Wednesday, 12 December 2012

I've moved!!

My blog has now moved to be hosted on the Science Media Centre website: 

All the old blogposts are available on the site, though please bear with us while we make some improvements (such enabling comments), which should materialise in the near future...


Friday, 13 July 2012

Explaining or exposing: it's more exciting than that

Heard the row about ‘explainers’ versus ‘exposers’ or between the ‘boat-rockers’ versus the ‘cheerleaders for science’?  No? My goodness guys where have you been? At the recent UK Conference of Science Journalists this apparent divide in science reporting became the main talking point of the day. Roughly translated the debate is between those who think that too high a proportion of science journalism is dedicated to rewriting the daily diet of press releases from journals or universities announcing wonderful new discoveries in science.  These journalists write well and skillfully explain complicated science to a mass audience but what they do not do, according to their critics, is ‘expose’ wrong doing in science, interrogate the scientific claims they are reporting or rock the cosy world of the scientific establishment by asking hard questions.

In the Meet the Editors session I chaired, Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian, conceded that there was perhaps less ‘boat-rocking’ from his science reporters than other specialists and while I missed the session on scientific fraud I gather that chief boat rocker Peter Aldhous from New Scientist added his voice to those lamenting the lack of this kind of reporting.

The day finished with a plenary session focused almost exclusively on the same issue.  Evan Davis, presenter of the Today programme, challenged the notion that journalism that ‘explains’ is the poor cousin of journalism that ‘exposes’. Davis argued that journalists should do the kind of journalism they are good at and pointed out that much that passes for investigative journalism is not very good.  According to Davis even the best exposés probably reveal less than we sometimes suggest and he quoted a psychologist’s observation that the MP’s expenses scandal effectively demonstrated  that, faced with a deeply flawed and easily corruptible expenses system, our politicians behaved like human beings – some easily corrupted, others less so and some positively angelic.  Davis summed up by saying that as long as ‘explainers’ avoid ‘group think’ this kind of journalism can be as important as any other and there is a danger that, if the ‘exposers’ take over the asylum, the quality of discourse could suffer and we might end up perversely interrogating and scrutinising the very people who actually do stuff and make things happen.

But Davis was challenged by the panelists with more experience of the science camp. William Cullerne Bown, founder of Research Fortnight argued that science journalism is failing by ignoring the stories about policy, funding and structure that are bread and butter to those reporting the worlds of finance and politics. Connie St Louis from City University, the main organiser of the conference, accepted Davis’ general points about the need for a ‘mixed economy’ of explaining and exposing but suggested that the balance has gone badly wrong in science journalism, leaving us overrun by science communicators, science writers and science PR.

The session was a great way to end a stimulating and fascinating day.  But I felt uneasy.  Boring as it is to be the one to say ‘it’s more complicated than that,’ I could not get that thought out of my head.  The idea that science reporting neatly breaks down into explaining or exposing just does not ring true for me.
I have never done the maths but I suspect that the amount of time the SMC spends working on the ‘explaining’ sort of stories is minimal.  Indeed we look on enviously at beautiful stories like the one last week where scientists at the MRC’s new research Centre at Imperial College London used scanning equipment for the first time to watch an infection unfurl in real time in an animal; Great and important science beautifully explained by great press officers and working with great science journalists.

But that kind of story rarely, if ever, ends up at our door.  For the SMC to get stuck-in a science story needs to be messy, complicated, open to interpretation and ripe for misreporting.  But where do these stories fit into the explainers versus exposers narrative?  What was Fukushima? The story that changed almost every hour, that unfolded in a total information vacuum from Japan, that was seized on by pro- and anti-nuclear campaigners to drive their messages home, that was scary, complicated, technical and hard to report.  And what about climategate, swine flu, volcanic ash, the sacking of David Nutt? True, lots of these also involve a degree of explaining the science, but the driving force behind none of them was purely explanation and there was hardly a press release in sight.

