Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Science funding and Channel 4 film on the green movement

It was great to learn from science minister David Willetts that those of us who spent the Saturday afternoon before the Spending Review outside the Treasury forcing the words 'science is vital' into the verses of Pink Floyd classics did not waste our time. Danny Alexander greeted Willets on the following Monday by jokingly accusing him of dispatching the 2000 white-coated scientists to disturb his last minute preparations.

Of course it was not Willetts who set up the grassroots group Science is Vital, and nor did the scientific community need any encouragement from the new science minister to raise their voice about the importance of protecting the science budget. Groups like CASE did a great job of arming scientists with the facts to demonstrate that cutting science would undermine economic growth, and that case was delivered eloquently and passionately by influential scientists like Martin Rees, Colin Blakemore, John Krebs and a host of Vice-Chancellors.

But while many believe that the surprise decision to protect the science budget can be credited wholly to the scientific community, I think we are neglecting the role of the media. Not only did science reporters succeed in getting science a decent slice of the coverage, even compared to coverage of defence, education and health, but it was striking that some of the best arguments for the science budget were made by the science reporters themselves.

Mark Henderson’s success at persuading editors at the Times that the science spend was an exceptional case was evident in front page splashes, extended coverage and excellent leader articles. Science and education specialists at the Guardian also obliged after mounting a search operation for scientists considering a move out of the UK in the event of a savage cut in their research grants – they were not hard to find and the story was splashed across the front pages while decisions were still being made. And veteran science reporters like Mike Hanlon on the Mail and Roger Highfield at New Scientist penned powerful comment pieces on why science should be seen as special case. Meanwhile over at Research Fortnight the journalist who probably knows more about science funding than anyone in the Treasury, William Cullerne Bown, was characteristically blunt: "Trying to slim down public spending by cutting science is like trying to lose weight by blowing your brains out."

So maybe those who struggle to acknowledge that the media often does science a great service should be more gracious right now – the media they so often despair of may well have just helped rescue them from savage cuts. And before others shout 'going native' let me assure you that it will be these same specialist reporters who will now hold the government to account when the finer details start to emerge. Within hours of the good news that the science budget had not been slashed it was science reporters who grilled Willetts on the real terms cut and the confounding factors around the capital spend. In a first for the SMC, William Cullerne Bown presented Willetts with a massive bunch of flowers at the post-review press conference thanking him for 'making our day'. But the new science minister would be foolish to think that William or any of the other science journalists will not now scrutinize every aspect of the science spend. The beauty of specialist journalists is that they care about science but they also know and understand science enough to do what journalism is meant to do – speak truth to power.

Channel 4 film

It was our good friend Prof Howard Atkinson, the plant scientist from Leeds, who alerted me to last week’s Channel Four film 'What the Green Movement Got Wrong' after letting me know he was due to take part in the live studio debate straight after. Howard has more reasons than most to take an interest in this subject after his publically funded field trial of genetically modified nematode resistant bananas was destroyed by anti-GM activists a couple of years ago.

When I first read the publicity blurb alarm bells started to ring – with strong echoes of the kind of deliberately provocative film that got Channel 4 into so much trouble with the Great Global Warming Swindle. But having settled in for the night to watch the film and the studio debate that followed I was pleasantly surprised. What was so wrong about GGWS was that it mixed legitimate opinion with seriously distorted and inaccurate science. Unlike GGWS this programme didn’t even claim to be about science and there were mercifully few graphs or pie charts. Instead it told the story of the personal journeys of four or five prominent environmentalists who have changed their minds about issues like nuclear power and GM crops – primarily it seems because of the greater threat posed by climate change. There were odd bits – I thought the clips about Chernobyl and DDT were unnecessary and over-stated, and nor do four or five talking heads signify any kind of revolution in green thinking. But it was hard not to be fascinated by someone like Mark Lynas explaining how he has gone from ripping up GM trials in the middle of the night to now supporting their use.

Not surprisingly the representatives from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth who appeared in the studio debate straight after the film after were far from happy, accusing the film of caricaturing them as anti-science and ideological. I’m sure this film was not easy to watch, and if the shoe had been on the other foot I’m sure I would be shouting about lack of balance. It is also true, and not disputed in the film, that effective campaigning by these groups has put many issues on the political agenda and achieved benefits for the environment. But that effectiveness has given green groups an enviably high media profile and significant influence on public and political opinion. Programmes raising questions about their approach are relatively rare, despite the fact that in my 8 years in science I have heard hundreds of wonderful environmental scientists saying many of the things repeated in this film by Tim Flannery and others.

One of the first big stories the Science Media Centre got involved with was the media launch of the Farm Scale Evaluations on GM crops, commissioned by the then environment minister Michael Meacher to assess the impact of GM on biodiversity. The four year field experiment was conducted on the ground, largely by idealistic young ecologists working for world class environmental science institutions – almost all of whom started out as members of either Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, or both. By the end, however, many had handed back their membership cards in protest at the trashing of their trials and the constant condemnation and misinformation by green groups. The environmentalists in the film are pretty opinionated, self assured, senior guys, and the filmmakers had fun presenting them as having turned on the movement that spawned them. But actually another film could easily be made about the silent majority of mild-mannered environmental scientists who have also come to despair of the way in which campaign groups have misused science.

In the Guardian environment blog the next day my old friend Andrew Simms said, 'The curious unsettling question left unanswered is why do GM food and nuclear power get disproportionate attention?', echoing another contribution from Craig Bennett from FOE saying that GM and nuclear are actually 'distractions'. But scientists have often posed precisely that question to green campaigners, even arguing that by separating out GM and shining a light on this one technology, environmentalists have allowed other new farming techniques with potentially greater impacts to avoid scrutiny or regulation. In eight years of running science press briefings on agriculture, climate change and energy I have never heard scientists making an isolated case for GM or nuclear. Most engineers and energy experts invariably agree that we must have both nuclear and renewables to cope with growing energy demands and climate change, and plant scientists involved in plant breeding believe that both conventional and genetic approaches are needed and should be researched.

I thought the film was thought-provoking television, and the debate that followed was robust and informative. And as someone rightly noted, it was also three hours on prime time television where everyone agreed on one thing – climate change is a real and pressing challenge and we need a proper grown up debate about how best to handle it!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

The media on UEA: guilty as charged?

At the press briefing in the SMC for the third and final inquiry into the UEA emails, Sir Muir Russell, Chair of the review, dared to hope that a line may now be drawn under this particular row, if not under the debate over climate change itself. But one row that has been reignited by Russell is whether the media were right to give this story such prominence in the first place when no smoking gun has been discovered and no 'scalps' have been delivered.

Dr Myles Allen, Oxford climate researcher, used his reaction to the Russell review to reiterate his early criticism of the media:

"What everyone has lost sight of is the spectacular failure of mainstream journalism to keep the whole affair in perspective. Again and again, stories are sexed up with arch hints that these 'revelations' might somehow impact on the evidence for human impact on climate."

