Last night I attended the 10th anniversary party of the UK’s Science Media Centre (SMC). For those who don’t know what the SMC is, please take a look at their website. Put simply it’s a meeting space (virtual and physical) where scientists can interact with the people that write the stories behind the headlines (by the way, if you’re a UK-based scientist you really should know who they are!).
CEH’s connections with the SMC go way back, having been involved from the beginning due to our research work on the GM crop fields trials, and more recently on subjects as diverse as floods, droughts, air, water and soil pollution, environmental economics and many aspects of climate science (including ‘climategate’).
The evening began with luminaries, from both the science community and the UK’s science journalism community, giving short talks in praise of the SMC and the fantastic work they have done over the last decade. Points made by two of the speakers particularly struck a chord with me.
First, Paul Drayson, former science minister, racing car driver, and biotech entrepreneur, made an inspirational speech expounding on the need for scientists to be brave (and even fearless) in speaking out about the value of their research. The advent of the SMC has allowed the UK’s science community to do this, giving confidence to many (including staff at CEH) to get involved in debate on controversial issues where the ‘best’ science can inform the public.
Second, Lawrence McGinty, science editor of ITN news and, in his own words, one of the more senior science journalists working in the UK today, made a plea that the SMC (and the wider science ‘community’) should not ignore or exclude 'maverick' scientists. In his view it is vitally important that space is given to a variety of views. In the section of the audience I was sat in many heads nodded in agreement when he made this point.
CEH has run a formal Press Office since 2005, so we’re only seven years old, a spring chicken compared to the SMC. Having ‘grown up’ in their shadow many of our principles reflect the ‘core’ SMC values. For example, we’ve always worked on the principle that our scientists speak for themselves, after all they know their research, results and conclusions better than anyone else. We provide independent and impartial scientific advice, background information and evidence so whilst we always consider our funding bodies’ views we do not let them dictate how we communicate our science (in practice this can be tricky...). Finally we try not to tell journalists how to do their jobs, just as we wouldn’t expect them to tell our scientists how to do their jobs!
After last night, I will be adding two more items to our core principles list. First, our scientists should become braver (and ideally fearless) in putting their scientific evidence out in the public arena, allowing it to be debated, and responding to both criticism and praise, and second, they should never, ever, forget, there are opposing views out there that should be treated with respect, even if you fundamentally disagree with them.
Happy 10th Birthday Science Media Centre, and thanks again for all the advice and support over the years. You have made a positive difference to how scientists interact with the ‘real’ world. Long may it continue.
CEH Media Relations Manager