In fact Ian Katz could well have pointed with some pride to the Guardians’ coverage of climategate as ‘boat–rocking’. In their series of lengthy articles by seasoned environment reporter Fred Pearce, the Guardian peeled off layer after layer of the climate wars.  If journalism is intended to afflict the comfortable it certainly did the job and many climate scientists have never forgiven the Guardian for rocking that particular boat with such vigour.  And, more generally, whatever you thought of the media coverage of climategate you could not suggest that science journalists acted as ‘cheerleaders’ for science or spent their days rewriting press releases.

And there is another aspect of these debates that unsettles me. For the critics of ‘explaining’ journalism, it is often enough to summon the words ‘science PR’ to prove their point and rest their case.  The picture presented is of busy journalists with little time to do any more than rewrite material provided by the growing army of science PR officers working at universities, funding agencies and scientific journals.  Of course there is a strong element of truth in this scenario and (in its midst) you can find plenty of examples of science PR = science churn = journalists as mouthpiece. But it’s really not the full story and lots of the people in this chain are not playing the role assigned to them in this over simplistic narrative.

Bear with me while I muddy the waters from my own daily experience. How about the science journalists who regularly call the SMC to report terrible press releases and ask our help to find experts who will expose the weaknesses and caveats of the study? Not much churning going on there. And what of the science press officers working on stories like climategate, swine flu, Fukushima, animal research and the sacking of David Nutt? They were not churning out happy clappy PR, they were grappling with messy complicated stories, often trying to persuade reluctant scientists to get out there and engage, or fighting  against more senior conservative forces inside their organisations.

I’m quite sure that the SMC is seen as a classic example of ‘science PR’ by some of those who are critical of that concept.  But does that pejorative label really apply to what we actually do?

How about the story(£) we brought to the media this year about the intimidation of UK airlines and ferry companies out of transporting animals for research - a story that some in government and the scientific community had tried to keep quiet for seven years. Or the story we brought to the Today programme that revealed a group of CFS researchers were planning to abandon the field after a campaign of intimidation by activists – something that they had been too scared to talk about publicly before they met us. Or the fact that, along with our friends at UEA press office, we managed to get Phil Jones into the SMC to face journalists less than 24 hours after the latest stolen emails were dumped onto a website? Or the story we broke with our sister organisations around the world about the serious error about the extent of glacier retreat found in the internationally respected Times Atlas? I could go on and on. Is this science PR?  And what of the fact that about 80% of SMC press releases are essentially scientists and statisticians pointing out that studies that might look like a cure, cause or breakthrough are way too preliminary to be reported under any such headline.  Does ‘science PR’ include punching the air when we get another email from a journalist saying they have decided not to cover a study after hearing about the caveats from the SMC?

I think we need all kinds of science journalism - great explaining reporting, as we saw on Higgs last week, and much more investigative reporting that unearths fraud and holds the science establishment to account. But we also need a stock of science, media and environment reporters who can report the messy politicised controversies that engulf science just as much as any other issue. It would be ironic if those of us who care about science journalism enough to debate it and write about it ended up putting science stories back into a narrow ghetto of our own making at the very time when others seem to have accepted that science stories are actually just stories. By appointing science editors for the first time to sit alongside politics, economics etc. the management at the BBC and Channel 4 seem to have a better grasp of the breadth of science stories than we do.

For us and many other science press offices the biggest stories this year have been the row over the possible censorship of H5N1 papers, the extraordinary open letter on GM from Rothamsted, shale gas and the row over open access publishing.  These are messy complicated stories that don’t neatly fit the ‘explaining’, ‘exposing’ or ‘science PR’ camps. Perhaps this explains why these kinds of stories are so rarely even referenced in some of the debates about bad science. It’s time we included them.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Book Review: The Geek Manifesto - Why Science Matters

As originally appeared in BioNews 663.

The news that the Government had moved to ban all research on human-animal hybrid embryos came late in December 2006, just as Parliament had closed for Christmas and the media started to fill up with festive fluff. While I knew anger was growing in the scientific community I called all the scientists involved and asked them to hold fire until we could coordinate a press conference in the New Year. My argument was that the angry response from the scientists would lose potency if it trickled out through individual journalists in the pre-Christmas period when policy makers are away.