Allen speaks for many scientists who have been dismayed by the apparent willingness of the media to give credence to the selective interpretation of the hacked emails that was first splashed around the world.

I have blogged before on why we should not appeal for special treatment for climate science, but there are also specific reasons why I don't agree that the vindication of Professor Phil Jones et al on the substantive issues of their science and integrity amounts to a guilty verdict against the media. It's just not that simple.

Firstly I think it's crucial to emphasise that the UK's specialist science and environment reporters simply did not know whether the references to 'tricks', 'hiding the decline' and keeping some research out of the IPCC's report amounted to an orchestrated attempt to distort and exaggerate the case for man-made climate change. What's more, many of their editors, sceptical by nature, were not in the mood to give their specialists the benefit of the doubt. A febrile mood developed in some newsrooms, with specialist reporters under pressure to prove that they had not gone native and got this story seriously wrong.

Compounding this was the lack of a detailed rebuttal and explanation from Jones himself and others at UEA. While many have suggested that this vacuum was disastrous, it's not hard to see how it happened. Jones was coping with the news that he had been the victim of a crime with international implications, and the University has now admitted that their own shock at the contents and the need to verify the accuracy of the emails contributed to their delayed response.

And on top of that the entire story was breaking just days before the Copenhagen summit. Many news organisations had so much journalistic fire-power directed at Copenhagen that they struggled to find the journalists to read and scrutinise the emails - hence the Guardian bringing in veteran environment reporter Fred Pearce.

Either way the world's media were largely left to their own devices in establishing whether or not these emails amounted to the conspiracy that was being alleged. Given what they could have meant about the most important science story of our age, I would suggest that ignoring or downplaying this story was not an option and would have done climate science no favours.

Obviously this was frustrating for Myles Allen and the many other climate scientists who were familiar with Phil Jones and the work of CRU. They knew what three reviews have now found: that these researchers were known for their scientific integrity and, far from exaggerating their findings and courting media attention, had tended to be cautious in their interpretation of their data and shunned the media spotlight.

While some scientists came out early on to defend the strength of climate science, the responsibility for verifying these emails, working out what they meant scientifically and putting them into some kind of context fell largely to the UK's science and environment journalists. Aware that the emails were being seized on by the most vocal critics of climate science to drive home their message that climate change is a huge hoax, these journalists none the less had to make judgements about where and how to cover this story in the absence of the detailed answers that only Phil Jones and his colleagues could provide.

Ask any of the science and environment journalists who first reported this story whether they got everything right and they will be the first to say no. Under fire from the sceptics for not doing more and the scientific community for doing too much, and under the watchful gaze of editors, specialist reporters worked hard to report this messy, complex and important story accurately and proportionately. Of course there were exceptions. Some newspapers could hardly hide their glee and we saw the kind of lurid headlines that all stories attract in the midst of a feeding frenzy, but on the whole the early reporting was a serious attempt to get to grips with the seemingly alarming facts by a largely responsible group of specialist reporters. The argument put by some scientists that the media should have held off reporting this story until the official enquiries rolled in is just totally unrealistic. Of course we would all love a media that waited a little longer for solid facts to emerge, and no journalist should have declared Phil Jones guilty in those early days. But if we consistently applied this idea we would be asking the media not to report the oil spill in the Gulf or the MPs expenses scandal. We would be asking the media not to be the media.

The other thing that critics of the media coverage of UEA miss is that it provided huge opportunities for climate scientists. The SMC was alerted to the UEA story in the very early days after a call from James Randerson on the Guardian asking for individual reactions from climate researchers and a comment piece to go alongside his news report. This appetite for reaction from the scientific community has continued apace over the past six months and the SMC has never before been so successful at placing opinion pieces from scientists on relatively arcane issues like peer review and scientific uncertainty. Thoughtful scientists like Professors Bob Watson, John Beddington, Alan Thorpe, Mike Hulme, Dr Chris Huntingford and others have been invited to play a prominent role in the media debate and have risen to the challenge. Indeed Myles Allen has been encouraged by the Guardian to vent his wrath at their coverage in print and in public debate.

And the journalists too have done their bit to put the UEA emails into a broader context. Despite the particular criticisms heaped on Fred Pearce, the specialist climate reporter who wrote so much copy for the Guardian that it has now been published as a book, close reading shows that throughout his reports Pearce was at pains to refer to the balance of evidence on climate change, the context in which emails were sent and the long and painful background to what he describes as 'Climate Wars'. Many specialists attempted their own analysis of the most contentious emails, and, way before the official enquiries had reported, many journalists had explained that a 'trick' simply meant a clever - and legitimate - way of doing something rather than a deception. And as the UEA emails merged with IPCC errors to create the predictable 'Climate-Gate', editorials started to appear concluding that the media too has a responsibility to get better at reporting the uncertainties. The SMC's founding philosophy was to encourage scientists to see science in the headlines as an opportunity as well as a threat, and I predict that future analyses of the UEA story will show that it was far from all bad for the scientific community.

The final thing I would say to anyone singling out the media's coverage of UEA for criticism is that it suggests that the media reporting of climate change before UEA was always balanced and proportionate. It was not. There have been too many stories on climate science in the past few years where the caveats, uncertainties and nuances expressed by scientists have failed to make it into the next day's headlines. Such was the appetite for alarmist coverage of climate change that at one stage new research that could not be reported under a banner of 'worse than previously expected', 'beyond the tipping point' or 'catastrophic climate change' would struggle to get covered. One respected think tank described the coverage as 'climate porn' and a variety of academics published studies showing that the exaggerated framing may have the effect of putting people off taking action to tackle climate change. The best climate researchers have always been uncomfortable with the simplistic presentation of climate research in the media but, with the exception of UEA's Professor Mike Hulme, few have said so publicly. One of the results of that silence has been that the scientific community now stand accused of glossing over the uncertainties in climate science with the Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Sir John Beddington appealing to scientists to communicate uncertainty more openly. Most climate researchers do emphasise these uncertainties when publishing their work and speaking to each other. But it is also true that some scientists were prepared to go along with the media's playing down of uncertainties because they feared that too much emphasis on the remaining uncertainties would dilute the message or be seized on by their critics - a position which many now accept has backfired.

Nobody embroiled in climate science has enjoyed all aspects of the media's coverage of UEA, and the whole saga is well described by Fred Pearce as a human tragedy. But I have now chaired the press briefings of all three inquiries into what went wrong. The same journalists that brought us the grim headlines about the story of UEA emails have now delivered the headlines about the exoneration of their authors. That the media coverage of UEA revealed no smoking gun is not an argument against the media's interrogation of the emails - it is an argument in favour of the scientific research discussed in those emails which has stood the test of the most enormous scrutiny. Research that Phil Jones will now hopefully be allowed to continue!

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Are embargo breaks bad for science?

