Monday, 30 July 2007

Embargoes, helping or hindering good science journalism?

There has been much discussion in various fora about David Whitehouse's provocative tirade against the embargo system. Many of the reactions defending the embargo system I agree with, but there were a couple of points I wanted to add to what's already been said.

Firstly I would like to point out that the discussion about whether embargoes protect or prevent good science journalism slightly misses the point about embargoes - that they are the property of science press officers. Journalists can engage in all the discussion they like about the embargo system, but the truth is that it is likely to continue because embargoes are one way that science press officers can have some control over the stories we give to the media. If we want the story to be seen or heard by policy makers we can slap on a midnight embargo to make sure MPs wake up to it on BBC Radio 4's Today programme and in the morning papers. If it's a story that we would prefer to reach the general public, we can embargo it to get on the main BBC and ITN TV news. The embargo is something that press officers use to help us do our jobs – to get the best possible coverage for our institutions' work.

And let's face it guys, the embargo is about the only thing we do have control over. Even with the best media management in the business we have no control over what journalists do with our stories. There was a salutary reminder of this at the Science Media Centre (SMC) this week. Having successfully persuaded the Home Office to get on the front foot by issuing their annual animal research statistics at an SMC media briefing (rather than the old policy of sticking the data on their website and waiting for the anti-animal-research groups to give the story to their favourite journalists), we woke up with horror to see that half the press led with Ed Balls' (Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families) father attacking the rise in animal research. Not that I was counting or anything, but our mates at The Guardian gave the previously unheard-of Prof Balls the headline, lead paragraph and six paragraphs to attack the rise in animal research compared with only three for the contents of the briefing itself. But hey, that happens all the time, and not just in science – read any spin-doctor's diary.

Of course that doesn't mean that we should abuse the embargo system and I accept that there has to be a good reason to embargo a story as well as some rationale for the timing. When the SMC embargoed a media briefing on clinical trials after the Parexel disaster for the Sunday papers, we were rightly ridiculed by the dailies for slapping an artificial embargo on an ongoing public health story. But in most other cases the objections from journalists tend to relate to whether or not the embargo time suits them. I love the Today programme dearly but when producers occasionally do that "do you know who we are" thing I now take a perverse pleasure in telling them that I do indeed know who they are but that this time we're trying to reach 8 year olds so the embargo is geared around Newsround! As I have said before in this blog, no matter how much we go out drinking with journalists, there will come a time where the fact that they are journalists and we are press officers will put us at loggerheads – and in my experience that tension almost always comes to light over embargoes.

My only other reaction to David Whitehouse's polemic is to ridicule the notion that the embargo system is somehow preventing hoards of intrepid investigative science journalists from digging out original stories. Quite frankly I find that ludicrous. Science stories do not only appear in embargoed journals or press briefings. There are beautiful science stories blooming in every scientific institution in the country just waiting for some science reporter to pluck. After spending a day with scientists at IGER (the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research) in Aberystwyth two years ago, I told at least 10 journalists that they should pay a visit because there were some great stories to be found. Not one took me up on the idea, but when I persuaded an IGER scientist to come to London to sit on our panel on "farming and climate change" last week, every journalist went crazy over the wonderful story of modifying grass to reduce the methane being belched into the atmosphere by cows. It wasn't the embargo system that had prevented journalists getting this story, it was the long slow train line to Aberystwyth. And if embargoes do thwart journalists from getting their own science stories, how come so many of our science journalists do just that? How come Mark Henderson has broken so many of the cutting edge fertility stories that have graced the front pages of The Times? How come Rachael Buchanan and Fergus Walsh have got so many exclusives on the BBC 10 O'clock news? Did they break any embargoes? No, they pursued stories and kept in touch with scientists.

It is kind of Whitehouse to argue that the embargo system discriminates against Sunday papers, but the best Sunday journalists are not complaining. Robin McKie, science editor of the Observer, has been taking pot-luck on finding a story at the institutions he visits almost every Tuesday and Wednesday. On trips organised by press officers like Sheila Anderson at NERC (Natural Environment Research Council), he meets scientists, takes time to discuss their research and almost always finds his story for that Sunday's paper. Far from whinging about being cruelly denied stories from the journals, McKie tells me he feels liberated from the pressures that his colleagues on the dailies face and says it's a privilege to have the time and space to meet amazing scientists and dig out stories that no one else has. Likewise his colleague on the health side, Jo Revill, has won more awards for her journalism that we've had hot dinners – and in five years I've never heard her complain about being excluded from the embargo system.

