Memorandum submitted by the Science Media
Centre (SAGE 25)
The Science Media Centre was set up in 2002
in the aftermath of media frenzies on BSE, GM crops and MMR with
the goal of supporting and encouraging more scientists to engage
with the media more effectively in times of crisis and emergencies.
Over eight years of responding to stories like
Sudan 1, Polonium 210, SARS, foot and mouth disease, natural disasters,
etc. we have built up a huge body of expertise in this area and
hope that the following evidence will be useful to your inquiry
into scientific advice and evidence in emergencies.
While on the whole the Science Media Centre
works very positively with government at times like these, we
feel there are some areas that could be improved. These are elaborated
on over the next two pages but in summary they are:
1. Use of credible third party independent
expertsgovernment should see credible independent third
party experts as an opportunity rather than a barrier to a "single
public health" message. The way to overcome the challenge
of conflicting messages from experts is to ensure more and wider
briefing of those experts.
2. Never leave a vacuumthe message
scientists learned from the GM crisis in particular (and more
recently from the UEA climate emails saga) is that if the best
scientists refuse to comment, others less expert will take their
place. It is critical that while the Government is formulating
a unified response, the media has easy access to the most accurate
evidence-based information even when this is necessarily
3. Government advisers must be free to brief
the media (and therefore the public) as well as the Governmentduring
previous crises some of the best independent scientists were quickly
appointed to advise government by serving on SAGE (Scientific
Advisory Group for Emergencies) committees. While some in government
have assured the SMC that this does not disqualify these experts
from briefing the media, that has not been made clear enough to
those experts, many of whom have stopped speaking to journalists
as a result of their appointment as an adviser. The SMC believes
government must proactively encourage these scientists to continue
briefing the media.
4. Do not fear opennessbeing open
and honest about differences of opinion and scientific uncertainties
is particularly scary in the midst of a media feeding frenzy but
the SMC is convinced that the benefits of greater openness outweighs
the risks. Almost everyone in the debate over "climate-gate"
believes that scientists should have been more open about the
uncertainties in climate scienceeven if those would be
have been seized on by critics.
5. Risk communicationgovernments
have become better and better at this but the infamous 65,000
deaths projection during the swine flu crisis shows that we all
need to continue to improve risk communication.
We hope this evidence will be useful to your
Inquiry and would be quite happy to appear before the Committee
if that would be useful. We also attach two very short summaries
of the nature of the SMC's involvement in swine flu and volcanic
ash and would refer you also to the references to that role in
the recent Hine Review of the H1N1 emergency
Science Media Centre
NOTE: The Science
Media Centre (www.sciencemediacentre.org) specialises in working
with scientists and UK national journalists on the biggest and
most controversial news stories. We work with over 2,500 scientists,
1,000 press officers, and journalists on every major press and
broadcast outlet in the UK on topics ranging from animal research
and the use of stem cells to train crashes and flooding. On H1N1
swine flu and the effects of volcanic ash alone we issued statements
from over 120 scientists, organised over two hundred interviews
and ran six press briefings. We also gave written and oral evidence
to Dame Deirdre Hine's independent review of how the Government
handled the pandemic.
In one interesting development, the Science Media
Centre partnered with GO-Science and the Chief Scientific Adviser's
office to produce a "Glossary on swine flu" specifically
for news journalists which was launched at a press briefing at
the British Science Festival last year.
During the swine flu pandemic, the CMO, DH and
HPA handled the communications well. Weekly press briefings bringing
in experts were welcomed by the journalists, who on the whole
felt well briefed with information and access to the best experts.
Daily updates from HPA and DH helped the Science Media Centre
enormously in terms of basic facts on spread, etc.
The ash from the Icelandic volcano caused different
problems with respect to the media as the story ranged from the
territory of one official body to another and some engaged more
than others. We organised interviews with scientists who could
discuss volcanology, impact of ash on health, assessing risk to
aeroplanes and meteorology.
Using Independent third party experts in midst
1. In times of crisis evidence shows that
people respond well to a single unified message and that is the
2. However, we operate in a 24-hour rolling
news environment where journalists and the public are sceptical
of official Government messages and will ALWAYS look to other
views. There is a strong need for independent third party experts;
when the press aren't given reputable experts, it doesn't stop
them running the story, but instead they use less and less credible
figures. The SMC co-ordinates many independent experts from Universities
and agencies like the Wellcome Trust, MRC, etc.