The scientists were uncomfortable, many having already agreed to interviews with science reporters with whom they had good relations. The science reporters were furious when their calls were met with a refusal to speak and one yelled down the phone accusing the Science Media Centre of getting way too big for its boots and 'manipulating' the media. But despite the pressures we held our ground and the first big media story that hit MPs on their return to Westminster was the angry backlash from the UK's leading stem cell scientists, splashed on the front page of the Times and dominating the Today programme.

That press briefing was the start of a year of well managed, skillful lobbying and media work by the scientific community which is praised by former Times science editor Mark Henderson in his new book, 'The Geek Manifesto - Why Science Matters'. 'Scientists were on the front foot and enlisted the media's assistance to get the result they wanted', he writes. 'The steady diet of embarrassing newspaper stories that they engineered was an important factor in the Government's U-Turn'.

Mark cites the campaign around the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (as it was) as one of many examples of a new found confidence among 'geeks' to seize the agenda and argue for evidence based policy. His book is explicitly a call to arms and sets out to 'explore how geeks can turn our irrepressible energy and analytical rigour into a movement with real clout'.

I remember meeting Mark ten years ago. The consensus amongst his colleagues was that Mark, a history graduate who had been asked to cover science by chance, would soon be offered a posting in Westminster or Washington. In fact Mark stayed covering science, was soon promoted to science editor, a role in which he flourished.

In his 13 years in the job he got as many front pages as many political editors - including several in fertility and stem cell science - areas familiar to BioNews readers. The fact that an ambitious young Times reporter could thrive on the science beat supports the key message of Mark's book – that science is on the march, no longer seen as an 'and finally' subject, and firmly out of the ghetto and in the mainstream of national debate.
My own conversion to science mirrors that of Mark and I especially enjoyed the early chapters of this book which pay homage to the scientific method and include great quotes from Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman and other luminaries. 'Science' writes Mark 'is anti-authoritarian; anybody can contribute, and anybody can be wrong [...] it is self-correcting, because of the importance it places on trying to prove the most elegant ideas wrong. It is comfortable with uncertainty, knowing that even at its best answers will simply be the better approximations of the truth'.

Mark seems to lurch from glass half full to glass half empty throughout the book. He is encouraged by the growing popularity of 'geeks' like Simon Singh, Brian Cox and Ben Goldacre and of the success of campaigns like that around the HFE Bill. But he also despairs of politicians who are either impervious to science or pervert it to suit their ideological preferences; 'many of them would prefer it if the policies they implement were never evaluated at all'.

There are certainly contentious bits in the book and it won't just be the anti-science brigade that Mark upsets. His belief that a scientific approach to problem solving is applicable to a 'surprisingly wide range of political issues' extends into areas like education and the law. My husband, a teacher, will doubtless be sceptical about another geek suggesting that neuroscience will ultimately offer insights to improve teaching.
Nor I suspect will the book go down well with critics of 'scientism', a term back in common currency for those who claim that science is the best way of explaining and understanding the world's problems. They have a point – Mark does little to hide his own preference for a world where policies on issues like nuclear power and genetically modified crops are based on evidence rather than ideology. 

But Mark's critics should not skip the section called 'limits to evidence' in which he states clearly that ministers are entitled to take all sorts of factors into account, 'when they weigh up how to act they are right to think about the expectations and aspirations of the people who voted for them'. 

So Mark, like Churchill, is for 'science on tap but not on top'. What he really objects to is politicians who pretend to base decisions on science rather than admitting that they have over-ridden science because of strongly held political views. He gives the example of former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's reclassification of cannabis as a class 'B' controlled substance. 

It follows from Mark's arguments that Smith was perfectly entitled to make a decision to criminalise cannabis based on the views of the police, Daily Mail editorials and voters. However she was not entitled to dismiss the evidence of her own scientific advisers and shop round for other science that suited her political stance.
Mark perhaps attributes a little too much of the rising popularity of science to its celebrity wing and geek bloggers when equal praise should go to the less high profile work of thousands of research scientists who have decided over the past 15 years that engaging the media and the public is part of their role (the many skillful press officers who support them in this are similarly overdue praise). But there is much to like about this book. Mark's skill as a journalist shines through and he makes many of his points through compelling stories of 'geek power' including the Simon Singh libel case, the grassroots campaign to maintain the science budget and the creative activities of opponents of homeopathy. That science now occupies a prominent place in society is surely proved by the fact that a book called 'The Geek Manifesto' is being taken so seriously by so many. 