So I'm afraid I find little to agree with in Whitehouse's article and indeed his starting point – that the embargo system produces shoddy journalism –simply does not ring true.

I want to give the last word to my friend Geoff Watts, a long serving BBC health and science reporter, whose witty reaction to David Whitehouse's article neatly sums the majority view; that embargoing journal stories almost certainly improves the quality of science reporting and we remove it at our peril:

"What a splendid idea! Drop all the barriers, get shot of this fuddy-duddy idea about having five minutes thought before we burst into speech and print. Then science too can reap all the so-evident benefits of more general 24 hour news: such as raising the quotient of speculation to established fact; and such as getting the first available "expert" to comment rather than the best one."

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Why we need the best journalism on public health stories

My favourite bit of Sunday is when I finally get to sneak away to a quiet corner of our house and settle down to read my Observer. Last week however it ended up being the unsettling bit of my weekend. When I saw the headline I had to check that I hadn't picked up the Mail on Sunday by mistake – but there it was under the Observer masthead: "New health fears over big surge in autism. Questions over triple jab for children". This front page splash linking a rise in autism with the joint Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine coincided with a two page exclusive interview on the inside pages with Dr Andrew Wakefield, architect of the MMR scare, who is due before the General Medical Council (GMC) Fitness to Practise Panel this week to face charges of misconduct in relation to his research on MMR.

"This had better be good", I thought as I hungrily devoured the piece.

The article was based on a leak of unpublished research into the rising levels of autism. The top line was that as many as one in 58 children may have some form of the condition - much higher than the current highest estimate of one in 100.

You would think that was already a shocking enough story – but then in paragraph three the reason for the headline becomes clear. Apparently two of the seven researchers privately believe that the rise may be connected to the MMR vaccine. The claim is elaborated on in the fourth paragraph where the two researchers are named as Dr Carol Stott and Dr Fiona Scott. Though the paper made it clear that Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, leader of the research group and one of Europe's most respected autism experts, does not accept the link, alarmingly almost ten years after Andrew Wakefield sparked off a frenzied debate over a link between MMR and autism, the Observer's front page was suggesting that there is still a serious dispute amongst leading experts as to whether he was right. Predictably several papers repeated the MMR allegations the next day and countless columnists, including James Le Fanu and Peter Hitchins have cited the Observer piece as evidence that the MMR autism row is still alive and well.

One of the challenges for the Science Media Centre (SMC) was what to do about it. We were set up in the wake of media furores over issues like MMR and we know that poor journalism on public health is our territory. However we also know that the SMC philosophy (the media will 'do' science better when scientists 'do' media better) was a reaction against the culture of complaint within science which often saw top scientists complaining privately about coverage rather than pro-actively engaging with the story.

With this in mind, the SMC reacted to the article primarily by coordinating a joint media statement by 14 institutions involved with child health and vaccination to back the safety of the jab which we issued to coincide with the GMC hearing. However I did also send a note to Denis Campbell, the journalist who wrote the article and a friendly contact of ours, to make sure he knew that the SMC was unable to defend the piece to the angry scientists who were contacting us. The result was an invitation to meet with him, the readers' editor and a variety of other Observer news editors at their offices. So, with two leading MMR experts at my side, I went to highlight the concerns.

One of the main points that I made at that meeting was my belief that in science reporting the rule of thumb should be that the more outrageous the claim the more the need for the best standards of journalism – a rule which is often interpreted in exactly the opposite way by journalists hungry for a sensational scoop. I then argued that I would take this rule even further in this peculiarly sensitive and important public health issue. The claim that MMR may cause autism, made by Dr Andrew Wakefield in 1998, produced one of the biggest rows in public health for decades and millions of pounds of public money have been spent on scientific studies researching the evidence for a link. Not a single reputable study has found any and just last year the SMC coordinated a joint appeal from many of those involved in child health that the media now draw a line under this row unless and until it has compelling new evidence. Many autism experts have echoed this call and issued their own plea for resources to move from the obsession with MMR to investigating the many other possible causes - including genetics, environmental factors and so on.

