Policy Lunchbox with Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre

SMCThere’s no denying that science and the media have often had a turbulent relationship in the past. Misleading and scare-mongering headlines from news stories on topics such as the MMR vaccination and autism, BSE and GM crops have resulted in many scientists being reluctant to engage with journalists. However, ensuring that headline science stories are reported accurately and proportionately is vital. Step forward the Science Media Centre

Fiona Fox, Director of the UK Science Media Centre, featured in our latest Policy Lunchbox event held in collaboration with the British Ecological Society, the Society of Biology, the Society for General Microbiology and the Society for Experimental Biology. Titled ‘Science in the Media – the view from the front line’, Fiona outlined the role of the SMC and detailed a number of occasions where their work was been vital in shaping the way controversial science news stories were reported.

Established in 2002, the SMC is an independent press office that works to ensure that the public have access to the best scientific evidence and expertise from the news media when science hits the headlines. Those at the Centre work for journalists, scientists and press officers alike. They seek to provide journalists with key scientific information in the timeframe in which they need it. As well as providing advice and support to scientists already engaging with the media, the Science Media Centre runs events to introduce experts to what that involves. Furthermore, they work closely with press officers from universities, industry, research funders and leading science and engineering institutions. They have over 2700 scientific experts and over 1200 press officers in their database as well as 380 journalists on their mailing lists.

Outputs from the SMC fall into three categories: rapid reactions in response to breaking stories, round-ups which aim to put scientific research into an appropriate context, and media briefings where scientists are able to set the agenda. Furthermore, the Centre receives press releases from the top 10-15 journals and acts to identify stories that can be readily sensationalised and/or mis-reported.

Fiona emphasized that the SMC is truly independent and hence able to reflect the views and findings of the scientific community. Though funded by a number of organisations, including the Biochemical Society, none of these give more than 5% of their running costs so they are able to remain totally non-partisan.

The SMC only respond to controversial headline news stories. For example, thy only stepped into the open access debate when it started to appear on the front pages of newspapers. The Centre serves to reflect mainstream science; they highlight equally the different opinions that exist within the scientific community. In no current scientific news stories is this more prevalent than in the pollinators and neonicotinoids debate and the bovine TB/badger cull controversy.

It is this media-driven philosophy which has led to the Science Media Centre being highly influential in the debate on a number of controversial news stories. Fiona discussed several examples of these, including the Japanese earthquake/tsunami and the resulting problems at the Fukushima nuclear power station in March 2011. In the aftermath of the disaster the SMC produced a rapid reaction document as well as a number of fact-sheets and emergency briefings which contained comments from experts in fields as diverse as geology and seismology to nuclear physics and safety.

Other examples Fiona highlighted where the SMC had had an impact included the potential cuts to the science budget in the run up to the 2010 Government comprehensive spending review and the reaction to controversial research in mitochondrial DNA transfer (often dubbed ‘three-person IVF’ by the media).

The event finished with an informal question and answer session and the consensus that the audience had found it to be useful and informative. Plus the M&S lunch went down well…

Watch this space for details of the next Policy Lunchbox event…

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