By Fiona Fox
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.
Earlier this week, I was invited to give the Charter Lecture at the Royal Society of Biology’s AGM. Below is the talk I gave.
First, I wanted to highlight the progress we have made in science in the media in the 21 years since I was hired to set up the SMC in 2002.
In the late 1990s I was working for CAFOD, one of the UK’s largest aid agencies. At that time, the media interest in the developing world was low and diminishing, but when it was covered it was almost always positive. After eight years at CAFOD, I was fed up with having to work with random B-list celebrities to get anything about overseas aid into the news (I can regale you over wine some time with my PR disaster taking Anne Widdecombe to Africa). Looking around for my next challenge, I noticed that science was having the exact opposite problem – it was regularly front-page news, but for all the wrong reasons. Typical headlines then were about ‘Frankenstein Foods’, ‘designer babies’, MMR causing autism, and animal rights extremism. I had no science background, but for a hungry press officer like me who wants to make a difference, the challenge was irresistible.
When I got the job and started to get my head around the science scene, several things struck me that I felt explained why science was not getting a good press.
Most scientists didn’t see it as their job to do media and, worse still, scientists who liked media work were considered ‘media tarts’. Researchers with a flair for public engagement usually hid the fact from their bosses, who might see it as a sign they were not serious about their research.
Those that did do media often did it selectively, maybe speaking to trusted journalists at the request of press officers on the day their journal paper was published, but then going back to the lab. There was certainly no culture of scientists rushing towards media frenzies, such as MMR or GM, that stayed in the headlines for months or years.
Unlike press officers in politics or at NGOs, science press officers were few in number and way down the pecking order in terms of status and influence in scientific institutions.
This lack of engagement also meant that science stories were often seen in newsrooms as the domain of general news reporters rather than science specialists. GM was often covered by consumer affairs journalists for instance, and MMR at various stages by political editors.
Twenty years on, I am happy to report that this picture is unrecognisable. Scientists now see engaging with the media and the public as part of what it means to do good science; science communications as a field has grown and professionalised; and science, health, and environment journalists are the first line of science reporting.
This revolution in the culture of science was clear for all to see during the Covid-19 pandemic. Media work was not left to the science popularisers, but seen as a critical part of science’s contribution to the pandemic.
Professor Sarah Gilbert is not a scientist who had ever courted or enjoyed media work, but she nonetheless understood that it was no use developing an effective vaccine if the public were afraid to have it. She did six press briefings with the SMC to patiently talk journalists through every stage of her results.
Professors Martin Landray and Peter Horby didn’t pass their clinical trial results to politicians to communicate, or say they were too busy running the trials to do media. They jumped on SMC press briefings every time they had new conclusive data showing that one of the treatments in the Recovery trial either worked or failed.
Over the two years the pandemic dominated the news, hundreds and hundreds of scientists did media work – ensuring that the public and policy makers had access to nuanced, evidence-based information. This was science communication at its very best when the country most needed it. Without a doubt, it saved lives.
The reasons for this profound change in science are many and varied. I like to think that the SMC has played our part, and many people kindly say that. But the truth is that we were set up because the science community had already recognised that something had to change. As the Church, politicians, the trade unions, and others had found before, the research community recognised that science also had to emerge from the shadows and earn public trust and a licence to practise. Organisations like the Royal Society of Biology and its predecessors can also take credit. When the leadership of our learned societies, funders and national academies started to champion the importance of public engagement and incentivise researchers to do it, things started to change. The phrase ‘media tart’ disappeared from the science community’s lexicon, replaced with a new respect for scientists who spoke about their research, as well as those prepared to enter the fray on media storms around contested science.
The other reason the culture change was so profound was that media engagement clearly worked. Having watched with horror as the public and policy makers turned their backs on GM, and a previously effective vaccine programme nearly collapsed, scientists were ready for a new approach. It ended up that changing the media narrative was not rocket science. When good scientists proactively made themselves more easily available to work with journalists, the media coverage and then the national discourse began to improve.
There could be no doubt that politicians voted to overturn a proposed ban on research on human-animal hybrid embryos in 2008 because of the way the scientists concerned engaged with the media. Indeed, leader articles in The Times and the Financial Times said as much, stating ‘scientists have found their voice’.
There could be no doubt that the media coverage of the annual statistics on the use of animals in research was transformed when scientists like Professor Nic Wells, and others in this room, seized the agenda from the activists to proactively brief journalists every year on the scientific developments behind the rising and falling numbers. Years of negative stories gave way to measured and balanced reporting.