Given this context, I would argue that the bar for evidence in any newspaper splashing on a link between MMR and autism needs to be much higher than for other stories. In my view the Observer really needed to have produced stunning evidence of a link between MMR and autism to justify re-running this particular scare story.

Stunning evidence it wasn’t. The two researchers cited are experts in autism but not in MMR and the study they were involved with was nothing to do with MMR. In fact it had nothing whatsoever to do with what causes autism at all - it simply looked into prevalence of autism. As such, the authors private views on MMR are neither significant in terms of public health or in any way relevant to the Observer's story. In fact I'm tempted to say that their private views as to what causes autism are no more significant than my mum's view - something on which it seems Dr Fiona Scott agrees: when contacted the following day by the Telegraph she was not prepared to repeat any private views in public and instead voiced her support for MMR and her decision to get her daughter vaccinated.

One of the news editors pointed out that that any article reporting a dramatic rise in autism would prompt readers to turn to the question of MMR. I accept that but the way to answer those readers' questions is with an accurate summary of the balance of evidence against any link. Instead, any Observer reader whose mind turned to the question "is MMR to blame?" was provided with the answer that two out of seven experts believe it is and one believes it is not - a reckless distortion of the real balance of views within the scientific community.

Ironically, if this piece had appeared in certain other campaigning papers, no would one would even bothered complaining. The fact that it was in the Observer, which has a reputation for excellent science and health coverage, made it worth challenging. The fact that senior editors invited us in and the acknowledgement by the readers' editor Stephen Pritchard the following week that the MMR allegations should not have been included in the autism story reassure me that the Observer have seriously reflected on the scientific community's concerns and their responsibilities as journalists - that should be welcomed.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Professor John Henry (1939-2007): tribute to a media friendly scientist

John Henry was a dear friend of the Science Media Centre and, judging by the reactions I received by sending out news of his recent death, was also much loved by the many journalists he helped over the years. We met John soon after the Centre opened five years ago when he sat on our plush couches at the Royal Institution sipping wine and telling us that the way for scientists to improve the quality of science reporting is to get stuck into to helping journalists. From that day on, John Henry never failed to return our calls - no matter what time of the day or night and no matter how controversial the story.

When the tabloid press splashed the story about a planned ricin attack on the London Underground - Professor Henry was the expert who balanced the hysteria by pointing out that London commuters could in fact sleep in it or swim in it with no problem because ricin would be fatal only if it gets into the blood-stream. And that was one of many scare stories that he challenged. When campaigners for tougher controls on chemicals in the environment repeatedly grabbed news headlines and Daily Mail front pages for discovering a 'cocktail of toxic chemicals' in samples taken from breast feeding mothers and the cord blood of new-born babies - John spent hours telling journalists that this was unscientific scaremongering. He patiently explained that, for toxicologists, what mattered was 'at what levels the chemicals were found' and 'whether there was evidence of harm' - information that was not forthcoming from the campaign groups, despite him contacting them directly on many occasions. One of his many comments we issued on this story was typical of John, "I would have been surprised if they hadn’t found chemicals at that level. You find traces of flame retardant because we have them in our homes. That's why fire deaths have plunged. These chemicals are monuments to mankind's progress."

However, while John was sanguine about scare-stories on chemicals in the bloodstream, he was anything but relaxed about the other dangerous toxins we put into our bodies. He was one of the world's leading authorities on drugs and poisons and in earlier life helped set up the now famous Poisons Unit at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital. As Professor of Accident and Emergency at Imperial College London, he told us that he had pumped out the stomachs of one too many drug addicts and binge drinkers to be relaxed about the effects of illegal drugs. John was an expert witness at the inquest into the death of Leah Betts who died after taking an ecstasy tablet on her 18th birthday in 1995. Following this he became outspoken on the risks of the recreational drug, earning himself the nickname as 'Mr E' amongst his colleagues. In comments for the Science Media Cetre, Professor Henry often added that society should spend more time worrying about the harmful stuff we put in our bodies every Saturday night than scaring everyone to death about unproven risks.