Buy The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

UKCSJ: Leveson Inquiry, and what it means for science journalism.

 On Monday 25th June 2012 I gave a talk at the UK Conference of Science Journalists. Along with David Derbyshire (freelance environment and science journalist) and Bob Satchwell (Executive Director, Society of Editors), we looked at what the Leveson Inquiry means for science journalism. I was involved in this as I gave written and oral evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. My colleagues tell me that people were tweeting after the session asking to see the speech, so here it is:

There were four messages I wanted to get across during my oral evidence at the Leveson Inquiry:

 1.   We have some of the best science journalists in the world;

 2.   They are to be found in the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Mirror as much as in the Guardian and Times;

 3.   Because of this, the scientific community now relies on the media to convey important, complex and exciting stories to millions of people every day.;

 4.   BUT despite this

-things still go wrong

-it can sometimes matter a lot when they go wrong

-the SMC feels there are things we could do that could fix some of what goes wrong fairly easily


Lots people, myself included, get fed up people talking about MMR. It happened more than 10 years ago  and frankly, few come out of the story smelling of roses.

But there are some reasons why we should remember MMR, and this is relevant to Leveson’s remit of investigating the ‘culture, practices and ethics’ operating in newsrooms that could potentially harm the public interest.

 Much of the same ‘culture, practice and ethics’ that produced MMR remains in newsrooms; see if you recognize any of these:

 - The appetite for a great scare story

 - The view that ‘the more extraordinary the claim, the more the rush to publish’

 - The tendency to overstate a claim made by one expert in a small study which has not been replicated

 - The reluctance to put one alarming piece of research into its wider context

- The addiction to journalistic balance – which saw Wakefield and his supporters given the same space as the 99.9% of the scientific community who believed MMR was safe

 - The love of a maverick – the lone voice prepared to stand up to the medical establishment


For me, Leveson has provided us with a rare opportunity to reflect on:

- what would need to change in a newsroom to fix the things that go wrong;

- what would need to change to ensure we could not have a repeat of MMR.

It’s given us a chance to imagine and aspire to a new landscape…a new world;

- a world where news editors defer to their science specialists on all science stories;

- a world where headlines have to accurately represent the content of the story below them;

- a world where sub editors check the headline with science reporters;

- a world where newspapers could follow the Guardian and appoint editors and sub editors with a science specialism;

- a world where journalists see extraordinary and shocking claims from preliminary new studies as a ‘handle with care’ issue to be reported on the inside pages with the necessary caveats;

- a world where truth telling journalism means reporting where the weight of evidence lies rather than balancing every scientific opinion with an opposing view;

 -a  world where any codes on accuracy apply to comment and opinion as well as news;

- a world where a set of Guidelines on good practice in science reporting  is widely adopted by newsrooms;

- a world where a tough regulator ensures that there is a high price to pay for science reporting that falls short of these ideals;

Now the only question is; does Leveson share that vision, and even if he does, will anyone listen to him?

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Speaking out on animal research

A few weeks ago I was heavily involved in the story about the transport of animals for research.  The story, broken exclusively by the Today programme and The Times, revealed that over the past 7 years UK airlines and all ferry companies have withdrawn from carrying animals for scientific research after a campaign by animal rights activists.

Ever since learning that British Airways had pulled out in 2005 I had always felt that this story should be aired in the media, but the people on the front line of transporting animals urged caution.  While causing huge problems and extra expense, it was still the case that every time one company pulled out another was found to take on the trade.  As long as some routes remained open, and the UK’s scientific institutions were still able to get hold of the animals they needed, there was a strong feeling that this issue was better sorted out behind closed doors away from the media spotlight. But the problem was not sorted out and got steadily worse as the activists picked off targets one by one in a highly successful campaign. When Stena Line became the last of the ferry companies to announce that they would no longer carry animals for research in January 2012 those who had previously argued against media coverage changed their minds and agreed to speak to journalists.