3. We fear that DH and some official agencies
can be wary about these independent voices and the risk that there
might be conflicting expert advice. We understand that completely
but feel that the reality of today's media climate is that there
is a need for them.
4. There is also evidence that at times
of crisis people seek out multiple sources. We feel that the Government
should embrace the fact that authoritative voices are commenting
outside the official responseeven if some of the advice
is conflicting. In fact, most of it is not.
5. We propose that, rather than worry about
these independent experts briefing media, Government departments
should organise briefings for independent third party experts
to ensure that key spokespeople are well briefed. We understand
that the Ministry of Defence already does this successfully.
6. The public dismissal of Prof David Nutt
served to make some scientists wary of engaging with Government.
The roles of independent advisors should therefore be protected
and the Principles on Scientific Advice to Government should be
Filling the vacuum
1. Leaving a vacuum is always dangerous
and can easily be filled by less credible experts. During the
swine flu pandemic, whilst the journalists were delighted with
the regular weekly briefings by the CMO, they did rely on the
SMC to fill the huge vacuum in between the briefings. During the
gaps where official sources were not responding to media enquiries,
the SMC ran background briefings, issued fact sheets and supplied
experts for back to back interviews. We think the combination
of official briefings backed up by proactive expert comment coming
out of the SMC helped the overall communication of evidence based
Don't remove independent scientists from public
debate by asking them to become Government advisers
1. When SAGE was set up for pandemic flu,
several of our top scientists felt unable to brief the media while
also advising Government.
2. These are the top experts in the country
and are needed to advise Government but also needed to advise
and inform public opinion. We feel that they could be asked to
keep discussions at SAGE confidential while still being allowed
and indeed encouraged to brief the media and inform the public
in their general areas of expertise.
3. We lobbied for a change to this with
SAGE (Volcanic Ash) and would like to see this extended to all
4. Some scientists sitting on these committees
felt intimidated by being warned about the Official Secrets Act
or asked to sign Confidentiality Clauses, which could serve not
only to dissuade them from engaging with the media, but also from
giving advice to Government in future.
More transparency and openness
1. We think there could be more openness
about the nature of discussions within SAGE. Questions, for example,
about whether to mass vaccinate or hand out anti-virals more widely
were widely debated amongst scientific and medical experts and
trying to suggest that there was absolute agreement led to suspicions
2. We were especially disappointed when
a press briefing on vaccine safety with David Salisbury was cancelled
at the 11th hour during the swine flu pandemic, despite huge interest
from journalists. We fear that sometimes there is too much caution
from government media advisers when actually the specialist reporters
are almost all responsible and careful.
1. There was much discussion about the 65,000
deaths figure issued by the CMO after seeing Imperial models of
the spread of swine flu. It is our strongly held viewed that the
CMO had to give the media this figure as if he had attempted to
hide it in any way it would have been seized upon. However, the
SMC has successfully run many, many briefings where a range of
risk is communicated and we believe that it is possible to emphasise
the caveats and appeal to the responsible journalists not to emphasise
the upper range without heavily qualifying.
2. All scientists need to get much better
at saying "I don't know" and admitting that there is
often huge uncertainty and differences of opinion about the actual
level of risk. Attempting to reassure the public and journalists
by asserting a level of uncertainty and agreement has backfired
badly in the case of climate change and, to some extent, in volcanic
ash and swine flu. The truth is that in the midst of a crisis
neither the government nor experts may know, nor could possibly
know, exactly how severe a problem may be. There should be honest
and open discussion about any levels of uncertainty.
Summary of Recommendations
1. Government should establish a system
of regular briefing of third-party experts who are likely to do
media work in the midst of an emergencythis could operate
through the Science Media Centre.
2. Government should proactively encourage
independent scientists to continue briefing journalists (and therefore
informing the public) after they have been appointed to advise
government on groups like SAGE.
3. The Officials Secrets Act and Confidentiality
Clauses should not be used for independent experts advising Government
apart from in extreme circumstances where national security is
at stakeexperts trusted enough to advise government should
be trusted to keep some information confidential where appropriate.
4. Governments should be braver about being
more open about the scientific advice they are receivingeven
when this is conflicting or uncertain. An ever-more sophisticated
public can cope with uncertainty if it is communicated effectively.
Science Media Centre