Never normally one to shy away from controversy - the one time he apologetically backed off was when he gave his opinion that the Ukrainian political leader Viktor Yushchenko had been poisoned by dioxin. He and I both felt that the time when we received calls from Ukrainian 'journalists' asking where he lived, may be the time to draw a line. However, he didn't steer clear of East European poisoning stories for long and the truth is that few in the UK media covering the Litvinenko story did so without help from Professor John Henry.

As with many scientists who choose to do high profile media work on controversial issues, John Henry wasn't without his critics: with some government advisors suggesting that he spoke out before the full facts were known in the Litvineko case. It saddens me that the last time I met him before he died - just a few weeks ago - he was worried that he had been given some inaccurate information by the doctors treating Litvinenko that could have affected what he said to the media. However I would passionately defend John in this regard: everything he said was based on the most incredible expertise and knowledge built up over many years and while the Litvinenko story was changing by the hour, every fact professor Henry provided - about thallium, radioactive thallium and finally polonium 210 - was accurate. As I have said previously, the demands of our current 24 hour media mean that if John Henry and others like him had not spoken to journalists until the full facts were known, the press would simply have had to use people with less knowledge and expertise.

As if John hadn’t done enough for the Centre by doing hundreds of media enquiries at anti-social hours, John also spoke to politicians, editors and scientists at our request. When we asked him to speak to 250 media shy academics as to why they too should enter the media fray, he amazed us all by revealing that he was an early victim of Ali G in an interview on drugs. But far from being humiliated or outraged by the experience, John took it with his usual humour and assured our audience that after that, John Humphries or Jeremy Paxman had been a doddle. His final message to the scientists in the room was "if you want the story about your science to be accurate, keep your mobile phone switched on."

After hearing the news of John’s death I searched for some of his emails only to bring up hundreds from journalists thanking us for putting them in touch with him, all saying how friendly and useful he had been. My colleagues here, and at Imperial College press office, now dread the inevitable moment when a story breaks in his area and we cannot pick up the phone to him.

My final act for John Henry was to ensure that the media he served so well paid tribute to this amazing man and together with Imperial College press office we got his amazing obituary into the Times, Telegraph and BBC Radio 4's Last Word. In doing so, we all learned that he had been an even more amazing character than we thought and were literally stunned by the news that he had become a celibate member of the devout Catholic group Opus Dei since the age of 20 and had been to mass every day ever since.

We also learned that John had given up medicine for several years in the 1970's after his kidney failed. He received what must have been one of the earliest kidney transplants in 1976 and returned to a full and active life in medicine. In April this year that kidney failed him and he died from complications caused from removing it. Fittingly, on the day he died, he featured prominently in a BBC Horizon on poisons and drug use in 'the perfect murder'.

Somewhere along the way, John Henry announced himself on the phone as Uncle John and allowed us to treat him as our friend as well as an expert from our database. We will miss him so much, and so will society. He was a rare example of a brilliant scientist who, in-between saving lives and pursuing amazing research, invested time and energy in ensuring that the British public got the best possible information from the media about his areas of expertise. We need more scientists like him.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Why experts need to speculate, without speculating

The Cumbrian train crash was just one in a long line of stories that saw me and my colleagues asking experts to speak in the media about what went wrong before anyone could possibly know what went wrong. And let me tell you these are the times when you really do need to take a deep breath before calling a scientist, because it’s almost inevitable that one of the experts we call will be seriously outraged at being asked to speculate in the media before the full facts are known.

One of the experts I spoke to on the liquid explosives scare last summer shouted down the phone that the police had asked people not speculate and he expected the Science Media Centre to comply with that request. Others get less cross but are no less strident in their refusal to join the frenzy of speculation that is now a permanent feature of our 24–hour–news culture. One of the train experts I called this week insisted that no self respecting scientist or engineer would take to the airwaves without access to the full facts on what had gone wrong.

