Friday, 19 September 2008

How I became a physics groupie

Clock this: September 2008 – the moment that particle physics became sexy. And no-one was more surprised than me. To put it mildly, I am not known for my enthusiasm for this branch of research. In fact, to the horror of some of my colleagues, I have long argued that it's not even really Science Media Centre territory. After all, the obscure controversies that preoccupy physicists – from string theory to dark matter – are not the ones we were set up to deal with. OK, about twice a year they make it onto the five to nine slot on the Today programme, but usually the only thing we learn is that even John Humphrys can sound utterly bewildered. No… the SMC was set up to deal with the controversial science stories that impinge on real people's lives, like whether MMR causes autism, could GM crops kill and so on. Let us leave particle physics in the capable hands of the clever press officers at the Institute of Physics.

That was until last week when the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN made me feel that nothing can be as important as finding out what the universe is and how it began.

So why the religious-type conversion? I think there are a number of reasons, but foremost among them is quite simply the things physicists have said in the mass media over the past 2 weeks and the way that they've said them. They have of course done a sterling job of explaining the science – to the extent that even I have been able to answer some (though not all) of my 9-year-old's probing and incessant questions.

But what has been more compelling is the passion with which an array of media-friendly physicists made the case for curiosity-driven research. "Surely the reason we are put on this earth is to ask the really big questions like what is the Universe really made of?" said one physicist on the Today programme. Another, Professor Ted Wilson, told journalists, "In a world run by accountants looking for short term gains from any research, LHC stands out as an unusual example of mankind prepared to spend resources on pure knowledge for its own sake." And far from being even slightly defensive about the lack of any obvious life-saving applications for their work, many of the physicists have emphasized that they have no idea what they will find. When asked if he was excited by the thought of the switch-on, Professor Antonio Ereditato replied, "Yes of course. This is like opening a window on an unknown view: you expect to see mountains but maybe you see a sea shore." This sentiment was echoed by Jim al-Khalili, whose reaction to those who worry that physicists will be disappointed if they fail to find the Higgs particle was to say, "On the contrary – that will be even more exciting because it will mean that we have new mysteries to solve. No matter what we find, we will be unlocking the secrets of the Universe".

In the face of this infectious passion and enthusiasm for blue skies research, those protesting that the money could be better spent on curing cancer or tackling climate change somehow seemed churlish. I am a huge fan of David King, but his call for scientists at CERN to design their experiments with climate change in mind hit a bum note, as anyone who watched him sparring with Brian Cox on Newsnight will testify. Cox, like so many other physicists on the airwaves recently, argued that those brave enough to ask the really big questions may well be rewarded with the cures for cancer and solutions to climate change that have so far eluded a more instrumentalist approach to science. And my favourite comment of all came from my hero Mary Warnock, whose concern with the applications of human genetics has clearly not blinded her to the need for more basic research: "To say that the money would be better spent on the health service or the transport system is like saying that the only point of universities is so that students can contribute to the economy. It is philistinism attempting to murder the imagination."

The other reason I've enjoyed the CERN thing is just the sheer joy of seeing particle physics as headline news. Just think of all those tortured discussions physics press officers have had for years about how on earth you persuade the arts graduate editors that physics is sexy. Well this time they did and not just in the posh papers. All the tabloids went big on the story, with the Sun running two double page spreads in the week of the switch-on. And I'd love to know who at BBC Radio 4 made the decision months and months ago to run a live broadcast from CERN on switch-on day and dedicate the whole day to the story. In these days of dumbing down, the person who trusted any audience to understand and enjoy something as impenetrable and complex deserves an ABSW award now!