The European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE)’s very public ticking off of Jonathan Leake for breaking an embargo has prompted an angry reaction from some journalists; they have cleared Leake of breaking an embargo, because he had no access to embargoed material, and some have even called for ESHRE to apologise for their public rebuke. So once again the thorny issue of embargoes has raised its head, reminding us that journalists and science press officers are fundamentally different animals.

Now I like Jonathan Leake a lot, and have worked with him on many good science stories over the years, but he is a serial embargo breaker and I mean serial. Countless press officers could probably confirm Leake’s claim that he did not take this story from embargoed material because he no longer has access to any! Every scientific journal I know and many scientific bodies, including the SMC, have long since removed Leake from their press lists – as had ESHRE. The fact that he therefore operates outside the embargo system means that he is free to break embargoes wherever he chooses – a state of affairs he exploits to full effect; and one that is perhaps not quite as brave and intrepid as it first appears. Yes, we would all like to see more investigative journalism, with less reliance on press releases and PR, but do we really want it to look like this?

As with every high profile embargo break, and the debate that follows, it is complicated. And this case is no different. But whatever the truth about exactly how it came about, if Leake knew this story was under embargo and ran it anyway then in my book that qualifies as an embargo break! I might even speculate further and suggest it was possibly because it was under embargo that he ran it. The story made a good front page splash for two reasons: firstly, because it’s a great story, but secondly because it meant the Sunday Times beat their competitors to it. Leake is a science reporter of long standing who knows the rules of scientific conferences, and he probably knew that his colleagues at the Times and all those science reporters sent to Rome by their papers would be waiting for that embargo to lift.

I am not saying that there are never any exonerating circumstances for embargo breaks, and the SMC considers its response on a case by case basis. We decided not to act against the science reporters on the Times last year when their Scottish editor and a freelancer ran a front page splash on a vitamin D study due to be launched at the SMC the next day. Our enquiries revealed that one of the authors had been in close contact with the Scottish editor for some months and had long promised him an exclusive when the study made it into a journal. However, we did act against a former Telegraph health editor who splashed a hotly awaited Nuffield report on premature babies before our embargoed briefing - 24 hours before the embargo was due to lift. On this occasion the journalist in question had registered for the embargoed briefing but was allegedly handed an unembargoed report by a contact the night before. Despite fierce protests from her Telegraph colleagues, the SMC banned the offending journalist for three months. We then made it clear to all reporters using the SMC that if they made the decision to run a story they clearly knew to be embargoed in advance of an SMC briefing – thus ruining a briefing that may have been months in the making and depriving the entire media of a important public health story – we would have no choice but to remove them from our lists. The message is simple: run the splash but pay the price!

And here’s the thing – I don’t want to start bleating about the importance of the work done by the SMC, and god forbid I should even suggest that journalists have responsibilities to the public, but I would ask commentators to at least reflect about the consequences of embargo breaks on individual science stories. The SMC’s job is to work with scientists to help them ensure their science is covered in the most accurate and evidence-based way by the news media. In the Telegraph case, the scientists who had spent a year producing a thoughtful and sensitive report addressing whether babies under 24 weeks should be left to die suddenly found themselves catapulted onto the front pages and into the broadcast media before having had any chance to explain their findings to the whole of the news media in a considered way. The Telegraph got their splash ahead of the others at the expense of the public and policy makers getting access to the nuanced findings of this important report. Last week the SMC in fact ran a press briefing for journalists registered for ESHRE, where three leading fertility experts urged caution and care with the reporting of the ovarian reserves story. None of those caveats or caution showed up in Leake’s article or the subsequent broadcast and comment pieces that followed his report. In other words, embargo breaks have a huge effect on a story – on where it appears and how it appears. And it's particularly serious when this happens with research that has important implications for patients that need to be properly explained and put into context.

There are also broader issues here. What does it mean for the embargo system as a whole if one science reporter operates not just outside it but is completely immune to it? I know of several science reporters who are now being encouraged to break embargoes by their editors for fear of regularly losing out to the Sunday Times. I am all for replacing the embargo system with something better – whatever that might be – but there is a difference between a planned revolution and chaotic system collapse, something that will surely happen soon if no Monday paper can rely on an embargo being held.

It has also raised the issue of original journalism and ‘hunting for stories’, but surely the Sunday Times splash is not that? Running a story the rest of the media have access to, and simply doing it 24 hours before anyone else, is about as far away from original reporting as I can imagine. When I set up and ran the debate on embargoes at the World Conference of Science Journalists last June I actually wanted to side with the impassioned anti-embargo duo of Richard Horton and Vincent Kiernan who gave us a glorious idealistic vision of science reporting, freed from the shackles of the ‘diary’ story and free to roam the laboratories of the world in search of stories. I also think many science reporters share that dream, but turning it into a reality is easier said than done, as demonstrated by Richard Horton himself who continues to edit a journal whose embargoes are vigorously enforced!

The irony here is that Jonathan Leake does have the time to seek these stories out. I know embargoes often don’t work for Sunday newspapers – and that must be incredibly frustrating – but that disadvantage is surely outweighed by the luxury of time to find stories? Indeed Leake does sometimes do it; he attends scientific conferences like AAAS and manages to track down stories not being covered by the dailies. He does find good stories – but he also grabs a lot of low-hanging fruit and this should not be applauded.

Emma Mason and Mary Rice, the ESHRE press officers being chastised for their rebuke of Leake, are two of the best, most experienced science press officers I know, and have transformed journalists’ experience of ESHRE's conference into a well managed operation. Perhaps there are lessons learned about how information and abstracts from a conference are distributed – but even more likely than this the experience will make ESHRE and others look for even stronger methods to protect their embargoes.

I am sure before long we will be having this debate again – the embargo, as we would all freely admit, is not a perfect system. But many journalists, much as they may dislike it, would also admit that it is incredibly helpful given the time pressures they are under. And until we can come up with something better, it’s all we’ve got.

Friday, 11 June 2010

On Ben v Jeremy

Given the history and role of the SMC I'm afraid I can't stay out of the debate that has broken out this week about science in the media. In a column in the Independent, Jeremy Laurance, the paper's health editor, lashed out after Ben Goldacre's latest Bad Science column in the Guardian in which Laurance says Ben 'pistol whipped' his colleague Denis Campbell for an article about the brain enhancing properties of omega 3 fatty acids.

In response Ben and others have fought back, accusing Jeremy and other science reporters of being thin skinned, allergic to criticism and defending the indefensible.

But here's a thing. I don't happen to believe Jeremy's outburst is about any of the above. I think it's about the tone of Ben's particular brand of critique. Those who have read the exchanges will know that accurate facts are held at a premium so here's one for you - Jeremy Laurance is one of the most highly respected health reporters in the UK, loved by legions of eminent researchers, clinicians and journal editors for his accurate and insightful reporting over 20 years.

