Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 85

Submission from the Science Media Centre



  1.  The Science Media Centre believes that scientists who are appointed to committees set up to advise Government should have access to independent media relations support.

2.  At present however, even when the science advisory committees are entirely independent in practise and produce important pieces of independent scientific advice, they are almost entirely dependent on government press officers from the relevant department to manage the communication of that advice to the media (and hence to the public). This means that the norm is that government departments decide how, when and who communicates the findings of independent advisory groups to the press. For obvious and understandable reasons political considerations often take priority over getting the evidence into the public domain and too often the scientific expertise and evidence get lost in the political melee.

3.  The David Nutt incident which angered many in the scientific community was in my view an extreme example of a much more widespread problem. I believe this is a major issue in science communication. Many of the UK's best scientists sit on these one-off or standing advisory committees and the work they do in gathering scientific evidence and using the best scientific expertise to help inform advice to government is of critical importance to the country. The fact that too often this independent scientific advice does not get its day in the media spotlight means that the British public are losing out on expertise, science and evidence on some of the most controversial issues of our times.

4.  There are many and varied examples of the negative consequences of the current system. The Science Media Centre has been closely involved in some of these examples but have anecdotal evidence of many more.

  5.  Even before the ecstasy and horse-riding story, our experience of the media support provided for the ACMD presents one useful example of the nature of the problem.

  6.  Because the Home Office press office decided on the timing of the media launch, that timing was linked to political considerations. In both the cannabis and ecstasy cases the Home Office decided that the media launch of the evidence and recommendations from the expert group would coincide with the official reaction to those recommendations by the Home Secretary. This immediately transformed the media story from one about scientific evidence likely to be covered by science reporters, into a political story about a row between advisors and ministers covered by home affairs and political reporters. Even if there had been no disagreement, merging these two distinct events had the effect of doing the following:

    (a) the scientists were denied the opportunity to brief specialist science reporters and focus on communicating the substantial scientific evidence which had informed their recommendations; and

    (b) The wider public and policy makers were also denied the opportunity to read the evidence as presented by the independent advisers, and so a key opportunity to inform this contentious debate with some scientific evidence was lost.

  7.  Because the press officers for the ACMD work for the Home Office press office there was an immediate conflict of interest when key recommendations of that independent committee conflicted with government policy. The press officers advising the Chair of the ACMD were effectively the Home Secretary's press officers.

Important caveat

  8.  Arguing that independent scientific advisors should have access to independent media relations advice is not the same as arguing that Government must always follow the advice of its scientific advisers. Politicians rightly base their decisions on many factors and have to measure independent scientific advice against the concerns of consumers, business, politicians, the police, and so on.  

9.  However to have fully informed debate in society it is critical that the public and policy advisers get access to all the information—and that must include the unadulterated scientific advice from experts invited to advise governments.

  10.  As someone who cares passionately about the quality of public debate on science, what worries me most is that society is losing out on the views and expertise of some of the UK's leading academics on some of the most important issues of our time.

  11.  Practical Proposals:

    —  We recommend that the default position should be that from the outset, newly established independent scientific advisory committees should be provided with access to independent media relations advice. This could be through an accredited list of well respected science press officers (either seconded from jobs in research institutions or free-lancers), or through expanding the role of the Science Media Centre to provide independent media advice to all scientific advisory committees.

    —  Many of these advisory groups are made up of scientists and a mixture of other experts including social scientists, economists, consumer groups, etc. One option would be to make sure that each committee actually has one media relations or communications expert as part of the group.


  12.  Nothing in the above is to undermine the work of government press officers, many of whom the SMC has successfully collaborated with for many years. Nor is it to suggest that the press officers working with scientific advisory groups should not work extremely closely with the press officers in the relevant government departments. However most science press officers we have liaised with in government would be the first to admit that there are problems with the current way of working.

May 2009

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