Friday, 25 November 2011


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

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

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

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

Let me explain why I’m uncomfortable with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 3 October 2011

The perils of turning Greenland green

Guest post by Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Officer at the Science Media Centre

On 16 September we were alerted to a flurry of activity on the CRYOLIST discussion group. Glaciologists around the world, it seemed, were getting steamed up about the Times Atlas "turning Greenland green" because of the dramatic effects of climate change. At the SMC we are familiar with bloggers and commentators bleating about 'the climate hoax'. But CRYOLIST is no den of deniers; it is a used by an international group of snow and ice experts to freely and openly exchange ideas about global ice cover. When these people start to complain, you listen.

In one way, this was straightforward. With great fanfare, a book was published and an accompanying press release trumpeted its arrival - along with some scientific errors. At the SMC we see this stuff all the time, and it is usually an easy decision to try to correct those errors before they reach the mass media. So why did this feel different – and why did we get some criticism for helping to publicise the error?

Most people who reject the theory of global warming do so on ideological grounds, not scientific ones. They cherry pick the pieces of evidence that support their political cause, twisting the evidence base to suit the conclusion they cling to. Science, however, is neutral. It must never be partisan, and it must never be used selectively. This is its great strength of course: facts speak for themselves. But in this case the facts showed that climate change had not caused the melting indicated by the new maps.

It's not surprising, therefore, that some scientists were nervous about conspicuously issuing a correction. There was every chance that some of the noisier climate sceptics would seize on the opportunity to say "Aha! Another climate lie – even the scientists say so this time!" After Himalayagate and Amazongate, the prospect of 'Greenlandgate' was not appetising.

But consider the alternative: scientists living in fear of climate sceptics, and keeping quiet in the face of certain errors for fear of 'doing damage to the message'. First, this would be completely wrong in principle; an error is an error, regardless of who might make political capital from its correction. Second, it would also be a bad move for climate science. Keeping quiet would be asking for headlines proclaiming "more dodgy data found in new climate shame". This would have been grossly unfair, as one press release would have been used to drag down a whole branch of science. But as is often the case with the media, there is no 'no risk' option. And such headlines would have been the risk of keeping quiet.

Instead, because of the courage of some principled and honest scientists, the press coverage was much closer to the truth:

"The publishers of the world's most prestigious atlas have been caught out by Cambridge scientists exaggerating the effects of climate change," said the Mail. Quotes issued by the SMC appeared across the spectrum of media. The Telegraph quoted Graham Cogley as saying "Climate change is real, and Greenland ice cover is shrinking. But the claims here are simply not backed up by science." And Jeff Kargel on the BBC: "a number like 15% ice loss used for advertising the book is a killer mistake that cannot be winked away."

The Sceptic movement has damaged climate science by spinning evidence to its own ends. It is ironic that the deep green NGOs have done similar damage to climate science by overclaiming for the effects of climate change with pictures of polar bears clinging to apparently dwindling chunks of ice and other messages that prioritise emotion and ideology over fact. And so it didn't surprise me when one senior climate scientist told me recently that he hates being called part of the climate movement. "I'm not part of any movement," he complained. "I'm a scientist. I just report what I find. And what I find is that the world is warming, and only CO2 can explain it."

Science is self-correcting, and we should be proud of that. It is also above politically-motivated bickering, or worse, 'messaging'. If we want science to have the respect of the public, scientists must be seen to be honest and neutral. This stance can be difficult to maintain when caught between sustained, vitriolic barracking on one side, and a politicised green lobby on the other. But by acting quickly and decisively scientists have done climate science a great service, and the SMC is proud to have played a part in the process.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Thoughts on the BBC Trust review of science coverage

When invited to comment on the BBC's coverage of science Sir David Attenborough responded that it stands, 'head, shoulders, thorax and abdomen' over that of any other broadcaster. Having been commissioned by the BBC Trust to carry out an independent assessment of the accuracy and impartiality of science coverage, geneticist Steve Jones is minded to agree, though in his words 'My review gives the BBC head and shoulders, and probably thorax, but suggests that we need to talk about the abdomen'.