Rather than rush to dismiss Laurance's piece as a defence of bad science reporting as others have, I would urge you to take a deep breath and consider what lies behind this rather uncharacteristic outburst. One thing I do know is that the frustration with Ben that explodes off the Independent page is not unique to Jeremy. The sense of a yawning gap between the brutal realities for jobbing journalists filing ever more stories to ever tighter deadlines and the luxury of a columnist like Ben who gets to lay bare the flaws in those stories once a week is now shared by almost every science reporter I know. Some still bear the scars of their own 'pistol whipping', others protest that they are an exception to his often sweeping attacks. And some, like Jeremy, are just appealing to this particular judge to entertain the existence of a few mitigating circumstances and allow for long years of good behaviour.

I believe the world needs Ben Goldacre and his Bad Science column, and he has pioneered a form of accountability which is doubtless the envy of politicians and football managers. The fear of being 'Goldacred' may have even improved science reporting in newsrooms. I hardly need say why it matters but Ben put it beautifully in one of his comments this week that people base their behaviours on this stuff and turning a blind eye to bad reporting can seriously damage human health. But the science and medical journalists generally think that too and when Ben started his column they warmly welcomed it as an additional way of exerting pressure on their editors. Indeed I seem to remember one Jeremy Laurance was one of the most vocal supporters.

So what has changed? Well I think it's back to tone. Ben was well within his rights to do his weekly column on the weaknesses in the Observer report on Omega 3 but he would not have prompted this backlash if he had done it in a different style. And he could win back the respect of many other UK science reporters if he could occasionally write a sentence or two about the messy business of daily health reporting or acknowledge those journalists who have bravely stood against the trends on issues like MMR – people like Sarah Boseley on his own paper. Arguably Jeremy too should have taken more care to emphasize that just because there are huge pressures to cut corners doesn't mean we should justify cutting them – something he has managed to avoid himself throughout this long career.

Denis Campbell has transgressed before, within weeks of taking on the health brief. But in between then and now he has delivered a hell of a lot of health stories and had his fair share of exclusives. Could he be better? Yes. Did that article fall short of the best journalistic standards? Yes. Should the tone used by Ben in his critique be the same as that applied to Andrew Wakefield, Gillian McKeith and AIDS? Absolutely not.

I have a huge respect for Ben Goldacre's core belief that we deserve a better media and that having one person out there banging that drum should be seen as a help not a hindrance. But there are lots of ways to be a thorn in the side.

I know Ben thinks I am dreary and repetitive in my defence of specialist journalism but if we're honest there is repetition from all sides in this debate. Science blogger Ed Yong concludes his comments on Ben's site with this: 'Perhaps in future, we should all stop being such meanies to "young, eager reporters" and just ruffle the lovable scamps' hair and draw a sad face on their report cards.' Is that the best we can do? Can we not rise above the playground and conduct this most critical of discussions in a grown up manner with a bit more mutual respect for the different roles we play? I suggest we try.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Evan Harris: parliament loses a champion for science

Waking up to the news that Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat science spokesperson, had lost his seat in last week’s election by a tiny margin was devastating. I can’t even remember how or under what circumstances I met Evan, but for anyone who works, as we do, on the frontline of some of the biggest scientific debates of our times, it is only ever a matter of time before you get to know this MP well. As the Science Media Centre emerged out of the ashes of the GM saga the remit was clear: to encourage more scientists to engage more effectively on contentious issues like GM. Opening in April 2002, a series of issues faced us that were clearly our reason for being: the MMR/autism controversy, the high profile campaign of opposition to animal research and the controversy over the use of embryos in stem cell research. Finding scientists to speak out on any of these issues was initially a huge challenge, yet Evan seemed to have made every one of them his own; arguing on behalf of the scientists involved in every public forum he could access. And that brave and dogged support of scientists working on the most controversial issues has remained a constant – seemingly impervious to either party politics or the search for vote-winning populist policies that dominates so much of politics.

It was eagle-eyed Evan Harris who first spotted the line in the draft Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that revealed that government may move to ban human-animal hybrid embryo research in response to public revulsion. It was Evan who organised the first meetings of scientists to contest the proposed the ban, which grew into one of the biggest and most successful scientific collaborations on a scientific controversy. A year later, when Parliament voted in favour of allowing research on human-animal hybrids, few in science failed to acknowledge the exceptional contribution of one politician to this amazing transformation in public and political opinion.

Arriving in the office after Evan’s defeat I discovered that my personal sense of dismay was widely shared with hundreds of scientists, science press officers and science journalists, all emailing and texting to express their shock that science had lost one of its foremost champions in Parliament. It’s clear that this is not a partly political issue, with one of the first supportive comments received coming from Lord Drayson, the Labour government’s Science Minister who has sparred respectfully and humorously with Evan at all three pre-election science candidates' debates. Perhaps one of the more poignant comments came from Professor Brian Cox, who admitted aloud that he and the scientific community should have waded in to fight for Evan’s seat given the importance of having such a champion in Parliament. His comments reflected some of the interesting articles written about science in government in the run up to the election, with respected journalists like Mark Henderson and Roger Highfield speculating whether we should or could corale the ‘science vote’ as a force in British politics. This question arose from the fear that the Commons has now lost many of its greatest science champions, with MPs such as Phil Willis, Brian Iddon and Ian Gibson having stood down. Phil Willis himself has written of his alarm that Evan Harris would be one of the only remaining active members of the Science and Technology Committee that he has chaired that has played such an influential role in scrutinising science in government. Now not even Evan remains.

There will of course be new MPs with a science background entering Parliament, but I should say that I am not a believer that you have to have a science degree to be an advocate for science – as I have argued before in relation to some of our best science reporters! Phil Willis has no science background but found a passion for it, which led to science defining his political career. Conversely, nor do I believe that having a science background is any guarantee that an MP will take science to the heart of the commons.

In general, the SMC tends to avoid science policy and politics, as it’s rarely the stuff of tabloid headlines, but because purdah left us quieter than usual - and in the spirit of election fever - I had more time to absorb myself in the interesting stuff being written on science and politics by Research Fortnight, the Campaign for Science and Engineering and others. I will probably duck out now as normal life resumes, but I do hope that scientists do as Brian Cox and others suggest and enter into a debate about whether scientists need to be a little less passive about the fate of science at election times.

In the meantime we watch and wait to see who we will have as Science Minister. Those who know me will know that I feel the same about Lord Drayson as I do about Evan Harris and indeed these two men have many things in common in terms of their love of science and their proven ability to take a brave and principled public stance on issues that many choose to keep quiet about. If anyone were to ask my opinion on this, I’d say they could do worse than keeping Lord Drayson as Science Minister – it would be popular with scientists and make the loss of so many other champions for science from the Commons a little easier to bear!

