Tackling science media controversies
From one science storyteller to another, Fiona Fox, chief executive of the Science Media Centre in the UK, tell's Julia Ravey about what the Science Media Centre does, and how science media controversies need expert voices to tackle misinformation...
Fiona - We're an independent press office and we were set up around 2002. We're 20 this year and we were really in the wake of the big media controversies around GM crops, Franken-foods, MMR causing autism - as was alleged then - and animal rights extremism, as well, which was at its high point. It was felt at that time that the scientific community were just not engaging in enough numbers, or effectively enough with these big, messy, politicised controversies. So, our mission is really to improve the quality of the science that is being seen and heard by the public through the news media. We've got very narrow focus on the news media, but a very big goal, which is the wider public and their views on vaccination, climate change, animal research, etc. The way we do it is by making it easier for journalists to get access to really good quality scientists.
Julia - That's so important now as well with how fast news spreads - it's really important that it comes initially from the horse's mouth, from a great source. And your book, 'Beyond the Hype', addresses the real stories behind some of the biggest controversies in science. You mentioned a few of them there, the MMR and autism, and there was that hype about genetically modified foods, which were nicknamed Franken-foods in the media. I just wanted to know, what did this sort of coverage do for the reputation of genetically modified foods?
Fiona - It was fatal. I must say, we arrived quite far into this media fury: 2002. By the time we arrived, I can honestly say that the British public had more or less said 'no' to GM crops. When asked in surveys, they said they didn't like the idea. Supermarkets came out and started to ban anything with traces of GM in it. The supermarket said 'no.' And, eventually, the politicians, because their post bags were full of campaigners saying, 'we don't want GM.' It was absolutely fatal, and I think plant scientists then, 22-23 years ago, didn't have that track record of engaging in these big media controversies. They were coming out when they had a beautiful paper in 'Nature', but what they weren't used to, and just weren't prepared to do, really, was enter the fray and go on BBC 5 Live and Sky News with these very articulate campaigners in Friends of the Earth and GreenPeace, who were opposed to GM. It really was the case, in my view, having looked back at this and really reflected and spoken to hundreds of plant scientists, that the scientific community did not come out in numbers and speak to the public
Julia - Over the past couple of years especially, the line between science and politics has really started to blur. We've seen during the COVID-19 pandemic that governments across the world are giving out advice from experts, but then you have experts online disagreeing with this advice that's being given out. What problems does this blurring cause? And can we ever really separate politics and science?
Fiona - That's such a good question. I really try to grapple with this in my book. To me, this desire, especially in a pandemic, for a single clear public health message - and I had government press officers coming to me and saying, "we are really annoyed because the Science Media Centre is putting out all of these scientists, they're all saying contradictory things, there's multiple voices and we need one clear public health message." And this was in February 2020; there was no scientific consensus. There was no clear message. It was not understood by the best scientists in the world. We really fought against that. We really fought against this single clear messaging. It's absolutely fine for the government to do that and, of course, that was right and proper, but we didn't want to adopt the whole of the scientific community into their government messaging. So, I've been trying to champion multiple voices - as long as they're good voices, as long as they're good scientists, who stick in their lane and talk around their own expertise - that actually the more of those we hear the better, and if there is huge uncertainty, and if there are disagreements amongst scientists, let it all hang out. Actually, the public showed themselves, on the whole, to be very sophisticated in their understanding of science during this pandemic. That's what I'd like to call for: some kind of principle of a separation of scientific data being put into the public domain and then we can all argue over how we interpret that. But, at the moment, often that data is given to the government and they communicate it. That's where I think things went a bit wrong.
Julia - Yeah, I think that's really important. Especially, like you said, if there was an individual message from the start of the pandemic, things like wearing a mask wouldn't have been taken into account. So important.