By Fiona Fox
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.
Last week we ran press conferences on climate change and CFS/ME. The subjects are complex and contentious, and there is always the potential for jarring or simplistic headlines and strong reactions from the vocal critics of research in these fields. But it was the criticism from within the scientific community that we had not anticipated.
A new study on climate change, published in Nature Geoscience, showed we might have a little more time in which to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avert potentially dangerous climate change. The other reported on findings from a clinical trial on a controversial treatment for CFS/ME denounced as pseudoscience by many, which revealed that some patients benefitted from the technique. Both briefings fitted the usual mould: top quality scientists explaining their work to smart science journalists and making technical and complex studies accessible to readers.
The coverage for both briefings was broadly fine. Well within the Science Media Centre’s (SMC) boundaries of decent coverage on issues at the extreme end of contentiousness. Some headlines on the climate study were a bit dubious, inevitably lacking the nuance of the copy beneath them; but you can hardly blame sub-editors who have been putting ‘worse than expected’ headlines on climate stories for a decade for relishing what seemed to be a surprising new twist. If you had only read the headlines for the CFS/ME story you may conclude that the treatment tested at Bristol might be worth a try if you are blighted by the illness, when in truth the author said repeatedly that the findings would first have to be replicated in a bigger trial.
So far so normal. Also normal was the seizing of selected headlines by the critics of science from climate sceptics to ME activists. But this time the SMC also came under fire from our friends in science. Some climate scientists were cross with the SMC for handing sceptics a gift and quack buster extraordinaire David Colquhoun tweeted, ‘More reasons to be concerned about @SMC_London?’ Other friends wrote to us expressing concern about the unintended consequences of SMC briefings – with one saying that policy makers were furious at having to deal with the fallout from our climate briefing and others worried that the briefing on the CFS/ME trial would allow the only private company offering the treatment to profit by over-egging preliminary findings.
Common to each case is the issue of what the SMC should do when faced with findings that can be misused or misrepresented by others.
I remember years ago when a BBC producer I was drinking with reacted with scorn when I said the SMC were not pro genetic modification (GM). A circular and admittedly drunken argument ensued. In the end, I think we agreed to disagree and I have since lived with the fact that many will describe us as pro GM, climate alarmist or pro statins. The strength of the scientific consensus on these issues is such that most of our output goes one way. Most scientists would in any case expect us to come down on the same side as the weight of good quality evidence. But I am still adamant that the SMC does not adopt positions on these issues. We are pro science, pro evidence and pro the scientific method. If a good quality, well-designed study were published, which overturned previous findings on any of these subjects the SMC would publicise it with the same enthusiasm as ever. This nearly happened in the case of the notorious Seralini study in 2012: several key journalists called saying they were looking at a new study showing that rats fed on GM maize developed cancerous tumours. The SMC had every reason to believe the study was significant and scientists were on the brink of demonstrating that GM can have serious health risks. What did the SMC do in the 24 hours before we got our hands on the paper? Did we discuss how to keep these findings out of the media headlines? Or discredit them before they reached the public? Did we work with the GM community to anticipate a backlash and prepare messages to limit the damage? No, we did none of these things. When we received the paper; we sent it to every expert qualified to read it and assess its strengths and weaknesses. We were careful not to restrict ourselves to plant scientists and made sure it went to experts on study design, statisticians, toxicologists and experts on animal models. In the event, all the experts dismissed the study as extremely poor with dubious statistics, poor methodology and dubious animal welfare. After receiving our comments, Lawrence McGinty from ITN news declared he was off to the pub and most print journalists led their stories with the critical reaction from the scientific community. The SMC won many friends in the GM community that day and picked up even more enemies from anti GM campaigns. But I have often wondered what the reaction would have been if the study had been good and we had helped to generate a raft of anti GM headlines.
The confusion I think sometimes comes from a sense that the SMC’s remit is to help ‘win the arguments’ on issues from climate change to animal research which are fuelled by misrepresentation of the science.