Monday, 26 April 2010

Drama at the Royal Insitution, Simon Singh's libel case dropped, and the principles of scientific advice

I can't believe that I missed the drama at the Royal Institution a couple of weeks ago. While it was nice to be in Barcelona for a conference, it was torture getting excitable texts from journalists, scientists and colleagues describing the chaotic scenes unfolding in the RI, where 650 members packed into the building for a historic vote. As readers of this blog will no doubt be aware, the bid to replace the current council was roundly defeated, to the barely disguised delight of the RI staff who had bravely chosen to appeal directly to members to vote against the coup on the basis that more instability at the RI would mean disaster. In interviews over the next few days, Susan Greenfield, the former Director who had backed the insurgents, vowed to continue her own fight against the RI which includes a claim of sex discrimination. I do hope Susan changes her mind. There are rarely any real winners in these messy legal battles and it seems to me that both the RI and Susan now need to throw themselves into doing what they both do best – communicating science to the public.

Another welcome victory this week was the decision by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) to drop its libel case against science writer Simon Singh. The case has always been of huge interest for the Science Media Centre, which was founded to encourage more scientists to speak out on the most controversial science stories of the day. As readers of this blog may be aware, there are already a very long list of reasons why many scientists would prefer to steer clear of the media, and this and other libel actions against scientists have done nothing to make our job easier. Not that I feel sorry for them but the BCA were especially unlucky in their choice of target. Most people would have taken the standard legal advice which is to issue retractions and apologies in order to avoid the stress and expense of a legal battle that is almost always impossible to win. Yet Simon Singh chose a different path – this man decided that there was a point of principle here that was worth defending. In doing so he put aside his own personal ambitions and career and spent thousands of pounds of his own money and two years of his life fighting for a principle. Together with the awesome campaigning skills of the team at Sense About Science this libel battle was broadened out into a full-scale assault on the UK’s perverse libel laws and their chilling effect on free speech. I have to say at a time when I am struggling to find any men or women of principle in an anodyne election campaign, it's great to have a chance to celebrate real bravery and principle – Simon Singh is a hero and there are not very many of them around.

Talking of principles, I am in dismay at the way the new Principles governing independent scientific advice to government have already been undermined in the case of the ban on mephedrone. The Principles were drawn up by Science Minister Lord Drayson and Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington in the wake of the David Nutt affair in the hope that they would prevent anything like that happening again. While some of the words added by civil servants are a hostage to fortune, there is much to welcome in the final version. For the SMC the most welcome section encourages independent scientific advisers to use independent press officers from outside government to get their major findings out into the public domain – something that we had lobbied hard for. Another principle suggests that there should always be enough time between the publication of the independent advice and the government's response to it to reassure us all that it has been properly considered. Yet hardly was the ink dry on these principles when they were subjected to a very public test, with the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs coming together to discuss their advice on the 'legal high' mephedrone. They failed the test spectacularly; instead of following the principles, the independent advisers cut short their evidence session to allow the scientific Chair of the ACMD to attend a press conference with the Home Secretary entirely managed by Home Office press officers, where they effectively made a joint announcement on the intention to ban this drug. Perhaps we should resign ourselves to the fact that that drugs advice and the ACMD is just too politicized and messy beyond the point of no return, and hope that the Principles will still make a difference in other areas – I will watch with interest!!

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

My life in a parallel universe

I was talking about science in the media on a panel at the Westminster Media Forum conference last week along with Ben Goldacre, author of the Bad Science column in the Guardian and a hugely popular book and blog of the same name. Not for the first time, Ben and I seem to be living in a parallel universe – with Ben dismissing almost all science reporting in mainstream media as poor quality and me insisting that a great deal of it is good and should be championed. Ben is far from alone in his more withering critique, and last week Colin Macilwain, respected free-lance science writer, echoed many of Ben's themes in a damning piece for Nature which argued that 'dumbed down media coverage has bred mistrust among some scientists'.

One of the striking things about Colin's piece and Ben's position is the emphasis on 'silly' science stories. A line that always gets a laugh in Ben's talks is the fact that the same product – be it red wine, coffee or chocolate – appear to both cause and cure cancer on consecutive days if you read papers like the Daily Mail and Daily Express. The theme was also taken up by Colin, who admits he once hoped that stories about the 'cures for cancer' would fade away, "but they are not fading". According to Colin "essentially silly stories about science continue to fill newspapers and news broadcasts."

Now here's the thing. Like Colin and Ben I am allergic to these stories and my colleagues and I groan every time we see them. In fact I'm going to let you in on a secret: I'm not a fan of any silly science stories, even the accurate ones that communicate really complicated science concepts to the wider public. Don't get me wrong, I am in awe of the PR prowess that can get the perfect chemical formula for a cup of tea onto the Today programme, but I personally would reach for the jobs pages if that kind of PR formed part of my job description. Silly stories like these and the daily diet of maddening scare stories are not what I think of when I'm talking about science journalism.

This was illustrated the day after I shared a panel with Ben when I sat on another panel about science in the media – this time with four journalists who have been reporting 'climate-gate'. In front of a sellout audience of 200 in Oxford I got to do my impersonation of Jeremy Paxman with Fiona Harvey from the Financial Times, Ben Jackson from the Sun, Richard Black from the BBC and David Adam from the Guardian. Technically they are all environment reporters now, though all but Fiona were formerly science reporters and in any case we use the term 'science reporting' to cover science, health and environment reporting. The debate was recorded so I won't go into too much detail here but suffice to say that I defy anyone who listens to this discussion to maintain that science reporting is silly, dumbed down or all done by reporters slavishly churning out journal press releases. While the journalists themselves were critical of some of the reporting of climate-gate and even critical of their own papers, what was clear was that each of these individuals had done little else for months but consider, debate, argue, challenge and reflect on how to best cover this story. Many have done original reporting on the subject and some papers including the Guardian have delivered a level of investigative journalism that most of us feared we may never see again. Most of these reporters have gone beyond news to write insightful and perceptive comment pieces on how the story has been covered. Yet climate change reporting never features in Ben's talks and Colin Macilwain actually appears to suggest that Copenhagen failed partly because science reporters were too busy covering weekly journals and the silly stuff. Now I would be the first to say there are problems with climate reporting but I think you would be hard pressed to argue that there is not enough of it and the huge investment of resources in covering Copenhagen by every media outlet testifies to that.

I guess you could argue that climate-gate is unusual and just a blip in the daily diet of stupid pieces of research that pass for science news - but I'm just not buying that. Before climate-gate it was the sacking of David Nutt, the Home Secretary's independent drugs adviser, that projected science into the headlines and produced weeks of well written and perceptive news and comment by science reporters. And before that it was swine flu exercising and exhausting health reporters, and before that it was the year long national debate prompted by the banning of the use of human animal hybrid embryos in stem cell research. Before that there was a year when animal research was rarely off the front pages. I could go on. And on. Yet none of these huge science stories emerge from the weekly journal press releases or from the dodgy PR agencies that loom so large in the minds of the leading critics of science in the media

I guess you could counter that while these huge science stories predominate at times, the media still run the daily diet of rubbish science stories on the inside pages. That may be true – indeed it's true that the media run a daily diet of rubbish stories about everything including politics, sports, education and celebrities, and that's predictable and depressing and it's great that someone rages against it. I'm not defending it.