Of course some may argue that the only reason LHC ended up on the front pages was the associated scare story about the possibility of the world ending, and I know a couple of seasoned science writers who feel that the price paid for physics in the headlines was too high. Now I realize that the Science Media Centre commending a good 'scare story' is a dangerous line to take, but I shall take my life in my hands and do it anyway. I have long harboured a sneaking suspicion that it's not the scare story but the way the scientific community and media react that really matters, and this case has made me braver about saying this out loud. With the exception of Martin Rees, who referred us to the CERN safety reports, most scientists seemed to seize on the media's questions about black holes swallowing us up as just a further opportunity to engage the public about the wonder of their project. Phil Dooley, from the University of Sydney, said "No, the world won't end as LHC turns on. Instead a new world of discoveries will open up as we explore further and further into space." Brian Cox's more colloquial response, that "anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat" earned him a place in the Times diary: "At last particle physics has its own Liam Gallagher."

Actually, the media didn't treat this as a normal scare story either. When the Daily Mail runs a headline like 'Are we on the eve of destruction?' on page 10 you suspect something is different, and when the sub-headline reads 'Man-made hole could swallow the earth (or then again not)' you can really relax. The Sun's coverage of LHC was superb – great science, great graphics, great quotes but as ever excelling all others in their choice of headlines. 'End of the World in Nine Days….Don't panic, there's time to try out every possible position in the Kama Sutra', followed by another double page spread the day before switch-on under the headline 'More Big Bang news on Thursday …hopefully.' As well as getting to write 'twat' in the Telegraph just weeks before his departure, Roger Highfield also had fun with the story for the day of switch-on: 'If it's 8:31 and you're still reading this', read the front page headline, 'then Professor Hawking must be right', and the Today programme presenters were having such fun with the black hole scare that they were forced to read out listeners' emails reprimanding them for taking it all too lightly. The doom-mongers' scary predictions on CERN merely offered yet another platform from which physicists could work their magic.

I know almost all my blogs include a little homage to the UK's science writers, but that's because so many of the scientists I meet still view 'the media' as an amorphous thing that's out to get them. Stories like LHC should remind us that we have some of the best science journalists in the world and it is undoubtedly because of them that we have ever more editors prepared to take a punt on putting complex and difficult science onto the front page. I have seen, read and heard some fantastic journalism over the past few weeks from our science hacks, and I think that as with the media's coverage of human-animal embryos, it is often the combination of great scientists with the best of science journalism that creates the magic. Anyone who has listened to Tom Feilden's many, many reports on Today will know what I mean, and here is just one short excerpt from Mark Henderson's coverage in the Times: "It is fitting that it is housed in caverns so large that they could hold the naves of great churches like Westminster abbey. These are cathedrals of a different kind, which celebrate the glory of knowledge and discovery."

And of course as a press officer I am well aware that none of this would have happened without the unsung and sterling efforts of press officers behind the scenes. Press officers at CERN, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Institute of Physics have been fantastic and seized on every aspect of this historic event to promote the wonder of science and showcase their specialism in the best possible way. I have absolutely no doubt that many of the world's future scientists will cite this moment as the spur to pursue a career in science. Tara Shears, a particle physicist at Liverpool who will be analyzing the data, was yet another scientist who seemed to be able to articulate beautifully what the switch- on means for her generation of young scientists: "Everything is ready. We are now going headlong into this journey into the unknown. It really is a bit like a moon landing for us." OK – so I still don't understand particle physics – but I have shared this kind of excitement and, more importantly, it seems so did the entire media and the public.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Nick Davies' Flat Earth News and 'churnalism' - myth or reality?

Anyone interested in the media and science should read Nick Davies' Flat Earth News, described on the dust jacket as 'exposing falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the Global Media'. Davies, a Guardian reporter, took a break from Fleet Street to apply his trademark investigative reporting skills to his own trade – breaking the unspoken rule of journalism that 'dog doesn't eat dog'. And he is paying the price – one newspaper editor interviewed on the Today programme spewed out a list of insults about Davies and the book and I haven't yet read a good review – even in his own paper. But, love it or hate it, no-one can deny that Davies has kicked off an important and much needed debate.

