Thursday, 17 February 2011

Scientists need to talk

A blogpost by Lucy Harper

I don’t need to explain to readers of this blog why science and evidence are so important, yet in the current economic climate so many research groups across the world are facing funding cuts. And why are scientists facing funding cuts? Put simply, because not enough people think science is important. And why don’t they think science is important? Because not enough scientists are telling them, in an accurate and measured way, how important it is.

However, last Monday (7 February) my email and twitter feed came alive! The Honorary General Secretary of SfAM (Dr Mark Fielder @markusmicrobius) had made a comment in an article which appeared on the front page of that day’s Guardian and as Communications Manager, it was my job to track the story’s coverage. The story, which many of you will have seen, was written by an excellent science correspondent, Alok Jha (@alokjha) and was about scientists in Oxford who have done some preliminary research into a new type of vaccine against influenza. The results of their data are promising and if they hold true in larger clinical trials, could have an enormous impact on the burden influenza currently has on healthcare infrastructures and economies worldwide.

I believe that scientists should engage with non-scientists and explain what they do, so to me this story was brilliant in a number of ways:

1. It generated some interesting comments from scientists and also from those who aren’t scientifically trained but who see this story as important. The comments varied: from the emotional responses of members of the anti-vaccination movement, to comments of encouragement and congratulations directed at the scientists doing the work.  But the point is, the story generated dialogue – a conversation between science/scientists and non-scientists.

2. It showed science as it really is. The story didn’t project an image of the work as scary, intimidating, far-removed and undertaken by white-haired old men in equally white coats amongst conical flasks of various coloured liquids (most of them steaming and bubbling) in science labs at the top of tall turreted buildings. Instead, it explained, very well, that the (female) lead scientist was encouraged by the results of her work and she was looking forward to taking it to the next level. She felt she’d made progress and this made the science relatable and human.

3. It showed science as a process of (mostly) tiny discoveries which could, with further work and evidence, lead to something which could benefit the world in which we live. Not a huge scare story, nor an enormous breakthrough. But a promising set of preliminary results which need to be tested many times in experiments and trials before they are available to the likes of you or me. Often in the media the process of science is lost amidst the need for a ‘sexy’ story. But here, the process was clear.

4. The science hadn’t yet been peer reviewed (yes I am stating this as a positive thing). Some of the commenters asked: why is this being publicised without undergoing the scrutiny of peer review? My answer to this question is that science makes progress, but the majority of the hundreds of thousands of scientists in the world are making progress in their super-specialised areas in tiny tiny steps. One of these steps is getting results. All scientists know that peer review, though markedly improved since my days in the lab, can be a lengthy process. And the fact this article states the science has yet to be peer-reviewed introduces this concept to those who don’t yet know what it is, and, in equal measure, shows complete transparency in reporting.

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society talked about science in the media in a BBC Horizon programme entitled: Science under attack. In the programme, which sparked some debate in certain circles, he discussed previous cases of science being badly reported and serious consequences this can have. He cited as one example the terrible case of Andrew Wakefield and his work which claimed a link between MMR and Autism. I won’t go into detail about this here, other than to say that prevention of a repeat of this situation is one clear reason why scientists should talk to the media and engage with non-scientists in an accessible and accurate way. The formation of organizations such as the Science Media Centre and Sense About Science have helped enormously in ensuring the accurate reporting of science in the media. When I asked Dr Fielder what was his main motivation for talking to the media, he said: “Because if I don’t someone else, who could be potentially less qualified, will.”….and as we’ve seen, the consequences of this could be very real.

In the UK, the Science is Vital campaign to save science funding, run by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), was an example of the impact the collective voice of scientists can have. The campaign was backed by scientists and organizations across the country who showed their support by signing a petition and attending a demo as well as writing to their local MPs. It was said to have had an effect on the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review, which resulted in a real-term cut to funding of around 10% - an outcome which is judged by most as good. The results of this campaign were real, but we mustn’t forget that this was merely one campaign and scientists have a long way to go.

On Friday on the way into work I tuned into Radio 2 and heard Professor Brian Cox OBE, co-presenting the Chris Evans Breakfast show. During the programme when talking about the forthcoming “Uncaged Monkeys” tour he’s doing with Robin Ince, Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh, he described them as “bringing science to all and flying the flag for rational thought”. He added: “there does seem to be a moment now where people are beginning to value scientific and rational thinking again –it’s an interesting time, so hopefully we’ll get to the stage where we can bring science to Wembley Arena”. My perception (though I accept my opinion is bound to suffer perception bias) is that science is becoming more popular – more mainstream. If this were the case, I for one would be thrilled, but I’d be interested to find out if the non-scientists out there agree that because more scientists are talking, we are moving in the right direction.

Lucy Harper (@lucyharper) is Communications Manager for the Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM).  These are her views and don’t necessarily reflect the views of SfAM)


Anonymous said...

A really interesting post and I completely agree more scientists should be talking to the media. It seems that there are always hundreds of people ready to argue against vaccination programmes and other contentious issues yet very few informed individuals ready to stand up and defend the science (although this does seem to be gradually changing). Great post looking forward to reading more by the author.

Elaine said...

Excellent post, Lucy. Thank you. I saw the Paul Nurse Horizon programme and also read Alok Jha's article about the exciting flu vaccine work and I couldn't agree with you more. We've all seen what a loose cannon the media can be and the damage it can do with inaccurate reporting and alarmist headlines, and its power to reach and influence large numbers of people makes it vital that scientists get out there and do whatever they can to redress the balance.

James H said...

I think that this is a very valid, well constructed point of view, Lucy. If the scientific community and what it represents is to be fully effective it can't choose to opt out of the management of public opinion. This 'PR' impacts so many things - public and private funding, the quantity and calibre of individuals choosing to enter the discipline, the ability to effectively counter self-interested nonsense-peddlers (homeopaths, creationists, 'Dr' Wakefield etc)...

So as a non-boffin (or at best a lapsed one) I can confirm from a reasonably neutral, distanced perspective that your view of science becoming more mainstream and cool - sortakinda - is correct. And there are significant benefits to this - but they come at a price. If the scientific community is going to start courting the public, then said community will need to upskill in this area, as "The Public" is a fickle unpredictable beast.

So a powerful tool, yes, but one which will require scientists to not only expend their energies on things other than science, but also to occasionally make compromises or dumb things down in order to engage The Common Man.

Or in other words - "When you look into the Abyss, the Abyss forces you to entertain populist or externally facing practices at the expense of appropriate focus."

Still - it's 2011. Science needs to court public opinion.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Particularly about the aspect of talking to the media before peer review has occurred. We need to get scientific information to a wider audience and as long as there is transparency, in that we state results are only initial findings and no peer review has occurred there should be no problems.