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the SMC experience

If you have read or heard anything about the Science Media Centre, then you will know that it is not a “normal” place to get an internship for a month – and this should not be surprising, because the very idea of the SMC is not “normal”.

All press offices have a cause that they are supporting, but the unique thing about the SMC is that their cause is a little different from the average. As the description on the website says, the SMC is “..an independent press office helping to ensure that the public have access to the best scientific evidence and expertise through the news media when science hits the headlines.”

I decided to apply to the internship not because I was interested in getting experience of a press office atmosphere, but because I strongly believed that the way science and the scientific process comes across in the media is extremely important, and something which needs to be actively supported. From the beginning it was clear that this was the best possible place to see this in action, and to learn what is involved.

After introduction to one or two people out of the eight or so in the office that were not on the phone, the basics were mapped out for me. I would go through the daily newspapers, collect and summarise their science-related stories, and then send them around the office so that everyone was aware of what had been said that day. There were then updates to be made to documents, specific stories on which to collect any and all press coverage from previous days, and countless other tasks which would quickly become standard by the end of the first week. Each of these, when isolated, might have seemed a bit mundane, but when in context I soon understood how they were an important part of the SMC machine, and also a very good way of getting a good understanding of what is required to provide the basis for the SMC’s work.

The work atmosphere itself was very open and sociable, but also highly focused. The first thing that I noticed was that Fiona Fox, the chief executive and cornerstone of the SMC from it’s beginning, was sitting next to me. Me, the intern. I don’t know whether this was planned from the beginning, or whether they had just never had time to build Fiona her own office, but it set a nice tone, and it was refreshing to work in an atmosphere where everyone was treated as equals, and everyone’s opinion heard.

Fiona and the team are of course the experts when it comes to knowledge of science stories in the media, but that does not mean they are experts in the science. One interesting thing that I realised while at the SMC was that the people working there were not necessarily scientists themselves. Yes, several have some kind of scientific background, and all have a general interest, but I don’t think many would consider themselves to have a detailed knowledge of the science itself. Their priority is helping scientists explain their work, and getting their voices heard in the media – neither of which requires a research background. It is the respect for the scientific method, and for scientific expertise, that is required, not knowledge of the science.

Crucially, the SMC does not just explain media to the scientists, they also explain science to the media. So much of what the SMC does goes out of the way to provide every opportunity for journalists to reach a good level of understanding in the research behind what they are reporting. The briefings that the SMC run are the main way they do this – inviting journalists in to hear directly from the scientists about the research they’re releasing, and giving the journalists a chance to ask questions and get a thorough understanding of the work from the best possible source. Misrepresentation of research in the media is always much more likely if the work is misunderstood from the outset. Of course, no amount of explanation from a scientist will prevent intentional twisting of the information, selective use of the facts, or an intentionally misleading headline, but it does greatly reduce the likelihood of genuine misinterpretation.

After having spent my four weeks watching this all in action, it was time to leave again, and I was replaced by the next intern from the long waiting list. When I told people about the internship in the following weeks and months, the response was usually “SM what? SMC? What do they do then?”. Most people are not aware of the SMC and the important work that they do, and since being there I have wondered many times how many science stories they have had an effect on, and how much better informed we are about the science thanks to them. In a culture where the terms “post-fact” and “post-truth” are increasingly used, the work of the SMC is more important than ever, but it is not commonly acknowledged.

As I said, I didn’t go to the SMC because I wanted an experience of a press office atmosphere specifically, but I am sure that if that is your goal it would provide as good an experience as any other press office out there. But one thing is certain – if your goal is to stick up for science in public discourse, then the SMC is where you have to go.

Tom Lickiss interned at the SMC: 29-06-2015 to 24-07-2015

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