Within just weeks of publication it seems that 'churnalism' has already entered the vocabulary of anyone commenting on the media, and for me this is by far the most important aspect of Davies' wide ranging critique. 'Churnalism' is shorthand for a media that is now too commercially driven, too obsessed with speed and too understaffed to produce original and accurate journalism. In Davies own words: "Working in a news factory, without the time to check, without the chance to go out and make contacts and find leads, reporters are reduced to churnalism, to the passive processing of material which overwhelmingly tends to be supplied for them by outsiders, particularly wire agencies and PR."

Having been one of those who 'supplied' the media for over 20 years now I recognise Davies' charting of the changes. At the start of my career my relationship with journalists was much more one of separate individual journalists plying me for information, exclusive stories and new leads on lengthy investigations. Now things feel very different and it's not just the long boozy lunches that have disappeared. My starting point now is the need to adapt the most complex science to fit the needs of a group of science and health reporters who are routinely working on at least two or three stories a day and increasingly also being asked to adapt them to web news, podcasts, video clips, etc.

Having read this book I had to concede that the Science Media Centre's success can be largely attributed to the current condition of the media. We state that our role is to 'adapt the best science to the needs of the fast moving 24 hour media' and we take some pride in the fact that we do this on a daily basis. But I suspect Davies' would accuse us 'spoon feeding' journalists.

And on the face of it, it would be easy to look at the SMC's operation and call it a classic example of 'churnalism' – packaging science on a plate and presenting it to over-worked journalists in bite-size chunks that fit their time-frame and format. And it's not just us – go to any of the annual major science conferences from the AAAS to the BA Festival and watch the media operation – it's almost unheard of for any of the science reporters to actually attend any sessions or mix with the scientists or public attending the conference. Instead they stay in separate buildings, attend a series of 20 minute press briefings and hear a five minute version of what the festival press officers have identified as the most newsworthy talks taking place at the conference.

I watched with absolute amazement at my first AAAS in Seattle four years ago when David King, the then Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, enraged the press corps at his early morning briefing by failing to give them the top line of his major speech on climate change to be delivered to the main conference later that day. Looking on passively at the explosion of anger from the press corps at the end of his briefing I couldn't quite decide where I stood. Obviously given that his later talk would have been too late for their deadlines, I could understand their frustration – but the level of bile and anger spewed over King's hapless press officer for daring to ask that journalists actually attend his lecture and listen to the whole speech was a sight to behold. Clearly journalists have now come to expect, rely on and indeed demand that science adapts to their timescales. While I couldn't help having a sneaking admiration for Dave King's bravery I also made a mental note not to let anything like that happen on my watch!

Given that more than half of the press briefings we ran last year were our trademark 'background' briefings rather than new research, it stands to reason that all of these stories were out there for the taking if journalists had the time to leave the office and hunt them out. The fact that stem cell experts back in 2005 were considering using animal eggs in therapeutic cloning; the fact that paediatricians are operating in a climate of fear of reporting child abuse after Southall and Meadow; the fact that pharmacologists believe that lives are at risk because clinical pharmacology is being written out of medical training; the fact that the scientific community are lobbying the Government for better regulation of animal research; the fact that scientists are working on ways of processing foods that could help us lose weight; the fact that researchers in Aberystwyth have long ago worked out a way of reducing farting and belching from cows that will reduce methane emissions – I could go on and on. All of these stories were generated by what Davies calls 'churnalism' – delivered by the Science Media Centre press officers to a room of journalists rather than dug out by individual journalists investigating their own stories

But here's the question – does it matter? According to Davies "Fabrication is at the heart of PR , the fabrication of news which is designed to open the media door...PR is clearly inherently unreliable as a source of truth simply because it is designed to serve an interest." That description applies to much of PR but it is a deeply flawed generalization. Many institutions employ press officers because they generate real news and need to react to real news. I'm sure the press team at the British Veterinary Association occasionally do 'PR' to get coverage – but my only experience of them over the past few years is of an amazing team working weekends and evenings to help the news media get access to the UK's best experts on foot and mouth, bird flu, bluetongue and so on. And that applies to many of the science press officers that we deal with.