But in my parallel universe there's a lot going on that's less depressing and I don't understand why critics seem reluctant to even acknowledge it. These days lots of the one-off studies that end up as stories on the inside pages come via the Science Media Centre. But none of them are silly stories about the latest cure for cancer. Again, I could bore you for Britain on this and I suggest a scan of our website might be better than me listing hundreds of briefings here - but let me just mention the kinds of stories that I'm talking about. Like the study we launched a few weeks back that showed that researchers had failed to replicate findings that appeared to link ME to a particular virus in a previous well publicised study. Or the study we launched a while back where researchers had found some association – albeit a weak one – between working in nuclear power plants and an increased risk of heart disease in huge study conducted over many years. Or the study that our friend Ken Donaldson did that found asbestos-like effects in the lungs of rats exposed to nanoparticles, or the studies that reveal that researchers have made significant leaps in our understanding of the relative merits of embryonic, adult and induced pluripotent stem cells. Or how about the more policy type stories like the need to reduce the burden of over-regulation of animal research and clinical trials, or the need to teach our doctors to be better at prescribing complicated new drugs. Or how about the backgrounders we run on incredibly complex areas like epigenetics, or about the ambitious new engineering approaches that could help us to fight climate change, like geoengineering or carbon capture and storage. If science reporting was as awful as many imply, the SMC should have stacked up hundreds of examples of angry scientists who refuse to engage after their stories were hyped or misreported. Actually we have virtually none - and this from a Centre which only touches a science story if it's messy, complex and controversial, and refuses to deal with any specialist publications because we only do mainstream national news. We operate on the front-line where the potential for conflict between science and the media is greatest and yet almost all the coverage we get is good - do you see now why I feel I am in a parallel universe?

Look, I am not saying that the daily diet of health scares doesn't matter, and it's great that Ben exposes the really scandalous ones in his column and great that the excellent Behind the Headlines runs a same day deconstruction of the biggest ones which is widely read by the healthcare workers and patients who have to deal with the very real fears and anxieties raised by these stories. And as it happens the SMC does deal with them regularly, offering leading third party experts to pour a huge dose of cold water on exaggerated claims, often at the behest of the reporters themselves in a bid to dissuade their over-excitable editors from running them on the front page. What I am saying is that silly health scare stories do not science journalism make.

Yes there are problems with the reporting of science. I engage with them on a daily basis and highlight them often. Many commentators and academics - including the excellent science reporters on the Columbia Journalism Review in the US - provide a running commentary on the weaknesses of current reporting on issues like climate-gate that I almost always find myself in agreement with. But restricting the discussion of science and the media to a bunch of silly stories on cures for cancer is pretty silly itself. The true story of science reporting today is so much bigger, richer and more interesting - thank goodness otherwise I would be looking for a new job!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Thoughts on 'Climategate'

I don’t suppose I’m the first person to have lost sleep over climate change but it’s certainly keeping me awake at the moment – well, not climate change itself but the media coverage of it. I’m not sure what the strict definition of a media feeding frenzy is but I reckon we’re definitely in one. When the Guardian actually designs a logo for its coverage, labels it 'Climate Wars' and puts their top investigative reporters on the story, you know it's serious. Of course it’s serious for the SMC because this is absolutely what we are here for; set up after similar media furores over MMR and GM crops, it falls to us to ensure that scientists never again fail to engage effectively when a huge science story becomes headline news - no pressure then!

There has been frenetic activity at the Centre - luckily the media come to us a lot so the basic stuff about making sure that climate researchers are being heard has been relatively easy - and this week the bids came in thick and fast with Newsnight, Channel 4 News and the Today programme needing lots of different voices and print journalists needing both opinion pieces and reactive sound-bites. I even ended up being asked for my view from the Guardian for their 'round-table' discussion.

But the pro-active stuff has been more challenging. How can we seize the agenda back from the focus on the errors and flaws to an emphasis on the huge body of quality science that UK climate researchers have delivered to the world? Should we even try? Maybe this is the opportunity that scientists have been waiting for to better communicate the uncertainties and complexities that they complain get edited out by a media only ever excited by the 'tipping points', 'count downs' and 'points of no return'.

After much debate and discussion with other press officers we decided to run a briefing with three of the most prominent climate researchers in the UK – Julia Slingo from the Met Office, Alan Thorpe, head of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), and Brian Hoskins, head of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. The ambitions for the briefing were pretty modest, and we were certainly not desperate to generate more column inches. But we did feel that the time had come to inject a simple and sober audit of the science into the frenzy, and give science journalists the opportunity to question three of the UK’s top climate researchers. And that’s exactly what the panel did. In possibly the clearest and most compelling summary I have ever heard, the experts told a room packed full of science reporters what we do know and how we know it, and what is much more uncertain, immature and up for debate. The panellists also talked about how this science is done, the kinds of peer review process at work, the way research is selected for funding and the myriad ways in which the goal of quality is achieved. After a week in which poor quality science, flaws in peer review and errors have loomed large, I personally was entirely convinced by their message that we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

And the scientists also departed from the science itself to make a number of concessions: to admit that they have not been good enough at communicating the uncertainties to the wider public, to admit that they have been slow to share the data with the outside world and to admit that maybe refusing to debate with hard core sceptics may have actually contributed to increasing scepticism in the wider public.

So far so good. Then question time started. Unsurprisingly the questions were not about the science but about what the scientists would say about the revelations in the University of East Anglia emails, the future position of Rajendra Pachauri as the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the imminent collapse of public trust in science. The scientists explained that they were unable to answer any questions on the UEA emails until the result of the pending inquiry, and refused to call for Pachauri's head. That did not go down well with the journalists, who were not at all shy to let the scientists know that these questions need to be answered. One journalist announced that he had 'naively' attended the briefing to hear a robust fightback and was staggered to get what he regarded as a limp repetition of the science. Citing comments on Fred Pearce's online Guardian coverage as his evidence, he claimed that the public are fast turning against climate change and that repeating the science would do little to help 'win' the battle for public opinion.

The scientists reaction was anything but limp – they stood their ground firmly, robustly defended their right to stick to the science of this debate and insisted that their primary responsibility is to do top quality research to answer the remaining questions in a rigorous and scientific way, and then to communicate that science to the public and policy makers. As the briefing ended almost all the journalists I spoke to were busily concluding that while the scientists did a great job on the science, the rest of the performance was 'not enough to win the battle against public opposition'. But the idea that research scientists have to wage some major battle for public opinion and start putting on winning performances is crazy. The world needs climate scientists to do top quality climate research to answer the questions we still need to answer. They then do need to go further - they need to communicate and convey that research to the media and the public - just as those three scientists did so beautifully on that panel. But they are not obliged to go beyond that to become campaigners who must answer questions outside their science in order to win a campaign.

