When Professor David Nutt called to ask if we would host the media launch of his new independent scientific committee on drugs, my reply was “Is the Pope a Catholic?”. David Nutt’s sacking from his position as Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs by the Home Secretary was one of the biggest science stories of last year and led to a huge debate about the role of independent scientific advisers. Needless to say there was huge media interest in this latest twist and if, as some suspected, the Home Secretary announced the new Chair of the ACMD the day before our briefing to distract attention, it had the opposite effect. David has amassed an incredibly impressive list of scientists for his new Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD) and three of them joined him on the panel, including a leading chemist, psychiatrist and psychopharmacologist. They all spoke incredibly well and convinced me that they will do important scientific work that can only help inform the debate on drugs. David explained that his new group would differ from ACMD because it will focus exclusively on the science and be geared toward informing public debate rather than government. It will of course also be independent and there was a fascinating moment where David and other former ACMD members on the panel described how liberated they felt working outside of government. The SMC strives to be as impartial as possible on issues like this, and we have in the past also run briefings for ACMD and with Professor Robin Murray at the Institute of Psychiatry, whose research focuses on the association between cannabis use and psychosis. But I do think Nutt’s committee is going to be an incredibly interesting experiment in truly independent scientific advice. While the government will want to ignore it I wonder if they really can. If, as seems likely, the new committee attracts lots of media attention, it’s likely to have a significant impact on the public debate. How ironic it would be if it ended up having more influence on government policy as a truly independent body than it did as an official one. We look forward to having these excellent scientists back in the Centre to report on their evidence gathering in future.
IFR/John Innes Centre
I had a great day at the Institute of Food Research and John Innes Centre last week. Zoe Dunford is one of the SMC’s favorite science press officers and each time I visit I am struck by how well she knows her scientists and her zeal for their research. As well as doing a talk about science in the media for a packed lecture theatre of researchers, I also met groups working on developing exciting new antibiotics and using the waste from biomass to create petrol. I finished meeting the new Director of IFR, David Boxer, who is an expert on the gut and he told me fascinating things about just how important this organ is and his plans to make IFR a centre of excellence in promoting our understanding of all things gut-related. I’m pretty sure each of these will make great SMC briefings and know I can rely on Zoe to keep an eye out for the right pegs to make them happen.
The Media Show
On the train on the way home I got a call from the producer of The Media Show on BBC Radio 4 to remind me about my interview the next day and talk me through the content. She explained that the interview would use the impartiality review on science announced by the BBC Trust as a peg to discuss science on the BBC, and that I should think of what the BBC does well and what it does badly and said examples would be useful. I spent the rest of the train journey texting friends in and out of the BBC to ask their views leading to some fascinating insights into which programmes people have loved and hated. In the event, the entire interview actually focused exclusively on climate change at the BBC and in particular their coverage of the UEA email-hacking scandal and the latest controversy involving the IPCC’s predictions about glacier melting rates. So there I was live on air, with notes in front of me that bore no resemblance to the subject I was supposed to be talking about, and at that stage blissfully unaware of what ‘glacier-gate’ actually was (a useful reminder that even the best of us can get hijacked on air). Steve Hewlett, the show’s feisty presenter, asked us to answer the charge that the BBC is soft on mainstream science and on climate change, and slow to cover stories that expose its flaws. The other guest, Mary Hockaday from the BBC, put up a robust defense of the Beeb and I at least got to argue something I believe in passionately – that climate change research must be subject to the same kind of journalistic scrutiny as any other area of science and politics. I believe that the science of climate change is rigorous and robust enough to stand up to journalistic scrutiny, and if and when it does fall down – as I now realise it did in ‘glacier-gate’ – then that must be exposed. Any other approach simply plays into the sceptics’ hands and does science no favours.
In praise of…the Met Office
The other nice thing about getting out of the office (and the reason I have not yet gone down the Blackberry route) is that I get to reach all the way to the Comment section of the Guardian. And on the way to Norwich I read Michael Fish’s spirited defence of the Met Office, currently under fire from all sections of the media for apparently wrongly predicting both a barbeque summer and a mild winter. I am absolutely with Michael and the Met office on this one. Because they are based out in Exeter, the Met Office use the SMC for most of their science-related press briefings and I have sat through their summer and winter forecasting ones for several years now. Despite what appears in the headlines the next day these briefings often end up as mini seminars on communicating scientific uncertainty, the limits of short-term and long-term forecasting and current state of development of computer modelling. One of the briefings that stands out was one to mark the 20th anniversary of the Great Storm of 1987. Lewis Smith, then environment reporter at the Times, supposedly spoke for all the journalists when he said, “All any of us need to know is what day and what time the next one is coming”. The good humoured Met Office scientists laughed and then punished Lewis with a painstaking explanation as to why science cannot deliver such certainty. Now, I’m a grown up and I accept that none of that nuance and uncertainty and caution makes the next day’s headlines – but I do think it’s a bit rich for the media who ignore all the stuff about uncertainty to attack the Met Office for getting it all wrong. Maybe the Met Office press officers will think twice about catchy sound-bites in future (though even here it seems a bit mean that scientists stand accused of failing to communicate in soundbites and then lambasted when they do!) but I think the media should come clean and admit that no-one would have booked a holiday in Skegness based entirely on the balanced, nuanced, cautious scientists that I heard in the SMC – the journalists did their bit too!
In praise of…Tom Sheldon
And talking of great articles in the Guardian, I hope some of you spotted my colleague Tom Sheldon’s brilliant response to Simon Jenkins’ latest rant about the global conspiracy to sell us swine flu vaccines. I normally love Simon Jenkins, especially when he’s writing about the UK’s foreign adventures, but when you really know what he’s talking about you realize just how lazy you can be when you’re a columnist. In fact when I die I want to come back as one – then I can write anything I like irrespective of whether it’s true and the more people I annoy the more chance of keeping my column. Anyway – thanks to Tom he didn’t get away with it entirely, and judging by the number of emails we’ve had praising Tom’s piece, he was talking for a lot more people than Mr Jenkins was.
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.