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
(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;
(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
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 informationand 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.