This blog is really to echo the sentiments of Fiona Fox, Chief Executive of the Science Media Centre, reported today by Pallab Ghosh on the BBC website. She argues that Government Scientists are being muzzled, to the detriment of informed public debate on scientific issues. Further to this, I tell you why it’s also bad for science.
You don’t need to have spent a month sitting next to Fiona Fox to know that this woman is passionate about the accurate reporting of science.
Instead of standing in the limelight, Fiona and her merry cohorts at the Science Media Centre are the shadowy driving force behind the accurate reporting of some of the messiest and controversial science stories that the UK has seen over the past ten years.
At the Science Communication Conference, a view was expressed that Fiona and the SMC act on their own agenda, selectively spoonfeeding information to the Government, the Media, and the Public. Clearly the person who expressed this view has no idea how the SMC actually works. Yes, the SMC does occasionally act to keep science stories out of the headlines, but these will only ever be BAD SCIENCE. And no, they don’t decide for themselves which stories are good or bad science (although most of the office have scientific backgrounds, and half of them have Ph.Ds). They consult their database of experts. They act quickly to gather an informed, expert opinion, which they then pass on to the media, and allow the press to make their own decision.
Admittedly the SMC can’t act on all science stories. This Science Army actually only consists of 9 people, (loudly) occupying a corner of an open plan office in the Wellcome Trust. They are careful with their resources, and only act on the stories which need their help the most. The science stories that need to he heard, or are likely to be misreported.
The SMC exists because at the moment, the Government is incapable of doing this job.
When a science story hits the headlines, the Government (metaphorically) drags all of its scientists into the war room and takes a very long meeting. They take the phones off the hook, decide what they are going to say, and emerge – sometimes days later – with a statement.
There are two issues here.
Firstly, by this time, all of the crackpots, hippies, non-Government organisations, anyone with an opinion who answered their telephone, have had their say. When it comes to informing public debate, this is not the best method. This is what Fiona Fox argued at the Science Communication Conference.
Secondly, that statement will not change. We live in the hope that the Government’s stance on a topic is a reflection of the scientific sentiment in the war room (but we can’t guarantee that). After a time, new evidence might emerge, or further analysis might mean that the scientific sentiment on a particular topic might change, to be at odds with the Government’s stance.
In order to progress scientific understanding, you have to be open to the idea that you are wrong.
Unfortunately, The Government still lives in a culture of policy based evidence, and we can be sure that the Government stance on a particular topic WILL NOT CHANGE. Lord forbid the Government ever have to admit that they were wrong about something. This is called policy based evidence.
Why is this bad for science?
Because the Government are distorting the appearance of the scientific process, and making it look untrustworthy.
There will have been a certain amount of scientific debate in the war room. Fair enough, to make the public privy to that might only confuse the matter, but this debate will continue outside of the war room. And once it’s outside, it’s no longer a debate.
Contrary to some opinions expressed in comments under Fiona’s BBC article, these scientists aren’t dumb. They’re well respected experts. Not just experts in their field, but well trained scientists who are capable of applying scientific rationale to emerging issues. They are trained to change their opinion based on what is observed. This is called evidence based policy.
Under the Government, however, the scientists will be told to maintain their official opinion, even when every ounce of scientific integrity inside them is screaming otherwise.
When the evidence starts saying ‘hold up now, we might not be right about this…’ the official Government response will be NO. How can you have a debate when the only answer from one side is NO? When the Government scientists are proved wrong, they look irresponsible and untrustworthy.
It’s no wonder the public don’t trust the scientific process when they have a distorted image of what that process actually is.
So it’s people like Fiona Fox, who come out when they need to, pointing out this practise, who are awesome for science. Not only do the SMC team ensure that there is good science in the headlines, they are engaging the public with the scientific method. This, in my opinion, is the most important aspect of science communication: not just changing what people think about science, but how they think about science. Only when people think scientifically will we, as a nation, truly appreciate it’s benefits.
To read more about policy based evidence vs evidence based policy, I recommend reading “The Geek Manifesto” by Mark Henderson.