When we ran a briefing in which a top UK university was criticised for its animal welfare procedures by an independent panel of scientists, an angry academic called me up to say: “I thought the SMC was set up to stop bad headlines on animal research, not create them”. I had to explain that the SMC had never, and would never, block negative reporting on science when things go wrong. Our remit is to encourage and support good scientists to speak out openly and honestly about science in all its guises including the uncertainties, mistakes, poor standards, changes in evidence. If that delivers bad headlines on animal research, GM and pesticides then so be it. We will only ever win arguments on science if the public trust scientists to tell the truth, admit their mistakes and be open about uncertainty.
It would be churlish of any professional press officer to deny that part of our role in preparing for any press conference is to anticipate negative headlines, a backlash from the critics and frustration from policy makers for whom some findings may be inconvenient. In a busy press office, I cannot say we always get that preparation right. Our friends are right to hold us to account and to encourage lesson learning after every bruising encounter. Sometimes preparation, not spin, can make all the difference and scientists still do not understand the media enough to assume that they will know how to avoid walking straight into a bear trap. Nevertheless, anticipating headlines is different to massaging them. I know it will horrify many senior PR managers to hear this but we do not base decisions about which press briefings we run on how the findings will advance or set back a cause. In fact, we often book in briefings before we know what the results will be. When the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) announced they would conduct the biggest field trial on bees and neonicotinoids, funded by Syngenta and Bayer, we lobbied to host the publication before the study had even been designed – despite the fact we knew that if the findings gave neonicotinoids a clean bill of health we would come under fire. (In the event our critics seem less concerned about the SMC’s role when the results support their views).
The same was true of the findings of Kathy Niakan’s experiments using CRISPR/Cas 9 genome editing in human embryos, which were announced at the SMC the day after the climate briefing. It was only after booking in the press briefing that I learned that the findings were positive and we were not going to be announcing a major setback in the field of human genome editing.
I know some scientists are perplexed that we seem to take so little responsibility for ensuring the right headlines. Perhaps scientists and press officers reading this will even pause before coming to the SMC when we appear to take so little care of the potential damage that can be done by the ‘wrong messages’ getting out. This is not complacency or laziness on our part. It is a passionate belief in the integrity and power of great scientists communicating top quality research science openly, honestly and without spin. Evan Davis’ new book on post truth is in fact a book on PR and a fascinating (and depressing) insight into how the uber professionalisation of communication and media management in finance, business and politics has contributed to the deep public distrust on which post truth has feasted.
Science these days is many things; the academic researcher who sits in a laboratory conducting experiments to test hypotheses, the former scientist who now works in research council head offices deciding how limited research funds should be spent or the scientist who sits in government advising minsters in the hope of getting evidence based policy. We need all these people and should celebrate our greater influence in government. However, we should be careful not to start judging scientific findings only on whether they assist in science strategy or policymaking.
A colleague, who works in the field, commenting on the climate change story, said: “the scientists, walked into a big party including all the government officials, politicians, campaigners, think-tankers, business leaders and investors pushing to strengthen the Paris Agreement pledges next year, dropped a huge smelly fart and walked out saying “we’re scientists, it’s our job”. But maybe the scientists’ defence is precisely right. As one of the authors of the Nature climate paper said: “the numbers in the paper are the numbers in the paper”. Of course everyone has the right to challenge those numbers but that is science not PR.
No one debating the SMC’s role in these stories has explicitly suggested that we should suppress or play down findings that are likely to be misused but some clearly wish the SMC would adapt our media advice depending on what the findings say. It sounds utterly sensible. But the quickest route to a collapse in public trust in science would be for scientists to start playing down findings that might be misused. Fifteen years ago the SMC was set up to encourage academics to come out of their ivory towers and engage with the media and the public. Even a hint that they should retreat there when their findings are inconvenient scares me.