This is particularly familiar territory for the Science Media Centre. After all, we were set up five years ago precisely because leading figures in the scientific community recognised that the absence from the media of the best experts on issues like BSE, GM crops and MMR mitigated against a balanced and accurate debate. So asking scientists to enter the fray before the full facts are known is kind of part of the job description. It also happens to be something that I now feel passionately about.

Breaking news is, by its nature, based on speculation and guess work –from the horror of six healthy men on the verge of death after a clinical trial went wrong to the images of the poisoned Russian dissident to the outbreak of bird flu in our turkey farms.

But speculation and guesswork is not what scientists do best. And of course you could argue that the scientists refusing to speculate are simply displaying all that is special and distinctive about science. The search for truth and respect for evidence and accuracy that drives the pursuit of knowledge by scientists is about as far removed as it could be from the media’s needs at times of breaking stories. I will always remember the sharp intake of breath in a room of 200 leading scientists at the Royal Society when Simon Pearson, news editor of The Times, calmly told them about the first rule of journalism: “to the question ‘do you want it good or do you want it now?’ there is only one answer”.

It also stands in sharp contrast to the culture of politicians, protest groups and NGOs who often see these huge breaking stories as an opportunity to get their messages over and raise their profile. The Soil Association certainly did not let the lack of full facts stand in the way of them using the outbreak of bird flu amongst Bernard Matthews’ turkeys as an opportunity to voice their opposition to factory farming. Similarly news of disasters at GM crop sites or nuclear power stations are seized on by opponents of these technologies with breathtaking speed.

And good for them - campaigners exist to raise awareness of their issues and put them on the political and media agenda. I know, I did it for many years. But it does make it all the more important that scientists and engineers enter these discussions as well.

One of the train experts who objected to my call (and not just because it was 9am on a Saturday!) argued that the integrity of expertise is intimately bound up with the refusal of real experts to imitate other groups by speaking before the facts are known. And there is a beautiful logic in this position. After all, surely the way to counter irresponsible and possibly dangerous speculation by non-experts is to not play the same game.

But it’s exactly because of this integrity and respect for evidence that I want the public to hear from this expert. It’s precisely because when he goes on the air he will refuse to speculate that I want him to do the interview. It’s specifically because what he says will be based on 10, 20, 30, often 40 years of expertise in this field that he will be a million times more qualified to speak on this issue than many of those who happily make themselves available for interview. At times when people quite literally fear that they will die – from Sudan I in our food, ricin on the underground or travelling on dangerous trains – I want to hear about the real risk from real experts, not self appointed ones.

When media headlines screamed out that terrorists were planning to wipe out hundreds by throwing ricin on a packed underground train, many of us thought we could be facing our worst nightmare. Yet the first ricin expert I spoke to told me that, in fact, we could swim in it, eat it or sleep in it with minimal effects and that to kill us it would need to be injected inside our bloodstream (as it famously was with the sharpened tip of an umbrella to kill a Bulgarian spy, Georgi Markov, in 1978). Getting this expertise into the media very quickly changed the shape of that story.

When six men are lying dying in a bed after a pharmaceutical clinical trial and I am already hearing patient groups and politicians on radio talk-shows saying this proves that animal research doesn’t work and that companies are taking risks with people’s lives, I want to hear from scientists who can explain why adverse effects don’t always show up in animal trials and who can balance a horror story with the facts and figures about how many clinical trials take place with no problems. Not knowing what had happened in this particular case needn’t be a barrier to experts sharing what they do know about monoclonal antibodies, first-in-human trials and the importance of both!

And here’s the rub – we never ever ask scientists and engineers to speculate. In fact we encourage them not to. When the media were claiming that Litvinenko was poisoned by thallium, our physicists made it clear that they had no more information about what was killing him than anyone else, but were happy to be interviewed on what they knew for fact about thallium, then radioactive thallium and finally polonium-210. However counterintuitive for the scientists, they did accept our argument that it was better for them to talk to the media at this time, rather than self appointed experts who could fuel scare stories with their partial knowledge.

So what I’m arguing here is that society needs to have access to the best science and engineering precisely at times when these issues are headline news and the public and policy makers are most engaged with them. The truth is that when the full facts are known about this latest crash it will probably merit a 100 word article on page 10 of The Times; no-one will be listening, no-one will be worrying. The time to inject expertise into the public debates about vaccines, clinical trials, train crashes and similar issues is when they are in the news.