Amongst the complications found by Jones in the abdomen was the thorny issue of 'journalistic balance' as applied to science. Indeed before last week's publication of the Review I would have half expected this piece to appear on one side of a page opposite James Delingpole's objections. But if the Review is to be believed the days of the BBC's obsession with balancing every view from mainstream science with an opposing view may be numbered. Agreeing with Professor Jones's views on this, the Trust has stated that a 'false balance between well-established fact and opinion must be avoided'. And BBC bosses agree, stating in their response that an 'over rigid' application of the need for balance has allowed minority or even contrarian views an undue place'. They have offered to run training and seminars to 'improve our journalists understanding of impartiality in science'

These bits of the report have found favour among leading scientists with Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society saying, "It is important to have debate but marginal opinion, prominently expressed but not well based on evidence, can mislead the audience". Like Attenborough and Jones most scientists rate the BBC's science coverage highly but the 'he said/she said' reporting of contentious issues drives them to distraction . As Jones says:

"The world is not flat, life is not six thousand years old, carbon dioxide levels are rising through human activity and smoking causes lung cancer. Millions choose to disagree with each of these statements but within the world of science there is almost no difference of opinion about any of them."

Jones repeatedly calls for 'equality of voice' by which he means that if the BBC insist on featuring disagreements they should at least choose guests with some expertise and understanding of the debate. And in one of many great one liners in this report Jones says 'The BBC would not have a discussion between a centre-forward and an opera critic but some of the debates on science have been that surreal."

I know people are bored with the MMR example and admittedly much has changed for the better in the past 10 years, but there are good reasons not to forget it just yet. Whether your preferred villain of the piece is Andrew Wakefield, the Lancet or the Blairs (for refusing to confirm that baby Leo had the jab), the truth is that none of those actors can be blamed for
misleading the public into believing that medical science was split down the middle on the safety of MMR. That most wholly inaccurate and dangerous belief was down to the media's obsession with 'balancing' every interview with a medical scientist defending the safety of the vaccine with someone against.

And while the most intelligent discussions I’ve had on this issue are with specialist science reporters at the Beeb, I am not entirely convinced that everyone has been able kick the habit. When the government announced a new attempt at a national dialogue on GM crops earlier this year I had a horrible sense of déjà vu. Producer after producer on news programmes called asking for pro- and anti-GM guests. Now considering the story was a call for dialogue, it is not surprising that different voices were sought, but the result was an unnecessarily polarised debate. While the 'perfect storm' of climate change, food shortages and population rise should have changed just about everything about the context of this debate it seems some in the BBC just want to re-run the old debate.

For me the frustrating bit of this 'he said/she said' reporting is the implicit failure of journalists to guide their audiences closer to the truth. After 10 years in science I am better qualified now to judge between two experts making diametrically opposite scientific claims, but less qualified people are just left having to hazard a guess. Alternatively, in what one commentator has called 'regression towards a phoney mean', the journalists seem to hope that their impartiality will lead audiences to conclude that the truth lies somewhere in the middle (Jones likens this to asking a mathematician and a maverick biologist what 2 + 2 equals. When the mathematicians says 4 and the maverick says 5, the presenter sums up that the answer is something like 4.5 and proclaims that "the debate will go on").

Interestingly the Trust is now suggesting that the broadcaster should have more of a responsibility for guiding audiences towards the truth. Speaking at the press briefing the Head of Standards clearly stated that presenters will be expected to make the distinction between well-established fact and opinion clear to the audience. While they insist that minority voices are not going to disappear from the airwaves, they will in future be 'sign posted' by presenters.

Of course all this stuff would have been sorted by now if it was easy and I'm sure I am not the only one with questions as to how this will work in practice. How will the presenters 'signpost' where the weight of evidence lies when guests are disputing exactly that point (one sceptical editor has already suggested playing a jingle in the background to alert listener to the maverick!). Will the Trust put their money where their mouth is when the complaints from the critics of science come flooding in, and what happens when the scientists themselves stray into expressing personal or political views - is that signposted too?

