Last month, I chaired a debate at the Royal Institution exploring the different expectations scientists and journalists have for science media. I was asked to write up my notes for the Guardian science blog, and picked out three questions from the many we discussed on the night.
1. Is climate change a qualitatively different issue from more general questions about science in the media? Any area of science is different from another: we should be careful of talking about science as if it were a cohesive whole, just as we should be careful of lumping together the whole of ‘the media’ too. Still, I think there is a lot to be said for taking time to consider what it is precisely about climate science that distinguishes it. As Joe Smith argued recently, the topic is rather a hard sell for the media: “Climate change science is looking at the long term, slow moving, run through with uncertainty and is [...] at least for the foreseeable future, unfinishable. It represents one of the most ambitious intellectual projects of our time. It is our moonshot.” I’d add that it’s also a young science in many ways, it doesn’t have the same sort of political and cultural infrastructure of quantum physics or human genetics. You’d probably have to be in your early 30s or younger to have done much climate science at school. In a more cynical mode, I’d also posit the suggestion that climate change, unlike other science media issues like GMOs, nanotech or BSE, isn’t about selling us products – quite the opposite, arguably – and that might explain a certain lack of political will when it comes to supporting public communications work.
2. How do we ensure science news is reported in the public interest? I was pleased to hear the topic of the public interest raised, and it’s a topical one in the UK as we consider a possible replacement for our Press Complaints Commission (e.g. see the Wellcome/CRUK submission to Leveson, pdf). Still, I worried that the discussion of the public seemed to end here. I wanted to hear more about opening up science media to involve audiences, a sense of the public as a resource not simply an audience to be protected and looked after. Such work doesn’t have to be a matter of ignoring scientific or journalistic professional expertise and skills, just doing things in public to open the conversation a bit (Leo Hickman’s EcoAudit is a lovely example of this).
3. Should journalists read the scientific papers they write about? This question had caused a fair bit of fuss on the night, and was later explored in detail in a great post from James Randerson. I couldn’t help but think it was a bit of a distraction though: it’s the notion of a scientific paper that’s the problem, not journalists. A paper really isn’t the most efficient way of sharing scholarship, is it? I’m slightly cynical change here is possible, I suspect the publishing industry is too powerful for meaningful change.
(I admit I was in a rather cynical mood that night)
Overall, I left the event at the RI, not for the first time, worried that if we leave science media to commercial intersets that surround science rather than paying for a newspaper, museum exhibition or public funding via taxes, then too much of the public debate on these issues end up bankrolled by those with an interest in selling us stuff. Advertisers. Sponsors. Tobacco. Oil. Supermarkets. The arms trade. Science that doesn’t sell us stuff – or tells us not to buy – gets quietened. I don’t want to suggest that if commercial interests are involved in science communication the work becomes somehow invalid (I’ve worked on sponsored science communication myself) but it is something to keep our eyes on. I recently re-read a paper by Charles Thorpe and Jane Gregory which takes a critical look at increased moves to public participation in science alongside commercial exploitation of scientific knowledge. That paper’s open access, but not the easiest read if you’re not of a sociological persuasion. If pragmatic examples are more your thing, it’s worth reading up on Brian Wynne’s resignation from a Food Standards Agency steering group or perhaps Gaia Vince’s story of when SEED magazine spiked one of her articles because it was critical of a potential advertiser on advertisers.
For me, a lot of this boils down to a lack of public debate over political and commercial of science itself, not just who pays for science museum exhibitions or advertises in science magazines. I think there should be more public discussion of science policy. We shouldn’t just be having debates about whether scientists and journalists have different views over what counts as “good” science media – or if this frame mises out the role of press officers or the public – but how we might involve policy makers and political activists more productively in the conversation too.
I can see why people worry if and how science media can clearly communicate scientific knowledge, but it should also open up questions about how science is made and what we want to do with it too. Here’s my final question: how can science media more effectively discuss commercial interests of science, rather than just being constrained by them?