S2 Ep9: Fiona Fox on Science in the Media

‘Everybody has to roll up their sleeves, get down and earn the trust of the British public’ Science Media Centre’s Fiona Fox on why scientists have a duty to engage with the press.

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For a period of time in the late 1990s the UK news headlines became dominated by a series of stories that rocked the science community. Controversial issues like genetically modified food were being played out in the press but the voices of scientists were conspicuous by their absence, and that vacuum was filled by other special interest groups who ended up controlling the narrative and swaying public opinion.

Responding to this crisis of communication, some in government recognised the need for an organisation that would act as a bridge between journalists and scientists to ensure that such an absence of representation wouldn’t happen again. And so the Science Media Centre was born. Established in 2002 by Fiona Fox, the SMC has been going strong ever since, helping to improve the quality of science journalism in the UK, even through the seismic changes that have happened across the news media landscape during that time.

In this episode of the Research Comms podcast Fiona talks about early day of the SMC, as well as reflecting on how things have changed in the seventeen years since it started, on the impact of digital technology on science journalism, and on the dangers of scientists retreating to their ivory towers.

The below is a short excerpt. For the full interview download the podcast.

What was going on at the time when the Science Media Centre was founded that made the formation of such an organisation so necessary?

In the late 1990s the stories that loomed large on the front pages were GM, with headlines like ‘Frankenstein Crops’; MMR and autism, launched by the whole Andrew Wakefield scare; the legacy of BSE, where scientists were blamed for having misled the government by telling them it was safe to eat meat; and then the other issue was animal rights extremism, whereby the extremists were in the ascendancy and most universities and most scientists did not speak of the fact that they used animals in research. So there were four big stories playing out and none of them were playing out well for science. So the then Science Minister, David Sainsbury, held a House of Lords Inquiry into the state of science in society. It was held over six months, scientists gave evidence, journalists gave evidence and it really summed up the mood, which was that the scientists were angry, blaming the media for misinforming the public, saying it's their job to tell the public that MMR is safe; and the journalists were very angry with the scientific community, saying ‘they demand this special treatment, they come out of their ivory towers once every few years and tell us to get the story right, and they complain to our editors. But what they don't do is make themselves available to discuss and just thrash it out’. And so that was the context.

What made scientists reluctant back then to engage with the press and how have things changed since then?

It was just the culture and even though we're only talking twenty years ago the culture is completely transformed now. So back then the vast majority of scientists did not come out of their ivory towers; they did their research in their universities, published in learned journals, perhaps did a couple of interviews on the day they published but it was completely different to what we were saying was needed, which was an ongoing engagement in the topical controversies of the day.

I mean, GM is a really good example where when I went to see a lot of the scientists at Rothamsted Research, the John Innes Centre and other world class plant science institutes and I said “Why didn't you engage in that debate? The public were turning against GM, the politicians were turning, why didn't you engage when you saw what was at stake?” and the truth is they were just bewildered by it. These were sleepy plant scientists and suddenly their area of research was headline news and they were being invited onto the couch on BBC Breakfast to debate with farmers and Greenpeace and they were utterly bewildered.

One other thing I will note that really struck me at the time was that in their place were people like Susan Greenfield, who helped set up the Science Media Centre, who’s a neuroscientist, and Robert Winston, a media friendly scientist but a fertility doctor, who were weighing in on GM. They could see that the arguments were irrational, they could see that the media coverage was inaccurate, and so they were putting themselves up, filling the vacuum and that actually wasn't a good thing either because they were saying ‘there's no risk, this is irrational’ whereas actually the plant scientists that I've subsequently met would tell you that in those early years there were all kinds of risks; we didn’t know if GM was going to work, they were just starting out on field trials. And had those amazing scientists been engaged at the outset and presented the science as something new, potentially risky, with some uncertainties, I think the whole debate could have been transformed.

Thankfully, some of the big names in science recognised that we couldn't do that anymore. Today, whether it's the church or politicians or the trade unions, everybody now has to roll our sleeves up and get down and earn trust from the British public. So, at the same time that we were being set up all of these things were happening, like funders were saying ‘in future we'll give you the money to do your research on condition that you engage with the public about your results and on an ongoing basis’. There were things like the REF in universities, which was talking about impact, saying you can't just do your ivory towers research, you have to state ‘what is the impact on the public?’ so all these different drivers were coming in that were completely revolutionising the sector. As a result, a young scientist now will expect that being a good scientist will involve doing very good research and engaging the public about that research

What do you feel about the question of whether or not scientists should be able to fact check news stories that feature their research to ensure accuracy? What control should scientists have over science reporting?

Nobody in the scientific community has only control over the mass media. None. Now, increasingly scientists are setting up their own podcasts and blogs, and universities are putting a lot of time into their their own university websites. Cancer Research UK's science blog employs trained journalists, for example, and it gets big hits on Google when you look for cancer stories, so there's lots of really exciting innovative journalistic projects within science which we do have control over and that's great. But when you get to news media we don't have control, and I can see their reason for that, because science is an interest group. You take any one issue, say drugs, we work closely with David Nutt and we do a lot about evidence around cannabis use and the truth is that the people who have expertise in drugs are drug users, patients, the police, drug workers, and scientists. They're all interest groups and they all take different positions. The police is still adamant that if you legalise cannabis that sends out the wrong message; as far as the Daily Mail is concerned or The Sun or The Guardian, the police are an important interest group, as are drug workers, as are patients, and as our research scientists.

So one thing where I do argue with scientists, and I have to do this a lot, is with scientists who say the only way of seeing the drug issue, the mitochondrial DNA issue, the fracking issue, the GM issue, is the scientific way and who are critical of the media for allowing in other perspectives. That's not our starting point. We want to make sure that the science is part of this debate and that it's an equal part of the debate, or where it is massively certain and significant, like with climate change, that it’s a higher part of this debate but equally we don't ever say ‘you should only interview scientists on climate change or mitochondria’. These are debates with lots of interest groups.

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Peter Barker is the Director of Orinoco Communications, which he started in 2016, having spent over ten years working in broadcast television as a documentary producer/director. 

He specialises in the digital communication of research in science, the social sciences, humanities and arts.