The Hype on “Beyond the Hype”: an Interview with Fiona Fox, the Head of the Science Media Centre
We are celebrating the 20 year anniversary of the Science Media Centre (SMC) — the organisation that Fiona Fox funded in 2002 in London, with the ambition of bringing scientists and researchers into the “nation’s airwaves”. And we are just now starting to reflect on lessons learned (or not) on the effects of the COVID pandemic on the communication between scientists, politicians, and the public. Thus, Fiona’s recently-published book Beyond the Hype: The Inside Story of Science’s Biggest Media Controversies seems to be one of those perfectly-scheduled writing outputs that makes wannabe-writers like me profoundly envious.
No surprise therefore that, as we are laughing about the reversal of roles for this blog (“the interviewee is interviewing the interviewer”), I asked her how she managed to write the book right in time for these two events. But of course, she didn’t. “The book was mostly written in a sabbatical I took in 2019, in a lovely cottage in Donegal”, she explains. The aim at that time was to put together the stories that had framed the SMC’s activities of the last few years — from illegal drugs to climate change, from animal research to GM food, from human-animal embryos to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Of course, the plan to have the book finished and published by February 2020 was thrown in disarray by the pandemic, and the book was kept on hold till the end of 2021. Just in time to write a new chapter on the pandemic at the beginning of 2022. And the new book was born. “Part-memoir, part-manifesto for change”, in Fiona’s own words. So, what does this “charismatic and sometimes combative” woman (as Nature described her almost 10 years ago) want to change? “The ability of the public to hear from the scientists is paramount”, she continues, yet “at risk of being undermined in a variety of ways, whether by government communication officers, press offices’ corporate strategic priorities, harassment of researchers on social media, and the general polarisation of the scientific debate.” Hence the book, now, and the opportunity to have her voice heard in the printed media and in podcasts. The problem with the current science communication ecosystem Fiona has many concerns. Lots of scientific research now comes into the orbit of the government communications machine, because the scientists are government-funded, or the studies are commissioned by government departments like the Department of Health or Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Government communication officers are focussed more on publicising the government’s ideas than about providing nuanced scientific information. They are worried about mixed messages that senior scientists may put across when speaking openly about the uncertainties and gaps in knowledge — as it happened during the pandemic. The creation of the UK Research and Innovation body (UKRI) has also brought the research community closer to government, with the effect of a loss of independence. Research communications is also under pressure, as many university press officers are increasingly called on to support wider communications activities required by universities, including marketing, student recruitment, fundraising and reputation management. “We worry about who will support scientists who would like to have their work presented to the media, if research press officers are under-staffed or busy with other things to do. Who will mediate with the media in case of misunderstanding, for example, by pushing newspapers to rectify a mistake in the way a science news has been (mis)interpreted or (mis)represented?” There is also the enormous problem of social media trolling, abuse and threats that scientists receive when they communicate findings to the public. Nature recently published a survey of scientists who have communicated about COVID, and found that 60% have experienced attacks on credibility, 40% emotional or psychological distress, 20% threats of physical or sexual violence, and 15% death threats.
“When we ran an event on harassment recently we discovered that many universities and research institutes do not yet have anything in place to support scientists suffering online abuse”.
I asked her about “open research” or “open science”, the movement advocating that all research outputs, like publications, data, software and biological materials, should be openly shared within the scientific community.
This movement has led to new publication practices such as publication in open access scientific journals (that is, available to all readers, for no fees) or pre-print publications (a publication of a “first-draft” of scientific papers before they undergo the “peer review” process by other scientists that characterise publication in scientific journals).
I asked her if this emphasis on open research is cascading down to the promotion of public science communication?
“The two movements are still separate”, she comments. “We are very supportive and enthusiastic about open access publishing, but that’s about the scientific process and openness. The process for communicating science to the public through the news media is a separate issue and there are dangers of the public reading about very early research findings in the news before they have been peer reviewed and published”.
For many scientists, their duty stops when their data is made openly available to all the other scientists of the world; it does not include effective communication to the press and the public. In fact, miscommunication may arise when a scientist is seeking journalists’ comments for a pre-print, and then hope to get a second “bite at the cherry” when the paper comes out into a scientific journal.
“Journalists don’t tend to do the same story twice, and a pre-print is by its nature not the very best most accurate version of a set of findings”, Fiona argues.
I have had similar thoughts. The COVID emergency, where the publication waiting times could costs lives, is hopefully over. Let’s go back to the slower but more effective pace of contacting journalists when the paper is published in a peer-reviewed journal. Fiona agrees with me.
What does the future hold?
Fiona is unsure of the best way forward.
“Do we lobby for universities to invest in and value their science press officers more, so that SMC can stay small? Or do we need a larger SMC because universities now need to invest more in broader communications?”
Internationally, the SMC model has been repeated in many countries. SMCs in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan had already opened when Nature talked about the SMC in 2013. Germany followed suit. And in the past year, new SMCs have opened in Spain, Taiwan and East Africa.
“Italy should also be in the list”, I say, volunteering to help.
“The SMC model is quite a unique concept in media relations. Unlike other PR offices, we are not interested in promoting our brand name or institutional message. We are really just about helping journalists to access the best scientists”. This is the model that Fiona hopes to inspire internationally.
All the existing SMCs are independent associations, loosely associated by a common charter of guiding principles. It’s only one page long, and it is worth reading.
I love the stated mission:
The mission of an SMC is to inform public debate and discussion on the major issues of the day by injecting evidence-based science into headline news.
Where can I sign?
My last question is about all this exposure she has received for her book, and how this has been for her.
Isn’t she worried that she had become, in Alastair Campbell’s famous words that Fiona reports in her book, the press officer [who] becomes the story?
“I had thought about this”, she firmly replies. “I did not want to be the story. I considered waiting until after retirement to publish the book.”
But she was worried that openness in science communication was under threat.
“Things had changed so dramatically in the last two years. Waiting was not an option.”
And I am glad she did not wait.
Header image is the cover of Fiona Fox’s recent book