There is much to be said about this story and, thanks to the extensive coverage by Today and The Times, many of the angles have already been covered in an intelligent, measured and accurate way.  But there is one issue I would like to address; for every scientist who agreed to take part in this story I spoke to many more that declined.  One organisation that transports animals into and out of the UK said they would prefer not to take part because they want to be known for their science rather than animal research.  And try as I did, I could not get a single pharmaceutical company to provide a case study. With the honourable exception of the brave academics put forward by the Medical Research Council and Royal Veterinary College, the journalists struggled to find anyone prepared to illustrate the problem with reference to their science.

This was not a new problem for me.  I have too many examples of this problem to list, but here are just a few: I once received an email about the official opening of an exciting new imaging facility jointly run by a university and a pharmaceutical company that told us that there should be no mention of the ‘A’ word in front of the press;  one head of comms at a science-based university told me that no-matter where I managed to find a scientist to speak on animal research it would never be from his university; and on the day that NICE licensed a new and controversial cancer drug I was contacted by a PR agency working on behalf of the company producing the drug and told to remove any reference to animal research from the list of quotes which welcomed NICE’s decision.  Nor is this reluctance always excused by fear of animal rights extremism – often people just feel that the public don’t like animal research very much and it’s just better not to allow this nasty bit of what scientists do sully the good news stories from  science.

One of the journalists writing up the transport story asked me whether anyone in the scientific community had considered generating a letter writing campaign akin to that of the animal rights activists.  He suggested that medical research charities could organize their patient supporters to write to BA, Stena Line et al to indicate that, far from deserting them for carrying animals, they will consider moving their custom elsewhere if they do not. It’s a neat thought and reminded me of a conversation I once had with a breeder at the sharp end of the problem, who says she has a recurring image of herself in the middle of a plane or a ferry asking passengers to “stand up if you use an inhaler; now stand up if you are a diabetic and use insulin; now stand up if you have cancer, have ever had cancer or know anyone who has it,” and so on.  It finishes with no-one left sitting and makes her point well – these customers benefit from the trade that others assume they will object to.

Nonetheless, I had to quickly disabuse my journalist friend.  While many of the big patient research charities now have statements on their website expressing support for animal research, and even produce leaflets on it, it would be wide of the mark to say they actively seek opportunities to speak on the issue and I think they are a long way from mobilising their supporters on the issue. With some honourable exceptions, research charities along with pharmaceutical companies tend to look to their umbrella group to ‘do animals’ for them, and I once caused outrage when I suggested adding a question about animal research to the form charities use to recruit media friendly patients.  Even to ask the question was considered beyond the pale.

If you want to think of anyone actually campaigning for animal research you would need to go back to 2006 to the wonderful story of Laurie Pycroft, the 16 year old boy who put mainstream science to shame by forming Pro-Test, his own organisation in support of animal research.  Tired of walking past the animal rights stalls in the centre of Oxford every Saturday, schoolboy Laurie walked into a WH Smiths, bought the necessary equipment and staged a counter protest, marking the start of a movement that at one stage saw thousands of scientists take to the streets of Oxford.  When the then Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Oxford to do a major science speech he requested that Laurie be in the front row of his audience so that he could publically salute him.

Much as I admire Laurie Pycroft, I’m not advocating that scientists take to the streets in support of animal research. My ambition is much more modest – that the scientific organizations, medical research charities and pharmaceutical companies who support the use of animals in research should stop avoiding saying so publically. Nor will there ever be a better time.  Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of the UK public support the use of animals in medical research if subject to tough and rigorous regulations (as is the case in the UK).  Blair’s support for Laurie Pycroft was one of many expressions of support from successive governments.  And a quick skim of the media coverage of the transport issue shows yet again that the entire British media supports the need for animal research and abhors the methods adopted by animal rights extremists.  Many of the extremists who wreaked havoc in the UK 8 or 9 years ago are in prison, and specialist police working in this field are make reassuring noises to researchers about the low level of threat.  People interested in evidence should know that that there is not a shred to suggest that anyone is targeted because they speak out (and certainly not the transport companies!).