There is also a danger that Steve Jones' position looks like special pleading for science, a call for censorship, or an example of 'scientism', the claim that science is the only valid way of understanding the world. However on the whole Jones stays on the right side of these lines and there are wonderful passages in the report about the need to be open about scientific uncertainties, to challenge orthodoxies and to have robust debate on policy issues. However Jones subscribes to the view that people are entitled to their own opinions but not entitled to their own facts. He also holds to a contentious, shared by many in science, that impartiality checks are already built into the scientific enterprise whereby findings have been thoroughly tested, replicated and reviewed by peers before they would ever get on air.

Yet Jones’ repeated call for a 'common sense' interpretation of impartiality suggests that this debate is as much about intelligent journalism as it is about prescriptive rules and signposts. My own view is that most of the real horror stories in 'false balance' happen when the science reporter leaves the office and hard pressed general reporters have to find guests at short notice. While it may get little attention the recommendation that could sort out most of the problems in this respect is that general news journalists, editors and presenters should make much better use of the excellent science specialists that surround them

There are other nuggets in this report that deserve highlighting. Pointing out that the BBC has more science reporters than the rest of the UK media put together, Jones urges the corporation to lead by example in encouraging more original reporting and less reliance on the 'diary' stories that emerge from the weekly diet of scientific journals.

The least convincing recommendation for me is the proposal for a new Science Editor for News. The new role is posited as the answer to what Jones identifies as the 'fractionated' nature of science in the Beeb where science journalists working in different parts of the organization stay in silos. But if, as looks likely, the post becomes the new Robert Peston for science then the new editor will spend so much time reporting the top science stories that they will have little time for the kind of co-ordination needed.

At the end of the week in which the Review was published I chaired the press launch of the new Academy of Medical Sciences report on the use of research animals containing human material. In a week where tabloid subeditors and picture desks had a field day with 'Frankenstein monsters' and 'Planet of the Apes', it was good to turn on the Today programme and hear Tom Feilden and Fergus Walsh covering the report beautifully. If the Trust Review does nothing more than remind busy BBC bosses that they should look after their science reporters it will be a job well done.

An edited version of this article appears in the latest edition of 'Ariel', the BBC's staff magazine.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Churnalism: demonizing PR is too simple

What has 'churnalism' got to do with the phone hacking scandal? Plenty according to Chris Atkins, in his support for the motion This house believes news articles based on press releases should be marked 'Advertorial' at a debate at the Royal Statistical Society last week. Atkins opened by claiming that 'churning' out news stories copied and pasted from press releases is at the mild end of the scale of dishonest things journalists do which ends with phone hacking.

And he knows a thing or two about this. When the Media Standards Trust (MST) launched their new website, Atkins sent out a number of hoax press releases which were slavishly reproduced by a variety of national news outlets – including the posh papers.

My favourite, about a "chastity garter" which contains a text message-sending microchip to alert a woman's partner if she is being unfaithful, became the most-read story on the Daily Mail's website.

The linking of phone hacking and churnalism found favour with the main organizer of the debate Martin Moore, Director of the MST, who raced to it from the House of Lords launch of the campaign for a public enquiry into phone hacking.

Atkins, Director of Starsuckers and Taking Liberties, was supported by James Randerson, News Editor for Science and Environment at the Guardian.

Against them were Trevor Morris, lecturer in PR at the University of Westminster and David Higgerson, Head of Multimedia at Trinity Mirror. I was chairing (after declining an invitation to speak because, uncharacteristically, I can't make up my mind.)

Atkins argued that passing press releases off as news is fundamentally dishonest. He insisted he was not out to demonise PR, but went on to claim that while the role of journalists is to tell the truth, the role of PR is serve their paymasters, and, yes, 'they lie'.

