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Science reporting: is it good for you? The Drayson / Goldacre debate.

Simon Mayo chairs the debate between Lord Drayson and Dr Ben Goldacre at the RI
Simon Mayo chairs the debate between Lord Drayson and Dr Ben Goldacre at the RI CREDIT: BIS (www.flickr.com/photos/bisgovuk/)
On September 16th, Lord Drayson, UK's Science Minister, and Dr Ben Goldacre, doctor and author of Bad Science, shared a sofa on the stage at the Royal Institution in a public debate titled: "Science reporting: is it good for you?" It was interesting stuff, well worth a watch if you can spare an hour and a half. If you're interested, there are images of the event, as well as on-demand video of the debate. Here's some of what I thought was interesting from the event.

It's the first time I've actually heard Drayson speak, and I was impressed, all credit to him for stepping up and participating. It's nice to hear a politician sound so enthusiastic about science (there are precious few who know anything about it). Drayson's comments on sensationalism were interesting. I see his point that, to cut through a lot of the drivel that passes for news in the mass media, a bit of sensationalism might not go amiss, but this can backfire and we shouldn't forget that. Going down that route is risky. What happens when other science stories, ones that could be more important but less sensational, don't get reported because they lack the shock factor? Worth thinking about.

Goldacre talked as rapidly as usual, cramming a huge amount into his monologue. One thing that stuck in my head was the description of the imaginary guy who studied biochemistry at Leicester Poly ten years ago and now works in middle management in M&S. It's a good point. The media often seem to write for the lowest common denominator, but people are not stupid. In my opinion, the reporting of "silly science" stories (like the daft formulae that were mentioned in the debate) does nothing but contribute to the problem of getting real science into the media. The point Goldacre made about Radio 4's science coverage is a good one: they do some good science programming, and they do let the scientists themselves talk about their work directly. It works. Another suggestion he made was that it would be nice if science stories were linked back to the press releases, and the journal articles to which they refer. I think this would be be fantastic: for those who are interested, those who have some of the background and are interested in reading about the nerdy details of the research, the option should be there*. Not everyone has access to the academic journals, or knows about the tools available to search the literature, but they should be able to get the facts if they are interested.

I'm glad that Lord Drayson is behind the idea that science communication should be recognised in research assessment excercises. This always struck me as something of an oversight. If you want to encourage academics to interact with the public or the media, in a lot of cases it will take an incentive. For those who do it successfully, of course it should be recognised. Thankfully, attitudes are changing and it seems to be less of a "bad thing" to do science communication than it used to be. There are a lot of very capable scientists who spend some of their time communicating their research, and this is a Good Thing.

Communication doesn't just mean mainstream media, it's true. There's a lot of it that goes on, scientists talking to the public through less formal (and more direct) routes. I've been advocating for years that researchers funded by the councils should be encouraged (if not required) to provide at least simple summaries of their work that are accessible to the public, as it it the public that are paying for it after all. I'd like to see an expectation that a small percentage of grants is used for outreach purposes. Whether that is used to pay for staff time to visit schools, for the production of graphics and press releases, or for some other means of outreach, whatever. The point is, I'd like to see it become the norm, something that's just expected.

Flexibility was also mentioned. Flexibility for those who want to take it further, and who are capable of doing it well, needs to be there. For postdocs, this seems particularly problematic. As a postdoc, I need to publish to increase my chances of getting another job in academia. But I do a lot of outreach. While I feel that it's important stuff (and I rather enjoy it), I do worry that I'm hurting my chances of staying in academia (should I chose that path, of course) by spending so much time on it. It's not a situation that is conducive to training good communicators.

The main point of the debate was about science in the media, so there was a lot of discussion about the industry, too. While I know very little about what goes on in a newspaper, I do read a lot of press releases and I can sympathise with the science journalists who end up covering stories that are way outside of any formal education they might have had. (Thankfully, as an amateur journalist on the Jodcast I get to chose which stories I report on, so I have it fairly easy.) There are some excellent science correspondents out there, but it worries me that some news outlets have got rid of their science departments altogether. In the modern world, a basic understanding of science is a very, very important thing and, as stories like MMR and BSE have shown, when things are badly reported (for whatever reason) the damage it does can be far-reaching.

So, the debate basically came down to the fact that there are a number of problems with the way science is reported in the media, but it's not all bad. Of course there is room for improvement, but I'm not sure what the answer is. Any ideas?

* It is in the case of the Jodcast news.

Posted by Megan on Friday 18th Sep 2009 (14:28 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink


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