The Science Media Centre and the scientific community have a huge responsibility in this national debate on climate change. And that responsibility is to ensure that the debate is informed by the best science available. That did not happen in the initial GM debate and the results were a wholesale public rejection of the technology. There are things for which scientists deserve to be criticised in this whole mess, but not for turning up to brief journalists in the middle of a massive feeding frenzy and sticking to the science. And I for one got a great night's sleep that night!

Friday, 29 January 2010

Launch of new scientific committee on drugs, Media Show, the Met Office and Simon Jenkins

When Professor David Nutt called to ask if we would host the media launch of his new independent scientific committee on drugs, my reply was "Is the Pope a Catholic?". David Nutt’s sacking from his position as Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs by the Home Secretary was one of the biggest science stories of last year and led to a huge debate about the role of independent scientific advisers. Needless to say there was huge media interest in this latest twist and if, as some suspected, the Home Secretary announced the new Chair of the ACMD the day before our briefing to distract attention, it had the opposite effect. David has amassed an incredibly impressive list of scientists for his new Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD) and three of them joined him on the panel, including a leading chemist, psychiatrist and psychopharmacologist. They all spoke incredibly well and convinced me that they will do important scientific work that can only help inform the debate on drugs. David explained that his new group would differ from ACMD because it will focus exclusively on the science and be geared toward informing public debate rather than government. It will of course also be independent and there was a fascinating moment where David and other former ACMD members on the panel described how liberated they felt working outside of government. The SMC strives to be as impartial as possible on issues like this, and we have in the past also run briefings for ACMD and with Professor Robin Murray at the Institute of Psychiatry, whose research focuses on the association between cannabis use and psychosis. But I do think Nutt’s committee is going to be an incredibly interesting experiment in truly independent scientific advice. While the government will want to ignore it I wonder if they really can. If, as seems likely, the new committee attracts lots of media attention, it’s likely to have a significant impact on the public debate. How ironic it would be if it ended up having more influence on government policy as a truly independent body than it did as an official one. We look forward to having these excellent scientists back in the Centre to report on their evidence gathering in future.

IFR/John Innes Centre
I had a great day at the Institute of Food Research and John Innes Centre last week. Zoe Dunford is one of the SMC’s favorite science press officers and each time I visit I am struck by how well she knows her scientists and her zeal for their research. As well as doing a talk about science in the media for a packed lecture theatre of researchers, I also met groups working on developing exciting new antibiotics and using the waste from biomass to create petrol. I finished meeting the new Director of IFR, David Boxer, who is an expert on the gut and he told me fascinating things about just how important this organ is and his plans to make IFR a centre of excellence in promoting our understanding of all things gut-related. I’m pretty sure each of these will make great SMC briefings and know I can rely on Zoe to keep an eye out for the right pegs to make them happen.

The Media Show
On the train on the way home I got a call from the producer of The Media Show on BBC Radio 4 to remind me about my interview the next day and talk me through the content. She explained that the interview would use the impartiality review on science announced by the BBC Trust as a peg to discuss science on the BBC, and that I should think of what the BBC does well and what it does badly and said examples would be useful. I spent the rest of the train journey texting friends in and out of the BBC to ask their views leading to some fascinating insights into which programmes people have loved and hated. In the event, the entire interview actually focused exclusively on climate change at the BBC and in particular their coverage of the UEA email-hacking scandal and the latest controversy involving the IPCC's predictions about glacier melting rates. So there I was live on air, with notes in front of me that bore no resemblance to the subject I was supposed to be talking about, and at that stage blissfully unaware of what ‘glacier-gate’ actually was (a useful reminder that even the best of us can get hijacked on air). Steve Hewlett, the show’s feisty presenter, asked us to answer the charge that the BBC is soft on mainstream science and on climate change, and slow to cover stories that expose its flaws. The other guest, Mary Hockaday from the BBC, put up a robust defense of the Beeb and I at least got to argue something I believe in passionately – that climate change research must be subject to the same kind of journalistic scrutiny as any other area of science and politics. I believe that the science of climate change is rigorous and robust enough to stand up to journalistic scrutiny, and if and when it does fall down – as I now realise it did in 'glacier-gate' – then that must be exposed. Any other approach simply plays into the sceptics’ hands and does science no favours.

In praise of…the Met Office
The other nice thing about getting out of the office (and the reason I have not yet gone down the Blackberry route) is that I get to reach all the way to the Comment section of the Guardian. And on the way to Norwich I read Michael Fish’s spirited defence of the Met Office, currently under fire from all sections of the media for apparently wrongly predicting both a barbeque summer and a mild winter. I am absolutely with Michael and the Met office on this one. Because they are based out in Exeter, the Met Office use the SMC for most of their science-related press briefings and I have sat through their summer and winter forecasting ones for several years now. Despite what appears in the headlines the next day these briefings often end up as mini seminars on communicating scientific uncertainty, the limits of short-term and long-term forecasting and current state of development of computer modelling. One of the briefings that stands out was one to mark the 20th anniversary of the Great Storm of 1987. Lewis Smith, then environment reporter at the Times, supposedly spoke for all the journalists when he said, "All any of us need to know is what day and what time the next one is coming". The good humoured Met Office scientists laughed and then punished Lewis with a painstaking explanation as to why science cannot deliver such certainty. Now, I’m a grown up and I accept that none of that nuance and uncertainty and caution makes the next day’s headlines – but I do think it’s a bit rich for the media who ignore all the stuff about uncertainty to attack the Met Office for getting it all wrong. Maybe the Met Office press officers will think twice about catchy sound-bites in future (though even here it seems a bit mean that scientists stand accused of failing to communicate in soundbites and then lambasted when they do!) but I think the media should come clean and admit that no-one would have booked a holiday in Skegness based entirely on the balanced, nuanced, cautious scientists that I heard in the SMC – the journalists did their bit too!

In praise of…Tom Sheldon
And talking of great articles in the Guardian, I hope some of you spotted my colleague Tom Sheldon's brilliant response to Simon Jenkins’ latest rant about the global conspiracy to sell us swine flu vaccines. I normally love Simon Jenkins, especially when he's writing about the UK’s foreign adventures, but when you really know what he’s talking about you realize just how lazy you can be when you’re a columnist. In fact when I die I want to come back as one – then I can write anything I like irrespective of whether it’s true and the more people I annoy the more chance of keeping my column. Anyway – thanks to Tom he didn’t get away with it entirely, and judging by the number of emails we've had praising Tom’s piece, he was talking for a lot more people than Mr Jenkins was.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

New year round-up: ME, Susan Greenfield, and the future of science journalism

Encouraged by my colleagues, my new year’s resolution is to blog more and make it a bit more like a normal blog, where I chat about all things science in the media rather than extended articles on a single subject. So here goes – let me know whether you like the new style and whether I should go on in this vein.

