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.

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