I haven’t yet met a scientist who wants to use animals in research or would not use an alternative if available.  Indeed it is the scientific community who are coming up with ever more sophisticated ways to replace, refine and reduce the number of animals used, ably supported by the wonderful NC3Rs.  But in the UK we are still legally required to test new drugs on animals, and continue to need them to develop the new treatments and cures we desperately need.  For as long as that is the case scientists should be willing to defend this part of scientific research rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.

I know some will accuse me of being greedy.  In many ways the scientific community’s engagement in the transport story was a great example of how far we have come on the issue since the bad old days when Professor Colin Blakemore was one of only a handful of people who would speak on the issue.  Last week’s joint statement on transport was signed by a powerful group including the MRC, Wellcome Trust, ABPI, AMRC and LABA.  Pretty impressive.  But this success hides the fact that too many in science are happiest when no-one is talking about the animal research they do, and would prefer almost anyone apart from themselves to take centre stage.  I’m not sure that we can expect British Airways, P&O, Stena Line and all their customers to make a stand  for animal research while so many in the scientific community  continue to treat it as our dirty little secret.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Dodgy science headlines: PR can share the blame

Two weeks ago I was called to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. It was a nerve-wracking ordeal but also an incredible opportunity to say what needs fixing in our newsrooms to improve the quality of science coverage. Despite telling me to slow down no fewer than four times, Lord Justice Leveson summed up my breathless evidence by suggesting that it appeared to him that there is not too much to fix. This conclusion is bound to exasperate some observers, but I was relieved that he got my point that we owe a massive debt to the skilful science journalists who convey complex and important science to mass audiences on a daily basis.

Leveson also grasped that my real beef is with the non-specialists in newsrooms who get to make the decisions about what constitutes a good story, where it appears in the paper and under what headline. A lot can go wrong between the accurate copy of a science reporter and these three decisions. Yet it is the overinflated headlines and the front page billing that raise unnecessary fears and hopes, and damage the public interest easily as much as the hacking of celebrity voicemail.

Most of the reactions to my appearance at Leveson were positive but one science reporter pointed out that when Leveson has finished scrutinizing the press, he could do worse than looking at the press officers who collude with the worst instincts of news editors in order to get their institutions’ name in lights.

People know that I am a huge champion of science press officers and it’s the combination of their work and that of great science reporters that creates all that is good about science in the media. But as with our newsrooms there is still stuff to fix. I am not sure if anyone has ever done any research on this but I have a horrible feeling that if we took the worst newspaper headlines and traced back their origins – we may find the press release was to blame in far more cases than any of us would care to admit. We’ve now got to the stage where not only do the best science journalists have to fight the perverse news values of their news editors but also to try to read between the lines of overhyped press releases to get to the truth of what a scientific study is really claiming. Quite right too you might say – it’s their job to see through PR hype – maybe – but no press officer should be proud of the fact that their press release had to be toned down by reporters.

Just days after my evidence to Leveson came one classic example to join the many shockers I have seen over the years. A science journalist called to alert us to a press release about a new study investigating whether silver compounds can be toxic to cancer cells. We do not record the number of calls we get like this but maybe we should start to. The reporter was asking us to get comments from third party experts to help him convince his newsdesk that this press release was overhyping the study being published. Under the heading ‘A silver bullet to beat cancer?’ the top line of the press release stated that ‘Lab tests have shown that it (silver) is as effective as the leading chemotherapy drug – and may have far fewer side effects.’ Far from including any caveats or cautionary notes up front, the press office even inclulded an introductory note claiming that the study 'has confirmed the quack claim that silver has cancer-killing properties’.

It was already fairly late in the day and the story was for immediate release – already bad practice for a press release on a peer reviewed publication, but we managed to get a comment from the wonderful Professor Edzard Ernst which we sent out immediately. It read:

“This is an interesting test-tube experiment demonstrating that various forms of silver can kill cancer cells. While this line of inquiry is certainly worth further study, it would be very premature to draw any conclusion in terms of the treatment of human cancer. A plethora of compounds have similar activity but, for a range of reasons, cannot be used clinically. Any recommendation to use silver in any shape or form to cure cancer patients would, at this stage, be wholly irresponsible.”