The expert that starts an interview by saying, “I cannot speculate on what caused this crash and nobody should until we have the results of the investigation – but I can tell you this about the infrastructure of this model of train…” will be injecting much needed accurate information into a story as well as reminding the public that what is good about scientists is their integrity and respect for facts. The Science Media Centre's philosophy is that “the media will start ‘doing’ science better when scientists start ‘doing’ the media better”. We are not in a position to change the media – but we can respond to Simon Pearson’s first rule of journalism by offering to help the media to “have it now AND have it good”!

Monday, 22 January 2007

Stem cell scientists seize the media agenda on human-animal embryos

Setting up a press briefing a few days before Christmas for a few days after Christmas on an incredibly controversial subject with some of the UK’s most important scientists should have been a nightmare. In fact the opposite was the case for the Science Media Centre after eagled eyed Evan Harris MP and leading stem cell expert Stephen Minger spotted a sentence in the Government’s White Paper on fertility laws published in late December which proposed a ban on the use of human-animal hybrid embryos for research.

As emails started circulating with the text of the White Paper more and more researchers expressed deep dismay that this important area of stem cell research might be banned. I won’t go into too much detail about the science here – not least because unless you have been on holiday in Antarctica – you are likely to have seen the specific process described in great (and accurate) detail in everything from The Sun to the BBC News at Ten. Put basically, what scientists want to do is to further their understanding of certain diseases by studying stem cells from cloned embryos, a process known as therapeutic cloning. However because of the severe shortage of human eggs for this kind of research some have applied to the HFEA for a license to use animal eggs. What they would do is empty out the rabbit or cow egg and put in the nucleus of a human cell – taken from an adult with the disease they want to study - and induce it to become an early stage embryo which would be destroyed at 14 days after they had derived the disease specific stem cells.

What has worried stem cell researchers so much about this surprise proposal is that no reason has been given for recommending a ban apart from the strength of opposition to this research voiced by those who responded to the Government’s consultation on fertility laws. In other words it looks like a government that has gone out of its way to promote the importance of stem cell research may be about to ban one aspect of it for no other reason than a perception that the public don’t like it – and the prospect of ‘frankenbunny’ headlines.

The SMC has history on this issue – it was at our Fertility Rumble press briefing this time last year that Chris Shaw, from Kings College London, first told journalists that he and Ian Wilmut were amongst others considering applying to use rabbit eggs to allow them to pursue their therapeutic cloning research into motor neurone disease. Having seen the media reaction and some of the ‘frankenbunny’ headlines, we immediately spoke to a group of stem cell experts and invited them into the Centre to run a background briefing on these human-animal hybrid embryos. We also continued to organise briefings and interviews as the scientists submitted their applications to the HFEA later in the year.

The SMC reacted to the news about a proposed ban by arguing that this development should be seized as an opportunity to remind public and policy makers this research is needed. We suggested an emergency media briefing to take place in advance of a HFEA meeting scheduled for early January where two applications to use animal eggs were due to be discussed.

With the enthusiastic backing of their respective press officers, Ian Wilmut from Edinburgh, Lyle Armstrong from Newcastle, Anne McLaren from Cambridge and Chris Shaw and Stephen Minger from Kings College arrived in the Centre on 4th January to face a room packed full with science and health reporters from almost every conceivable national newspaper and TV and radio station.

There’s something special about a briefing like this where something big is at stake and that’s how it felt on the day. In what one journalists described as a ‘feisty’ briefing, these scientists made a case for the use of rabbit or cow eggs that was compelling, humane, reasoned, passionate and just plain convincing. The arguments just kept coming: the cloned embryo is almost 100% human and the HFEA has already licensed therapeutic cloning of human embryos; it will be destroyed after 14 days; the stem cells are for research only and not to be used as therapies in patients; there will be no living thing produced; no-one is harmed by the research and so on and so on.