The essence of Atkins' argument was compelling – that the public have a right to know where journalists source their news, and that putting a bold sign on every article taken primarily from a press release could make readers do interesting things, like vote with their feet by seeking out journalists and newspapers that do more original journalism

Just as the audience began to believe we could enter a kind of journalistic nirvana, in came David Higgerson to explain that the press release is now the chosen form of communication with the media of almost every institution in society – many of whom we want to and need to hear from. Press releases get a bad press he argued, pointing out that many are written by former journalists who write well and know what the media needs. Admitting to not being a fan of's 'churn engine' which allows users to trace how many stories are copied from press releases, Higgerson claimed it is a blunt tool: for instance, it fails to show whether journalists have checked the facts in the press release, or which press releases have been rejected.

He concluded with an argument that did rather queer the pitch of the proposers - that the press release is only one of the many ways the PR industry exert its influence. While his example of one disgruntled company PR threatening to turn up at his desk with a mallet is thankfully rare, it did drive the point home. Other dark arts include the angry call to the editor from would-be Alastair Campbells and the threat of withdrawal of advertising. Neither of those, of course, would be any more visible in a brave new world where press release stories are labelled.

This last point was echoed by Trevor Morris, the former PR guru, who pointed out that lots of PR comes from private briefings, tips offs and leaks, prompting Morris to suggest that, alongside labels like 'Advertorial', we would have to label other copy as 'Leakatorial' and so on.

Morris delivered a list of rather brutal home truths: if we have less PR we will have less media, and less media means less advertising which is bad for journalism. Also, PR allows small players without big advertising budgets to get media space. And PR keeps the cost of journalism down. Finally, PR people have a vested interest in supporting journalism because without the media they would lose their jobs.

Morris also argued that power of PR is grossly overstated by both its supporters and its critics – which explains why so many powerful people who spend buckets on the best PR advice still crash and burn (the Murdoch empire comes to mind). He said that 90% of press releases are never even used - which suggests that there is a lot more journalistic judgment going on in newsrooms than we are giving credit for.

It was left to James Randerson to subvert the motion by sheepishly admitting he couldn't give it the full-throated defence expected at this kind of debate. He started by bringing up the other media scandal of recent weeks in the form of the Johann Hari plagiarism saga. James sees some of the same paternalism displayed by Hari in his defence of lifting quotes from other sources in the general reluctance to be more open about where journalists have sourced their stories.

For Randerson the idea that the journalist knows best and the reader doesn't need to worry about the mysterious craft of reporting is no longer justifiable in a time of ever increasing demand for transparency. Instead of labelling articles as advertorial, Randerson argued for the simplest of solutions – linking to sources. For Randerson, the fact that we now have the technical ability to do so with such ease makes this move towards more transparency both desirable and inevitable.

Randerson shares Atkins' belief that more transparency could drive up standards. After all, few reporters come into journalism to copy stories from press releases. Being forced to reveal this would be an eye-opener for the public and may result in more self-policing policy in newsrooms.

The final vote was 23 for the motion – demanding the Advertorial label – and 39 against. The speakers concluded with a kind of consensus that more transparency about sources would be a good thing but the problem of churnalism is unlikely to be fixed by newspapers full of 'Advertorial' signs.

Personally, I think the critics of PR make the mistake of using it as a catch-all term. Product placement PR or the frothy opinion polls that trace back to some big corporate with something to sell are worthy but easy targets. It's not so simple in the science world, where I work: many press releases exist to document the findings of long, complex research studies on public health and the environment. Putting 'Advertorial' over a report of a press released Nature paper showing that asbestos-like effects have been found in the lungs of mice exposed to nanoparticles seems crazy to me.

Nor do I buy the idea that a newspaper should be spared the label just because a journalist calls the researcher directly and gets an almost identical comment to the press release – probably rehearsed by the scientist and press officer in preparation for publication. For me, the test of reporting in science should be whether the public and policy makers get access to good, factually accurate, balanced and truthful information. If that is done by journalists and press officers working together and includes a press release, then fine. The failures in this area are as much down to shoddy sensationalised journalism as they are down to an over-reliance on press releases.

PR, like journalism, is a mixed bag, but if I was asked to identify the people who most symbolise the pursuit of accurate, critical and balanced reporting, my list would include as many press officers as journalists.