Yes the SMC packages stories – but all the stories we offer to journalists have been brought to us by a number of top scientists and their press officers, verified as significant by our many scientific advisers and written up by specialist journalists who use the briefing to interrogate the experts. In other words 'churnalism' is not always 'flat earth news'

Having used researchers at Cardiff University to analyse the source of the stories in the media for a sustained period, Davies concludes that over 60% of stories in the quality print media came "wholly or mainly from wire copy or PR material" and a further 20% that "contained clear elements of PR" and only 12% that could be classed as truly original reporting. According to Cardiff researchers: "Taken together, these data portray a picture of journalism in which any meaningful journalistic activity by the press is the exception rather than the rule."

Maybe so but where is the evidence that, because the stories were facilitated by press officers and packaged to suit reporters, they are not the truth? I would say in every single case the stories generated by SMC briefings were the kind of truth-telling stories that Davies champions. Perhaps Davies and all those concerned about the state of the media need to have a more discriminating and discerning look at PR and media relations. Maybe we need to reject corporate and institutional spin while championing a new breed of science press officers who feel that their role is to answer Davies' call to arms to improve science and health reporting.

Having said all that, I think many of the journalists I know would be the first to agree with Davies that they would love to be liberated from having to churn out so called 'diary' stories on a daily basis. Davies' fascinating chapter on the kind of luxurious timelines and resources enjoyed by the Sunday Times in the 1970s, in the heyday of their award-winning Insight Team, gives the lie to the editors' refrain that that there was no golden age of investigative reporting. The concept that a journalist may have days, weeks, even years to investigate a story is so alien it is hard to grasp. But there are enough veteran science reporters around to testify to a time when it was different. Anyone who has heard Tim Radford, the much-loved former science editor at the Guardian, will be in no doubt that his golden age was a time when he was allowed to spend most of his time out of the office spending time with scientists who occasionally let slip an amazing story. Nigel Hawkes, our equally respected health editor at the Times, is one of the few journalists quoted in Davies' book: "We are churning stories today, not writing them. Almost everything is recycled from another source…the work has been de-skilled".

Davies is illuminating something important here, and to his credit he repeatedly reminds us that our many talented journalists are the victims of this process not the instigators. Mark Henderson, the Times' science editor, would not get so many front page exclusives sitting in his office churning out stories, and some journalists like Sarah Boseley at the Guardian manage to do the diary stuff and then somehow produce a seven page feature revealing the true background to some news story. And there are many more examples of journalists that we work with flouting all the pressure and norms to produce original journalism.

I also happen to think that our main allies in this battle being fought by science press officers for a better media are the science, health and environment reporters in the media. As Davies points out, there are some terrible examples of grossly inaccurate media coverage in the news in recent years – but almost all of them have been written by non specialist reporters. Just this week we have seen what happens to the quality of reporting of human-animal hybrid embryos when the story passes from the science and health journalists to the political or lobby correspondents.

Obviously Davies' book is a critique of the modern media and as such legitimately shines a great spotlight on the problem areas. But the reality for those of us in science media relations is that we spend a lot of time celebrating amazing science reporting. To me, the fact that the Mail's science and health reporters can produce such accurate copy in the kind of atmosphere that Davies describes is nothing short of a triumph. Similarly, the fact that John Von Radowitz, the Press Association's science reporter, is churning out up to ten stories per shift can also be reason to comment on the genius of a reporter like John who can sit through an incredibly complex science briefing that would confound many scientists and translate that into a 500 word popular science story within half an hour . None of this is to challenge Davies' thesis – it is just to say that for those of us at the sharp end, there are plenty of reasons to cheer as well as to despair.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Where should politicians get their scientific advice?

Where should politicians get their scientific advice? Anywhere except the headlines!