This cultural revolution in science has been wonderful to be part of, and is worthy of celebration.
But I’m afraid I want to finish with a warning. Like every revolution, we need to work hard to maintain the gains and not become complacent.
Earlier this year, I was called to give evidence to the DCMS Select Committee exploring who the trusted voices in science are. The context for the inquiry is the Online Safety Bill currently making its way through parliament, and related concerns about how to deal with the growth of harmful misinformation on social media, such as incorrect claims about Covid-19 vaccines, 5G signals, and climate change.
Many witnesses called on government or media regulators to act to police the internet and remove misinformation. But my call to action is closer to home. When the SMC opened, we coined the phrase ‘the media will DO science better when scientists DO media better’ to reflect our sense that the thing that makes the biggest difference is when scientists engage rather than complain. Of course, scientists engaging doesn’t always go our way, and I have many scars to prove it. But there is now ample evidence that when good scientists engage in enough numbers in an open and honest way, we reap the benefits in improved media coverage and enhanced public understanding.
Yet despite all the progress I have cited, there are still a huge and important group of publicly funded scientists who are not available to the media to combat misinformation. This group of scientists is still discouraged from speaking to journalists – for reasons which often make perfect sense at the individual institutional level, but collectively amount to the public being denied access to many trusted voices.
Scientists at bodies that are wholly owned by, or arm’s-length from, a government department are not free to speak to journalists. There may be some managed media interventions occasionally with nominated spokespeople, but if any of any of you are scientists working for the NIBSC, the MHRA, UKHSA, the FSA, APHA, RCE, and many more like these, you will certainly not be encouraged to answer the phone to journalists, or engage regularly in ongoing controversies. And unfortunately, you will not be allowed to join the SMC’s database of experts providing us with comments on breaking news or new research.
And unlike my previous description of the changing culture, things are not getting steadily better in these arenas. Indeed, more and more science is being drawn into this heavily controlled and risk-averse culture. University or research institutes who are commissioned to do pieces of science for government often now have contracts which give political press officers leadership of the communications. University academics who have academic freedom are often subject to constraints if they agree to sit on a scientific advisory group to government. Both the former Chair and current CEO of UKRI have testified to excessive controlling tendencies from government departments, and we now rarely see the executive chairs of the Research Councils speaking openly in the news; a development that deeply saddened the late Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, who had often used his voice as head of the MRC to great effect.
When I raise this issue with scientists close to government, they invariably agree with me that we are missing out on some great scientists, but caution that the culture is entrenched and would simply be too hard to change. I’m sure that is true. But I think before we concede defeat, we should first ask ourselves collectively if it’s worth trying. As I have described, we have already collectively changed the culture of academic science to great effect. If we think misinformation is a serious barrier to progress in societal discussions, then surely we need to look hard at how we liberate more scientists to join the fight against it.
And remember, misinformation is not confined to anti-vaxxers on social media. On Friday night, I was dealing with a BBC story suggesting the government had lifted a ban on animal testing of cosmetics. On Tuesday night, I was dealing with the breaking news of the first UK babies born with mitochondrial replacement therapy – headlines again called the technique ‘Three-Parent Babies’. For weeks now, the media have been carrying opinion piece after opinion piece from those who feel that AI is a dystopian nightmare that may destroy humanity, and all research should be paused. And last week, the science community had to balance their huge excitement about a second promising Alzheimer’s drug with a responsibility to not raise false hopes of patients. All of these stories are stoking public and media debate. All need scientific experts to ensure they are properly understood.
I’ll finish with the good news. We don’t have to first earn the public’s trust, or battle widespread public scepticism. Poll after poll show that scientists are right up at the top of the groups most trusted to tell the truth, with over 80% trust levels that are the envy of politicians and journalists alike.
So, we are in a good position – we don’t need to sit around working out who has a trusted voice. You are here in this room. You already have the trust. But that’s only the beginning. That trust has been hard won, and from a public who now expect nothing less than scientists being seen and heard in every media story that affects them, from nuclear power and gene-edited food, to vaccines and vaping. When campaigners are pulling them one way and politicians the other, it’s you that they look to for the unbiased truth – always speaking plainly and admitting uncertainties, never playing politics or ideologies, never ducking a question. If that hard-won public trust in science is to be maintained, scientists need to show at every opportunity that they deserve it.