Atkins argued that if lifting the lid on the way journalists get their stories leads to a decline in public trust in the media, that is a thoroughly good thing if forces journalists to change for the better.

In other weeks, Atkins' faith in radical and dramatic change in journalism might have sounded naïve and idealistic. But in the light of current headlines, it seems less so.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Just back from the World Conference of Science Journalists

I have just returned from the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha. Sadly the conference had to be moved from Cairo earlier this year because the revolution was literally exploding on the streets when conference centres, hotels and flights needed to be booked. But the spirit of the Arab Spring ran through the conference and it was exhilarating to be surrounded by people who had just changed the world. The Egyptian conference organizer, Nadia El-Awady, joined others at a plenary session to talk about the tension between their professional roles as objective reporters and their growing passion for the revolution. Nadia and Mohammed Yahia, the young Editor of Nature Middle East, who were part of the daily demonstrations in Tahrir Square described the exact moments when they each decided that they could no longer be neutral observers and must take sides.

Yahia closed the Conference with a plea to journalists in Egypt, Tunisia etc to fight to define a new form of free journalism. Echoing others he said the revolution was 'the easy part' and now science journalists must play their part in fighting for a new form of independent journalistic enquiry; "It can’t be the passive science journalism that was taking place in many of the state-run agencies. It needs to be more active – we need to push for more freedom."

These brave young science writers should make us all feel just a little less comfortable in our safe, easy lives as journalists and press officers and it frustrated me that more UK science journalists were not there to be inspired.

Restrictions on scientists speaking out

Talking of being slightly shamed, one of the themes of this conference for me was a growing tendency amongst western countries to prevent government funded scientists from speaking out. Editor of Research Fortnight Ehsan Masood cautioned early on in the conference about assuming that restrictions on free speech for scientists come only from authoritarian regimes. This point was graphically illustrated in the session on 'Secret Science' at which talks from Russia and China were followed by one from democratic Canada. Veteran science reporter Margaret Munro shocked the audience with the revelation that almost all the government environmental scientists she has relied on in in her 30 year career are now prevented from speaking directly to her under new government rules. Munro described the rapid rise of the 'wrong kind of press officer’ who see their job as controlling scientists and ‘corporate messaging'. The new restrictions have at least caused a stir in Canada and even made front page news. While there are no blanket rules restricting government scientists speaking out here in the UK there are some worrying signs. People still cite the now notorious sacking of Prof David Nutt, an independent government drugs adviser, but few have commented on the fact that more recently several government funded agencies with useful scientific expertise were told by government not to do media interviews throughout the Fukushima crisis.

Inaugural meeting of SMCs

The subject of restrictions on scientists speaking out became a hot topic at the first ever meeting of the rapidly growing collective of SMCs held to coincide with the conference. Present at the meeting were the established SMCs from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Canada, with Denmark due to open its doors soon. But we were also joined by representatives from possible new SMCs in Norway, Italy and China. While none of us have lived through a revolution, the sense of being on the brink of something new and exciting marked the meeting where we discussed the huge added value of being part of a truly international collaboration. Obviously there are threats as well as promise and probably the most important item on the agenda was the drafting of a Charter of Principles governing the establishment and running of SMCs. The challenge for the meeting was to get a Charter which does not restrict different national models of SMC while also ensuring that there are core values around independence that all SMCs must subscribe to to be part of the Collective. The first draft of the Charter should be ready soon and will be one of the first things to appear on the new international SMC website being created by our colleagues in New Zealand. By the way, any ideas for a name for the new Collective are welcome – perhaps the lack of easy access to alcohol in Doha can be blamed for the lack of inspiration so far!

SMCs challenged

The SMCs had a session in the main programme using the Fukushima crisis as a case study for the way we operate in different countries with very different media landscapes Given we were at a journalism conference we decided to invite a journalist onto the panel to critique the SMC model. BBC science reporter Pallab Ghosh had agreed but had to pull out at the last minute, so we got the wonderful Connie St Louis instead. Connie is Chair of the Association of British Science Writers and runs the new masters course in science journalism at City University. Connie took on her role as critic enthusiastically and told the audience that the SMCs are actively encouraging the trends towards lazy 'copy and paste' journalism, are becoming too powerful and are vulnerable to being hijacked by maverick scientists, campaigners and funders alike. Connie told us that she teaches her students to do real journalism - to 'dig out' original stories, ask the tough questions to mainstream scientists and to keep a distance between themselves and the scientists they report.

