This week I attended what was probably my first serious social sciences/STS (variously Science and Technology Studies or Science, Technology and Society) conference in my life. I was only able to attend the first day and I came away not quite sure what I felt about the experience. It was certainly interesting, but was I any the wiser? The conference (Circling the Square) was organised by the Nottingham STS Priority Group headed up by Reiner Grundmann. Its aims were stated as twofold:
- To explore the opportunities and challenges involved with the development of policy-relevant evidence.
- To foster a much-needed conversation between researchers, decision makers, journalists, and engaged citizens.
These are laudable if sweeping aims. I won’t discuss those parts I saw relevant to the first aim here since my own small part was to serve on a panel designed to fit into the second. (If you’re interested Philip Moriarty has discussed this part of the day here.) Under the banner of ‘A Good News Story from Science? Researchers facing the Media‘ I shared a platform with emeritus scientist and ace-blogger David Colquhoun, Felicity Mellor (who leads on the science communication course at Imperial)and science writer Jon Turney. Personally I took that session title at face value, wanting to stress the positives of interacting with the media, as well as some of the pitfalls. However our session was preceded by an excellent if somewhat downbeat keynote lecture on the state of science journalism from Andrew Williams which had something of a dampening effect on the debate with our panel. If I had been a young researcher wondering whether to dip my toe into the waters of science communication, I might well have felt discouraged (another attendee’s write up can be found here).
Andrew Williams has done some illuminating research on the triangle between individual researchers, an institution’s Press Office (however designated but the body that puts out an institutional press release) and the media, mainly as represented through print or mainstream TV/radio rather than simply an online presence. He identified a number of faults in this operation which can have the effect of leading to excessive hype verging on dishonesty or the exclusion of those caveats which the research warrants. Interestingly his findings demonstrate no correlation (he can’t comment on causation) either between exaggerated claims and the take-up of a story, or the inclusion of caveats and a corresponding lack of take-up. This, particularly if he can proceed to demonstrate causation as the next stage of his study aims to do, should reassure individuals drafting press releases to stick to what they can honestly say without either overegging their findings or avoiding the mention of any limitations or underlying assumptions.
Another facet of this researcher-media interface that Williams has been exploring was the process known as ‘churnalism’, the rehashing of press releases with little original input from the journalist concerned. In this way there is no external scrutiny or tensioning of any ‘spin’ the initiator of the story puts out. In large part he believed that this was down to the way the workload of journalists has increased and the consequent lack of time they have to reflect or investigate further any claims made. Certainly this is a view I have heard expressed with dismay by senior science journalists, in one case remarking that they feared his ilk were a dying breed (as exemplified in the loss of Susan Watts as science editor for Newsnight, for example).
What I thought was unfortunate was that the sum effect of all his interesting and informative studies meant that it was easy to take away the message that the system was broke and there was no way to fix it. I don’t think this was his intent, but he left us with no optimistic message that if we (at least the ‘we’ that are researchers; I can’t speak for journalists or press officers) recognized the failings we could do better. We could (and should) write our press releases so that they aren’t just sexy but also accurate and truthful. Of course much research will never be of the kind from which a press release will spring fully armed, but there are so many ways of communicating science that don’t simply stem from the publication of a paper in a glamour journal that most researchers should be able to communicate their science sometime, some place. That aspect didn’t get aired in Williams’ talk.
I tried to put this more optimistic view across when we got to the panel discussion, but not before David Colquhoun had had an opportunity to blast said glamour journals (I think he wanted to ‘ban’ both Nature Publishing Group and Elsevier – I think HEFCE too for all the distortions their emphasis on impact is causing, but as I wasn’t taking notes at this point I can’t be 100% sure on this front. I’m surprised he didn’t include Science, Cell and PNAS too but perhaps he didn’t want the list to be too destructive.) However it wasn’t just the glamour journals he wanted to damn, he was strongly of the view that researchers had only themselves to blame for signing off inaccurate, hyped up and incautious/injudicious press releases which they then found themselves having to defend. From his perspective, the buck stopped firmly at the researcher’s feet.
Felicity Mellor, focussing on her analysis of science reporting on the BBC, reinforced much of what Andrew Williams said only concentrating on the specifics of what her study found. Jon Turney reflected on how things have changed, and not always for the better, over his career. Again, I don’t believe it was his intention but by highlighting the disappearance of science journalists with the time to find their own stories not prompted by HEI’s press releases or challenge what these might say by finding counter opinions, the impression I was left with was of a rather poor state of affairs.
So, as I say, it was left to me to try to say that it isn’t all gloom and doom, there are lots of opportunities to communicate your science in ways of your choosing and, particularly if you seek out media training, to tell your stories in the way you want without getting doorstepped or misquoted. Declaring myself an interested party, I also spoke up for online opportunities to spread the word through blogs such as the Guardian Science blogs.To my mind places like these blogs provide great opportunities not just to avoid the fate of churnalism, but also to tell those continuing stories that aren’t arising from some fancy publication that week but reflect more on the interesting tales of ongoing science – this is still science that matters both to the public and the researcher. These also provide a chance to write about the process of doing science (or, as one of the questioners put it, to demonstrate that most scientific results are subsequently shown to be wrong, or at least inaccurate), thereby providing a way for those who don’t practice science get some feel for what we actually do day by day.
To be the optimist, despite being the amateur communicator amongst that bunch of professionals, felt a slightly strange place to be. It tended to confirm what one of the social scientists said to me, that there was a clear fault line between the social scientists and the scientists. To bridge that gulf was one of the aims of the meeting, and I suppose you can only do that when you have its measure. Day 1 of the conference perhaps exposed its magnitude. It would be nice to believe that by day 3 there was some skeletal structure able to reach from one side to the other. But I won’t be there to see it because I will be presenting at another and very different interdisciplinary meeting on women’s historical experiences in science, where historians, archivists and scientists will get together. Two conferences in one week so different from my normal fare: an embarras de richesses indeed.
Note added 25-5-14
Just to bring together the blogposts (that I know about) regarding this conference.
- Philip Moriarty (one of the organisers) was first off the mark where a very interesting comment stream developed. He later followed up with this.
- Closest to the content of my own post is attendee Alasdair Taylor’s post on the perils of the press release.
- Also on OT Sylvia McLain has written of her frustration with some disparagement between the different communities.
- Another of the organisers Brigitte Nerlich wrote of her own slightly puzzled response to some of the debates here. She has also written a summary of the various responses .
- Some of the interactions have also been discussed here.