My idea that I could ease myself slowly into life at the SMC post-Christmas proved naïve, with three major press briefings and the shock news about Susan Greenfield all in the first week!

The press briefing I was working on was a new study in PLoS One about chronic fatigue syndrome, a subject close to my heart because I have a sister who has been plagued with it for years. Clinicians at the Institute of Psychiatry and virologists at Imperial College London had attempted to replicate the findings of a study published in Science last year which showed a particular virus was present in tissue from a large percentage of patients with CFS. The Science study was a major breakthrough in an area which is sadly lacking in them, and became headline news throughout the world. Sadly for those desperate to find out what on earth is causing this terrible illness, the researchers found no signs of the virus at all in the UK patients they studied and implied that other groups doing similar research are also failing to replicate the US study.

The whole thing raised the question about the way the media covers these issues. Despite telling us before the briefing that they hoped to avoid any criticism of the US study or of Science, the lead author, Prof Myra McClure from Imperial, was pretty open about the fact that she would have preferred the US research team to have thought longer and harder before publishing a study with such huge implications, citing as evidence the fact that patients are asking for tests and anti-viral drugs in the belief that they can help them. But were the US researchers or Science at fault for rushing to publish, or was this another example of the media itself raising false hopes by splashing the potential breakthrough on the front pages despite the fact that it was only one study and had not been replicated? My maxim has always been that the more outrageous the claim, the more the need to pause, stand back and check the facts. But in the world of news reporting I think it would be fair to say that the opposite is generally the truth – the more outrageous and shocking the claim, the more the rush to publish. And if a credible scientist in a credible peer reviewed journal claims that MMR causes autism, or that a virus could be linked to CFS/ME, then that story will be headline news precisely because it’s such a dramatic claim.

On the plus side the media on the whole reported our briefing very responsibly, and prominently enough that those who had seen the news of the previous breakthrough couldn’t miss this one. Until some very fundamental things change in the way science and the media work, I think the best we can hope for is that as scientific literacy grows amongst the public, more people will understand that, front page news or not, they should not rely on a single study to prove, or disprove, anything about science.

Susan Greenfield

And then at 3pm on Friday came the bombshell news that Susan Greenfield – the scientist who gave life to the SMC – had left the Ri after being told that her post as Director could no longer be afforded by an institution with huge debts to clear. Since then almost everyone I’ve met has been pumping me for news, and since I have said it to so many I see no reason why not to say it on my blog. I think that all the good things people say about Susan Greenfield are true. She was a breath of fresh air blowing through the Ri for many years and she is a wonderful science communicator – inspiring many young people, especially young women, to embark on a career in science. Indeed, many of the things that people have criticised her for in the media in the last week are things that I love about her – that she hates bureaucracy and working by committee, that she dresses flamboyantly and tears up the rule book about the way members of the scientific establishment should behave. But – and it’s a big but – I believe that as of 3pm on Friday 8 January 2010, the Royal Institution has a better chance of surviving its current crisis. Susan would be the first to admit that she is a divisive figure in science; just mention her name in any scientific circle if you want to see just how this woman polarizes opinion! Being loved and hated in equal measure may be fine in times of plenty – and as Steve Jones said after the story broke, Susan is anything but 'beige' – but being this divisive is not what you need when your institution is millions in the red in the middle of a recession. Susan had twelve years at the helm of the Ri, she set up the SMC and made lots of other exciting things happen, she delivered a wonderful refurbished building which the queen opened. Now I believe it’s right for her to step back, allow a less divisive (though hopefully equally colourful) figure to take the helm and put the interests of the Ri before her own. When I contacted leading scientists to get reaction to Susan’s departure, most of them said lovely things about what Susan had achieved and wished the Ri the best for the future, but equally significant was the fact that none of them condemned the decision or said it was a disaster for the Ri. I really do wish Susan the best, and look forward to working with her again in one of her many other capacities. I hope that she forgets the sex discrimination claim and puts her energy into doing what she does best – reminding young people that a career in science is anything but beige!

Science in the Media – Securing the Future

Just before hearing the news about Susan, I had been with the science minister Lord Drayson to talk about the final report of a working group on science and the media that I have been chairing on behalf of government for the past six months. I’ve never chaired anything like this for government and wasn’t sure what to expect. On the whole it’s been an incredibly positive experience. After I got over the initial shock of realizing that being chair of this kind of group is code for having to do most of the work, I started to see this as a real opportunity to investigate some of the broader issues that the SMC is just too busy to focus on. Leading this group has given me the excuse to stand back from the battle line between science and the media that the SMC inhabits on a daily basis and reflect on the broader challenges we face. While the final report is packed with practical recommendations for action, some of the most interesting bits focus on more philosophical questions about what constitutes journalism and whether it is worth saving.

Of course the million dollar question is whether anything will change because of this report. While the training section may be the least sexy bit of the report, it’s by far the most likely to deliver real change. Almost every specialist science reporter we spoke to felt that many issues around quality of science reporting arise because of a lack of understanding of science amongst general reporters, editors and the dreaded headline writers! Initially we assumed that there must be some in-built resistance to training non-science reporters, but to our delight discussions with those responsible for training at the BBC, Reuters, the Press Association and on journalism courses all indicated a willingness to offer training on the basic principles of science reporting. If we can persuade the government to fund the recommendation for a National Science Journalism Training Coordinator then I have no doubt that within a year hundreds of editors, presenters and general reporters will have undergone training in science reporting, which will make a real difference in newsrooms and TV studios.

I also believe that the Wellcome Trust will waste no time in taking forward our recommendation for a new Science Programming Centre loosely modeled on the SMC, and indeed our recommendation builds on work already done by the Trust, which has been innovating in this area for some time now. As with the training, everyone we spoke to who makes science programmes indicated that they would make use of such a resource, assuring us that this too will meet a real need and make a real difference. Other recommendations are less concrete – the call for a working group to further investigate the new innovations that are sprouting up in response to the crisis in journalism may look like an excuse for this group to carry on – a bit of a cliché of government working groups. However we felt strongly that while the scientific community has seized the initiative in the face of other changes in science, we have been almost entirely passive in the face of radical changes to the media landscape. We didn’t have the time to do much more than scratch the surface of the exciting initiatives from the US and the UK, including scientific institutions stepping in to save science programmes faced with the chop, employing science journalists who have been sacked from mainstream media, or setting up their own alternative news media outlets. But we had a strong sense that we are seeing the future developing before our eyes, and that we should not stand passively by to see which flowers bloom, but rather decide which ones are most likely to deliver the kind of science journalism that we all want to see.

Seeing congratulations, disagreements and questions flooding into my inbox after the report was published immediately reassured me that, if nothing else, the report will get people thinking and talking about this important subject. Given that is one of the objectives, I reckon we can already say the report was worth the effort.