I was first to respond to Connie and said that I tended to agree with much of her characterization of the problems within journalism. I also conceded that by adapting great science to the needs of a media the SMCs can be seen as part of the problem. But I countered that we are Science Media Centres and not Journalism Media Centres. It is not our role to fix the problems of journalism but to ensure that a media under pressure is still able to report science well. The notion that if the world’s SMCs disappeared tomorrow all the science hacks would become 'diggers' rather than 'churners' really does credit us with way too much influence. It also misses the point that the SMCs have a wide variety of contacts with journalists and actually often help them to do the kind of original reporting that Connie and I so admire.

Many of Connie’s comments on that panel were echoed in her interview with Martin Robbins for his excellent blog post on the lack of original and investigative reporting which became a talking point at the conference. While I stand accused of denying the extent of the problems with science journalism I have always argued that there is a shocking lack of investigative reporting in science – a point that came out of my report for Government last year which recommended that the scientific community should fund a science strand at the new Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

However I baulk at the assumption that anything short of original investigations is 'not really journalism'. Running 2- 3 science press briefings a week puts me at very close quarters to the process of science reporting and the truth is that journalists do interrogate the scientists on SMC panels – so much so that we warn scientists to prepare for every claim they make to be pulled apart. They do use their years of specialist reporting to put studies in context and they often add comment and information even when the briefing has been about an extremely in depth and complex piece of science. The briefing I ran just before leaving for Doha was a case in point – ask the UEA and Cambridge authors of the paper on polypharmacy if they felt that journalists failed to challenge their claims during the hour long SMC press briefing and they would probably choke on their tea – I think Channel 4’s Tom Clarke alone asked about 4 times in different ways how the scientists could prove that the effects they saw were not caused by the illnesses themselves.

Both Connie and Martin would have enjoyed the WCSJ conference session on global health reporting with London’s very own Andrew Jack from the FT and Maria Cheng from AP, joined by American science journalist Jon Cohen and chaired by Martin Enserink from Science. Maria Cheng started by showing heart wrenching photos of African children – but only to warn us of the dangers of giving public health stories an easy ride. She also objected to the use of celebrities and hype around global public health and called for a higher standard of interrogation of some of the claims in this arena. Andrew Jack showed us a succession of FT stories – primarily exclusives – that had exposed problems and ultimately forced companies and governments to change policies and withdraw products. Jon described his role as a 'miner' and then showed how journalists can exploit the new openness of institutions like Gates Foundation and WHO to mine the figures and reveal inconsistencies. They also mocked some of what passes for investigative reporting on global health with Enserink lampooning a story that sought to blame Bill Gates for the worldwide obesity epidemic because he invested in McDonalds. Enserink also revealed his pet hate when newspaper articles open with 'We have learned that……' when all they have actually 'learned' is how to read a university press release. But there was no sign on any 'churnalists' on this panel and it was a refreshing reminder that we don’t have to look too far to find great reporters doing proper journalism

All in all, it was a great conference and a great opportunity for science journalists and those like me who care about their trade to reflect on our role and challenge ourselves. The next one is in Helsinki in 2 years. I am taking bets on how many new SMCs will be up and running by then, and hoping to persuade one or two more British science journalists that they would love this conference. Plus, I hear the Finns make excellent vodka…

Monday, 28 February 2011

Sharing the love of science: thoughts on Beddington

There was much chatter on the blogs last week about John Beddington’s apparently unscripted outburst at the end of a speech to science and engineering civil servants reported by Research Fortnight. Beddington, the Chief Scientific Adviser, urged his audience to be as 'grossly intolerant' of bad science as we are of racism or homophobia:

"We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality... We are not - and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this - grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method."