The quote confirmed what my colleagues had first thought – that this was a nice piece of inorganic chemistry showing what scientists show all the time – that compounds do interesting things to cancer cells in a petri dish. Last week it was a compound found in tomato sauce, this week it’s silver, next week it will be something else. We should be glad that researchers are testing these compounds and even happier when, as in this case, their studies identify interesting and potentially promising lines of enquiry for future research. But none of us should be glad that these small, lab-based studies are described by anyone as proof that silver is ‘as effective as the leading chemotherapy drug – with fewer side effects’. As Professor Ernst states clearly, any such a leap is ‘irresponsible’.

The next time those of us in the scientific community criticize the ‘the meeja’ we should remember that most of our newspapers did not run this story, despite the opportunity for a great headline. But some of the tabloids ran it with headlines mimicking the top line of the press release, including ‘Silver safer than chemotherapy and just as effective’ and ‘Silver bullet for cancer: Metal can kill some tumours better than chemotherapy with fewer side effects’.

Of course none of us should be naïve here. Papers need to be sold and entertaining headlines sell papers. Institutions need profile and name checks. When I was a press officer for an overseas aid agency it was nigh on impossible to get the name checks my bosses wanted in a media that cared little for the developing world. It led to desperate measures. I once commissioned a MORI poll asking the British public if they would prefer the government to mark the millennium by building the dome or cancelling third world debt. No other options were offered. The poll results came in on the very day that Mandelson appointed a 10-year-old boy to decide on parts of the content of the ill-fated dome, a move ridiculed by the media who were kind enough to reference CAFOD’s poll and debt relief campaign in their coverage: bingo! At my leaving do, one of my colleagues at CAFOD told how I reacted to the Policy Team’s decision to award 9 out of 10 to a long-awaited new White Paper on Development. I angrily pointed out that the media would be wall-to-wall Oxfam and Christian Aid unless we brought the marks down to below 5. CAFOD, being CAFOD, refused but the fact that I would do anything to get a name check was not lost on my colleagues.

So I know plenty about dodgy PR and the desperation to get a mention. And I don’t question the motives of the press office for a minute. Their job was to get media coverage for this study and a bland press release stating ‘Small interesting effect noted in petri dish’ was unlikely to deliver. Furthermore, the very same press team kindly cooperated with us when we were scrambling for a copy of the paper and gauging interest in the story - so this blogpost is not intended to single anyone out. But there are things I think we can learn and I do think that science is different to other subjects. Plus, I think within science anything that appears to offer patients real hope of cures and treatments for killer diseases should ring massive alarm bells and be handled with special care. If newspapers and press officers could follow the credo ‘Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence’ we would lose much poor science coverage overnight. I’m not sure we need a Leveson for PR but I do think if we are asking newspapers to clean up their act and stop over-claiming for small provisional studies, we should do the same.

Friday, 25 November 2011


Am I the only one who thinks the British Medical Journal's call for an independent inquiry into University College London's role in the Andrew Wakefield MMR saga is a bit OTT? Perhaps I am and you will all put me right on this, but until you do I’m leaning towards thinking it feels wrong.

Before I explain why, let me say two things. Firstly, I love Brian Deer. He is the personification of a kind of investigative reporting that inspired me to study journalism, a kind of journalism that is almost nonexistent in science today as most reporters struggle to file 3 or 4 news stories a day and to escape the dreaded diary. Secondly, no-one, with the exception of maybe Brian Deer and Andrew Wakefield, talks about the MMR scare more than I do. You cannot tell the story of the SMC without talking about MMR. I never do a speech without talking about it, or debate the issue of science in the media without referring to it. It is the seminal example of how potent a media scare story can be and of the lessons we must learn.

But do we really need to pursue one of our finest science universities for a small part they played in a now discredited paper published 13 years ago?

It was Deer’s continuing revelations about the extent of Andrew Wakefield’s scientific "fraud" that prompted the BMJ to call on UCL to set up an independent inquiry earlier this year. Ten months on and with no action from UCL the BMJ has now referred the matter to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology stating, "if UCL does not immediately initiate an externally led review of its role in the vaccine scare, we believe that parliament should do it."

