I would have suggested a change of shirt. Just as I ask my scientists to dress in a way that their mum would be proud to see on telly (Fiona, you taught me this, too), and present a relaxed and confident demeanor, which means unfolding arms, keeping eyes open (and eye contact with the presenter, if appropriate), avoiding fidgeting and fiddling, etc.

    Thanks, Fiona, for pointing out that we can always do better as a community. I’m standing with you for scientists with opinions and personality and, if necessary, inappropriate attire!

  3. infovoy says:

    The shirt was one thing – silly, but any thinking person would have been more concerned with his likening the technical challenges of a spacecraft to the perceived sexual availability of women (“I never said she was easy” or something similar)

    It was criticism, that’s all, and justifiably so. He apologized, and no major harm was done.

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