My first reaction was to feel a tad sorry for Beddington. Not that long ago the beautifully crafted full speeches made by Chief Scientific Advisers at such meetings, undoubtedly checked over by an army of civil servants and press officers, would have been the only thing available to the press and mostly went unnoticed. Now, in the age of online journalism, twitter and the blogosphere, the off-the-cuff comment in the closing remarks has become the main event. While his comments are now being celebrated on the science blogs, I suspect John Beddington has had better weeks in government.

But what of the comments themselves? Since coming into science I have become pretty partial to the scientific way of looking at the world (or 'gone native' as my friends put it). Scientists' commitment to evidence, accuracy, reason, rationality and all that stuff has totally won me over, and nine years on I wonder whether I can ever take my PR skills back into the worlds of politics or campaigning NGOs who work to a rather different set of norms. Evidence-based policy works for me every time over policy-based evidence, and when David Willetts talks about his vision of the scientific discourse becoming the common language of society I get a ready-brek style glow.

Where I depart from the comments above is over how we get the scientific approach to prevail. No matter how many times scientists demand that science should trump ideology and pseudoscience, it will not happen unless people are convinced. The role of scientists like Beddington should not be to demand intolerance of anti-science but to win more people over to his rationalist way of explaining the world. If others do not share our love of the scientific method then we have to try harder to convey why they should.

The SMC could have tackled our mission, 'to help renew public trust in science' after the rows over GM, BSE and MMR in a variety of ways, and I’m sure that some of our champions would have cheered us all the way had we chosen the route of attempting to close down debates, demanding the censorship of minority views, and condemning the media’s failure to do either. However, the philosophy we chose was a rather more humble one – that the media would ‘do’ science better when scientists start to ‘do’ the media better. Far from raging against debates over vaccines, GM and climate change the SMC has always encouraged scientists to see these rows as opportunities rather than threats. Every scientist thrown into the fray by the SMC is encouraged to use their moment in the spotlight to communicate something of the way science works as well as answering the questions or responding to critics. In my view it is a tribute to the manner in which scientists have engaged in these arguments that they have, for example, overturned government opposition to the use of human-animal hybrid embryos and persuaded 83% of the UK public that climate change is a current or imminent threat.

I’m still more of a fan of this approach . The House of Lords report that led to the establishment of the SMC talked about the need for scientists to earn their right to practice. They also have to earn support for science and the evidence it provides. People will naturally become more intolerant of pseudoscience when they have learned to love the same rationalist approach that Beddington espouses – much like I did.

Of course if Beddington is simply calling on more civil servants to speak out and engage more effectively with those who misuse science, as suggested in a clarification of his comments published on the New Scientist website, then I couldn't agree more. Beddington says:

"It is time the scientific community became proactive in challenging misuse of scientific evidence. We must make evidence, and associated uncertainties, accessible and explicable. In a world of global communication, we cannot afford to only speak to ourselves."

That beautiful quote could be put on a plaque and hung on the door of the SMC. It reflects the similarly stirring comments made by Paul Nurse at the end of his recent Horizon documentary. John Beddington has some form here – in a good way. In the middle of 'climategate' he made a public call for more openness on uncertainty and in the SMC a couple of weeks ago he told a room full of national media that the world should embrace GM crops where appropriate. But if Beddington is feeling angry there is more he could do. Many scientists still see media frenzies and controversy as a signal to retreat back to the safety of the lab, allowing those who would misuse science to dominate the debate. And scientists advising government on controversial issues still feel that their advisory role probably means they should step back from the media fray – a process not helped by the common use of confidentiality agreements and the official secrets act for scientists appointed to independent advisory committees. Only a few weeks ago a leading expert on talking therapies was told the government no longer needed his scientific advice after he raised important questions about the new Mental Health Bill – showing that the civil servants and ministers need to be reminded to re-read the Principles governing the use of scientific advice that Beddington helped to draw up.

In the meantime I think those of us who love science need to start sharing the love rather than spreading intolerance – not only is it a nicer way to carry on – it’s much more likely to achieve our goals.