God knows how, but I have managed to reach my 40s without ever having attended a party conference. However last year I managed to make it to Bournemouth to the Labour Party Conference after being asked by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to speak at their fringe meeting on how governments get their scientific advice. I did protest that I was the wrong person for the panel, but they were adamant that they wanted at least one person to address the role for the media in this area - this is what I said:

Well I’m the one person on this panel not qualified to talk about how the Government gets its advice on science so I shall restrict myself to saying this – wherever they do get it, they should NOT be getting it from the media.

In my five years at the Science Media Centre (SMC) I have organised hundreds of media briefings on complex and often controversial new science. I think the UK has some of the best science and health reporters in the world and almost all the coverage is accurate BUT at the same time as being accurate it almost always partial, simplified, de-nuanced, and ever so slightly exaggerated and as a result can be misleading - and I suspect that most journalists would be the first to acknowledge that.

A topical example of why politicians should not take their science from the media comes in the coverage of the recent FSA/University of Southampton study on the behavioural effects of artificial additives in food. We were getting calls from journalists reporting on this study, so I contacted several leading nutritionists and toxicologists to ask for their opinions. They all came back with strikingly similar answers:

1. It’s a good study but it does not give us definitive answers

2. It doesn’t say which additives are responsible for the effects or make a distinction whether the responsibility lay with the additives or with preservatives

3. The size of the effect was small – with an increase in hyperactivity of less than a tenth of that seen with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

4. It shows an association – but does not prove a direct cause and effect

5. This hypothesis needs further investigation

So that’s what experts thought. Now let’s look at what headline writers thought:

New Link Between E Numbers And Hyperactivity (The Independent)

E numbers 'link' to manic kids (Daily Mirror)

Food Additives Make Children Behave Badly (The Times)

Parents warned over food additives (Daily Mail)

Now I am not even criticizing the media here, because there was enough in this study to give them these kind of headlines. But what I am saying is that no self respecting politician should base policy on the media coverage of this science. I gather Gordon Brown came out that day to say he favours the removal of these additives. If Brown favours a ban on taste grounds, or moral grounds or democratic grounds then that’s fine by me. However the timing of his comments suggests to me that his view is based on rather misleading media reports of this research and that, I would say, is a long way away from evidence-based policy.

There is other worrying evidence that politicians are too often basing their policies on the media reports rather than the actual science. On the question of biomedical research on human-animal hybrid embryos, it is widely believed that ministers proposal to ban this research last December was heavily influenced by 'Frankenbunny' headlines and pictures of humans with cows heads. Subsequently, when the scientists came out fighting and generated what I think were the 'right' kind of headlines, the Government relented and it now looks like the research will be allowed to continue. As my friend, Professor Chris Shaw, said "Scientists-1; Scaremongers–0". But my question is, why the Government considers bans or green lights on such hugely important areas of research on the basis of news headlines?

A couple of years ago, a group of conservationists from the University of Oxford had a paper published in the journal Nature which was a fascinating deconstruction of a news story 'gone wrong'. They discovered that because of the misunderstanding of a scientific term Р'committed to extinction' (which apparently means something very different to 'will be extinct'), the entire media ran a grossly inaccurate story about a million species being wiped out by climate change. But what really shocked the scientists was that politicians had repeated the inaccurate figures РMargot Wallstr̦m had raised it in the EU and Margaret Beckett in the House of Commons. You could say that the scientists' idea that Beckett would spend hours poring over impenetrable language in the original paper just reveals their naivety Рbut I suspect the public too would rather like to think that when politicians cite a scientific study in Parliament that they are citing it accurately and not repeating sensationalised headlines.

So while I spend my working life persuading more scientists to engage with the media and passionately believe that scientists ignore the media at their peril, the more I see the disjuncture between the detailed research and the story, the more I want to encourage both the public and the policy makers to take a closer look. The news media does many great things for science: getting us talking about science, raising the alarm, setting the agenda, offering us fresh hopes of new solutions. It is, and is likely to remain, a poor place for politicians to get their scientific advice.