Twenty years ago, when I set up the Science Media Centre, researchers were notably absent from the nation’s airwaves. Frenzies about Frankenstein foods, designer babies and MMR may have gripped the media but most scientists put their heads down and tried to avoid controversy. The price was the British public’s rejection of GM technologies and levels of MMR vaccinations that dropped to a dangerous low.
Today, researchers recognise it is not enough just to do great science – they must also communicate its implications. As a result, the UK now gets most of its science news directly from the best researchers, translated by our outstanding science correspondents.
However, this rule has a key exception – which occurs when government press teams get involved. To my dismay, they are now exerting increasing control over UK science communication. Research may be done in universities and far-off research institutes but reports about this work are often taken up by civil servants because these projects are carried out at the government’s behest or are funded indirectly by it. Examples range from research on TB and badgers to studies on Covid-19’s prevalence.
This problem has worsened with the creation of UK Research and Innovation in 2018. Nine separate agencies were combined into one body close to government. The move gave science a voice at No 10 and the Treasury but has also resulted in scientists losing independence and their own voice, a trend since lamented by the organisation’s founding CEO, Sir Mark Walport, and its first chair Sir John Kingman.
During the pandemic, major Covid studies, carried out at universities, were commissioned by government departments and involved scientists working collaboratively to the public’s undoubted benefit. However, that independently gathered scientific data also got swept up into a communications system designed for publicising the government’s ideas – an essentially political activity. I was approached several times by government comms experts frustrated by the mixed messages emanating from senior scientists who spoke openly about the uncertainties and gaps in our knowledge on everything from mask-wearing to the risks of schoolkids driving transmission. How could they curtail this?
They were asking the wrong person. I understood their frustration but argued that “messaging” is for politicians, and that glossing over uncertainty and conflicting views would risk undermining public trust in science at a critical time. There was no such thing as the science on Covid.
This land-grab for science communication has occasionally taken a more sinister turn in the form of proposals such as changes to the civil service code which would have prevented any government-funded scientist from speaking to the media without ministers’ permission, or the anti-lobbying clause which would have barred scientists in receipt of government money from petitioning for policy change.
These attempts were seen off but the fact that people sat in Whitehall developing such policies should remind us that vigilance is vital. In another success, a previously unheard of civil servant, Sue Gray, agreed to change the wording of purdah rules designed to restrict civil servants from speaking out in the run-up to elections when it became clear that over-enthusiastic government press officers were urging academic scientists to keep silent before polling day. The new guidance made it clear the rules were never intended to apply to the daily media work of academics.
The good news is that there is a precedent for liberating science from the encroachment of the government’s communications machine. Last month, the Office for National Statistics was announced as joint winner of the inaugural Harding Prize for Useful and Trustworthy Communication for its remarkable Covid-19 infection survey. The judges highlighted the fact that its data was free from Whitehall spin.
Critically, this independence was not simply a product of the ONS’s boldness. Some years ago, frustration at the way national statistics – from crime to unemployment – were spun to the media by successive governments led to growing pressure to change the system. An influential Royal Statistical Society report led to the 2007 Statistics Act, which enshrined the principle that official statistics should be communicated separately from government.
I believe we need to treat scientific data gathered outside the government as we do official statistics. Certainly, public trust in government would be enhanced if the reins were relaxed and government trusted the scientific community to act independently and responsibly. It’s the right thing to do and would be a fitting legacy of the pandemic for the benefit of everyone.
Beyond the Hype: The Inside Story of Science’s Biggest Media Controversies, by Fiona Fox will be published by Elliot & Thompson on 7 April