Let me explain why I’m uncomfortable with this.

I cannot see what is to be gained from yet another expensive and lengthy inquiry into what went wrong on MMR. No story can have been more scrutinised than the story of MMR. Brian Deer has done brilliant work, shining a light into every aspect of this complex issue and picking over the detritus of an ever murkier story. And Deer’s work prompted others to do the same. The SMC’s handy media-friendly Timeline on MMR gives dates for all the various actions resulting from multiple investigations: the date that the Lancet partially retracted the paper (2004), then when they fully retracted the paper (2010), when the GMC announced their inquiry (2007) and 3 years later when they found Wakefield guilty of serious professional misconduct in May 2010 and struck him off the medical register.

It is also seems especially harsh on UCL. At the time the Lancet paper was published in 1998, the Royal Free Medical School was not even part of UCL. Most of Wakefield’s fellow authors have retired and moved on. As is the way with universities these days there have been many reorganisations since then and almost all the approval processes for research are unrecognizable compared with those in 1998. As a result of the GMC ruling on Wakefield last year, UCL has already initiated a review of its research governance, which is ongoing. The current Provost Malcolm Grant has been the head of UCL since 2003, five years after the Lancet article was published, and is generally considered by his own scientists to be doing great things for science at a very challenging time for universities.

The BMJ makes the point that it would compound the original scandal if we did not heed the warnings from this wrongdoing. I could not agree more. But are we really unable to learn those lessons without another major inquiry?

As it happens I think things have already changed because of MMR – especially in the media. I have been in rooms when editors admitted they called it wrong on MMR and claimed that they defer to their specialist science and health reporters more because of the fallout from that story. It’s also the case that one of the reasons MMR comes up so often in every discussion about science in the media is that there are no more recent examples with quite the same wide-reaching impact. The fact that a scare story that broke 13 years ago is still being discussed suggests that to some extent, all of us are doing things differently. I would certainly like to think that the presence of the SMC now means that the scientific community engages more effectively and more swiftly when extraordinary claims are made on weak evidence.

There were other positive spin-offs which few people mention, like the way a much-neglected condition came to the fore. In 1998, autism was common but badly neglected by doctors and the research community. It isn't now. Talking to vaccine scientists, I gather that they have also learned much that is helpful from this episode that has global value. After all MMR wasn't and isn't the only vaccine that people worry about, however irrationally.

However, while many things have changed for the better, there is still some way to go. While Brian Deer and the BMJ have recently focused on the scientific misconduct in this sorry story, there were many angles to this controversy. Of most interest to me was the way that a weak scientific study, combined with the statements that Wakefield made at a press conference which went way beyond the paper, were seized on by a media hungry for a scare story. Sadly this is still a lethal combination that sees far too many scare stories hitting the headlines. And here’s the thing: the medical journals themselves are a critical part of this chain. A high percentage of the scare stories we see each week come from the key 5-10 medical journals. Many are genuinely alarming and are covered in a balanced and accurate way. Others are sensationalized by reporters or sub editors. But some are studies with significant weaknesses that are not always highlighted as much as they could be by the journal press releases or by the authors announcing the results. We know this because several times a week the SMC issues third party reaction to these studies which attempt to put them into context and spell out the limitations. A quick glance at these comments will show that the phrase 'extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence' is a message that should be applied to journals as much as to journalists. Everyone involved in publicising scientific research has the responsibility to get it right.

I agree we should continue to talk about MMR – it remains the most recent and dramatic example of how poor science and bad reporting can cost lives. But I think the time for the 'blame game' may be over. When Baby P died some people got so carried away with wanting to punish social workers that they lost sight of the fact that Baby P was killed by his mother and her boyfriend. Hardly anyone involved in the MMR saga emerges smelling of roses, but in the end the person most responsible has been identified and punished appropriately. Instead of now focusing on UCL I think it’s time to concentrate our efforts on improving the way we all communicate science to the public, ensuring something like this never happens again.