For me however the highlight of the briefings was when Chris Shaw, a clinician who sees patients with motor neurone disease every day of his life, told us that despite years and years of research the scientific community has been unable to find a cure or even effective treatments for this most terrible of terrible diseases. Suddenly the moral equation seemed to have changed and it felt to me like it was the Government and those seeking to ban this research who have a case to answer – when tens of thousands of people are suffering and dying – how can they morally justify closing the door on an avenue of research that many experts agree offers real promise? Rather than scientists playing with nature – these scientists came over as people dedicated to improving the quality of life while their opponents are playing politics and running scared of lurid headlines and the pro-life lobby.

Waiting for the media coverage from SMC briefings is always an anxious affair – after all we specialise in presenting the most controversial science subjects to the national news media – it’s a risky business. Though after 4 years at this job I have turned into something of a cheerleader for the national media’s specialist science and health reporters and was less worried about their coverage than about their headlines writers and picture editors. But despite a few images of cute bunny rabbits and the more annoying pictures of 6 month old foetuses in the womb, the coverage was overwhelmingly positive, balanced and accurate. It was also everywhere! Many papers, including The Times and the FT ran leaders supporting the researchers case and many others ran supplementary ‘fact boxes’ explaining the science in great detail. The midnight embargo allowed the Today programme to run not one, not two but three packages on the story as well as making it their lead story on the news bulletins. And thanks to the wonderful science reporters on the Daily Mail, that most important of newspapers ran a beautiful piece pointing put the threat to patients if the HFEA turned down applications for this groundbreaking research!

Such was the intensity of the coverage that health ministers who had refused to put anyone up for interview on the Today programme had to change their mind and agree to an interview on The World at One. And after a week of answering stupid questions about his Christmas holiday in the Bee Gees’ mansion, Tony Blair returned to face very serious questions about his Government’s intention to ban important stem cell research. His response – that he felt sure this research would be allowed to go forward if it could be shown to improve the quality of life for ill people – has given the researchers hope that this wrong-headed proposal won’t make it through to the final legislation.

In the days that followed more of the same kind of media coverage appeared with the scientific community keeping the pressure up with a joint letter to The Times organised by Evan Harris MP and signed by 50 leading experts including three Nobel prize winners and the head of the Royal Society. By this stage other prominent scientists were entering the debate with statements of support from people like Mark Walport from the Wellcome Trust, Colin Blakemore and Chris Higgins form the MRC and many medical ethicists. Within the space of a week there had been so much media coverage of this issue across the whole spectrum of tabloids, broadsheets, radio, TV, on-line etc that few people in the UK could claim to not have heard about human animal embryos. And because the coverage was generated by the scientists, it was their message on this research that came over loud and clear. Interestingly the on-line opinion polls carried out after people had heard the issues explained by the researchers came out very differently to the government’s consultation with nearly 60% of those polled by BBC on-line voting in favour of licensing this research.

So even by the SMC’s standards the first week of 2007 has been both exciting and satisfying. But I hope it will be more than that – I hope that the way these scientists reacted to the threat to their research can act as a model of how scientists should react when other crucial science is under threat. These scientists have done everything right. They have been briefing science and health journalists at every stage of their application to do this research so that by the time the government signalled a plan to ban the research all the key journalists in the national news media already understood the complex science and the compelling case for the research. I have no doubt whatsoever that the media coverage was so good because of the established relationship between these two groups.

Secondly these scientists seized the media agenda in an exemplary way. Despite voices suggesting that lobbying MPs should be done in private and that we should wait to see what the HFEA decided before going to the press, the scientists agreed with the press officers involved that by proactively briefing the media in advance of the HFEA discussion they would have more chance of getting the science across in an accurate and balanced way. This kind of boldness and pro-active approach to influencing public and political discussion is rare in science and obviously scientists rightly don’t want to turn into campaigners – but occasionally there will be policy decisions that are bad for science and bad for society and the scientists doing this research deserve to have their voices heard in the national debate.

A week after our briefing the HFEA announced it would not follow the Government in seeking a ban on research on human animal embryos but will launch a public consultation in which the scientists will be invited to play a significant role. A victory for a brave pioneering group of scientists whose voice was made loud and strong and influential because they were prepared to engage with the media on this most controversial of subjects – the Science Media Centre was proud to be associated with it.