By Fiona Fox
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.
This week I had the honour of being made an honorary fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. A number of the press officers and scientists in the room encouraged me to post my short acceptance speech on my blog…so here you go.
“First I’d like to thank Mark for his lovely words.
20 years ago many of the scientists we saw in the media tended to be great communicators who enjoyed the limelight. Back then our top scientists often dismissed these popularizers as ‘media tarts’. But that attitude has completely changed in the 16 years I have been in science. I credit scientists like Mark Walport and many others in this room for this cultural revolution. Engaging the public and the media is now widely seen as what great scientists do. That change has been central to the Science Media Centre’s success. We are not just getting more scientists into the media…we are ensuring the media has access to the very best scientists and the highest quality evidence.
I also want to pay tribute to the Academy of Medical Sciences. For me this Honorary Fellowship is much more exciting than my OBE because I have such huge admiration for this organization. They tackle the hard issues, are bold and ambitious, and do everything in a meaningful and impressive way. They take themselves seriously and the public interest seriously. Every time I work with the incredible media and communications team I walk away feeling it has been a privilege.
My plea tonight to the fellows of this Academy is not to be complacent about the gains we have made. If you compare recent media reporting around mitochondrial donation and human genome editing to that around GM and MMR, you can see how far we have come. But I worry that our collective memory is fading. I see a rise in the focus on corporate communications teams who put reputation management above the public interest. At the SMC recently we have debated with comms officers who chose not to correct inaccurate reporting on anti-depressants for fear of antagonising their critics. And an engineering organization who refused to ask their members to comment on the Genoa bridge collapse because it interfered with their PR plans for ‘Bridge Week’ (complete with hash tags and emojis.)
While President Trump, the Pope and Theresa May felt qualified to enter the debate on Charlie Gard, the researchers and clinicians who treat similar children were told not to speak to journalists by their NHS Trusts. One University research communications team was closed down and turned into a corporate events team and some University press offices are being merged into marketing and development departments.
I think this matters, as do the science press officers caught up in these changes.
– In this room we know where the weight of good evidence lies on statins, but some patients are still scared to take them.
– We know that there is not yet any strong evidence that e.cigs are harmful, but 50% of smokers think they are as dangerous as smoking.
– We know that the best evidence shows that too much saturated fat leads to higher cholesterol which leads to heart disease, but celebrity chefs are celebrating the ‘come-back’ of fats.
As someone wise once said ‘You are entitled to your opinions. You are not entitled to your facts’.
The latest trust polls show yet again that over 80% of the public trust professors, doctors and scientists – trust levels that journalists and politicians would die for. You have earned this trust, you deserve it – but you need to use your trusted voice to good effect. Correcting bad science and fighting for the evidence may well fan the flames of a row, and it might not be the best thing for your institutions’ brand. But in these days of fake news and post truth, we need you more than ever.
Finally, critics of the Academy recently mocked you as representing ‘Eminence Based’ medicine. Well I for one am delighted to join this ‘eminent’ club. Thanks for letting me in.”