Evaluating the Science Media Centre

In a discussion at SciDevNet of whether science media centres could benefit the developing world, Mićo Tatalović points to academic research on the London Science Media Centre (SMC) in which, he said, the SMC is “lambasted for pushing corporate science”. It’s not the first time such criticism has been directed at the SMC. Is such criticism fair?

Established in 2002, the SMC provides prepackaged expert reactions to breaking scientific news stories, media briefings (press conferences) on scientific topics of public interest, factsheets and ‘before the headlines’ independent expert analyses of scientific papers. The centre’s stated mission is to provide, for the benefit of the public and policymakers, accurate and evidence-based information about science and engineering through the media. Those last three words – “through the media” – are significant. The centre does not aim to provide information directly to the public. Whatever public benefits its activities produce are presumed to follow from its work with the news industry.

The SMC is currently sponsored by nearly one hundred organizations from which it receives somewhere over £500,000 annually with no single sponsor providing more than 5% of total income. Sponsors include both private and public sector sources. Approximately one third of SMC funding comes from private industry but only 2% from “media” sponsors. The SMC idea has inspired the formation of similar centres in several other countries.

The research cited by Tatalović includes a study of the SMC’s impact on science reporting conducted by Connie St Louis of City University, London which found that almost a quarter of press stories that used SMC expert reactions relied entirely on quotes supplied by the centre and that sixty percent of stories that cited SMC press briefings mentioned no other source of information. However, where quotes from other expert sources were used as well, almost a third of these contradicted the views offered by the SMC’s experts. Meanwhile, a study of the experts the SMC uses made by David Miller of the University of Bath, found that, despite the SMC’s stated focus of bringing scientists to the media, twenty of the SMC’s hundred most-quoted experts were not scientists (defined as having a PhD and working at a research institution or a top learned society), but lobbyists or industry executives. Finally, Tatalović cites a paper by Andy Williams and colleagues of Cardiff University on UK National Newspaper Coverage of Hybrid Embryos which studied British press coverage of a debate on proposals to ban research on animal-human hybrid embryos in which the SMC played an active role. Williams’s paper claims that the SMC was the engine of a long-running coordinated PR campaign on behalf of a large and powerful coalition of scientists, funding bodies, charities and pro-hybrid politicians that was instrumental in bringing about the political defeat of proposals to ban such research.

St Louis, Miller and Williams all apparently take their research to portray the SMC, despite its claims of independence, as an unashamedly biased public relations organization that channels public opinion and government policy by luring journalists into writing news stories spun to specific interests. Tatalović even quotes St Louis going so far as to say that she would close down the Science Media Centre.

Not being a journalist, I have very little first-hand knowledge of the SMC, but I did speak there in 2005 as an ‘expert’ at one of their media briefings. The company I worked for at the time had just won an NC3Rs grant and I was one of a handful of recipients chosen to give short talks to the collected reporters on how we were going to use the grants. NC3Rs covered my travel costs but didn’t try to influence or limit what I said. The animal research debate wasn’t featuring in the news at the time any more than is usual in the UK, but the event was clearly important to NC3Rs because both its chairman and chief executive were there when I arrived. I got the impression that the SMC was effectively running an NC3Rs public awareness campaign.

On the face of it, then, it does seem that the SMC has, occasionally at least, lent itself to serving the PR agendas of other organizations. However, the studies Tatalović cites are all rather weak ammunition against the SMC. St Louis’s study effectively implies that most reporters who use SMC expert reactions do include other sources and if many of those contradict the SMC’s experts, it’s probably because they were deliberately sought on that basis. If 20% of the SMC’s experts are not scientists (as Miller found), that does not immediately imply that they are not knowledgeable about the relevant science. And industry figures are arguably more credible sources than academic scientists for the likely industrial implications of any given piece of science. Miller’s study of the hybrid embryo story largely ignores the fact that the issue was one of allowing a certain type of research. This inevitably made the scientists input immensely strong anyway. All that was necessary was to make their voices heard and that is what the SMC did.

The SMC describes its roots as being in the findings of the House of Lords Third Report on Science and Technology which made recommendations both for the media in dealing with science and for scientists dealing with the media as ways of averting the perceived crisis of trust of the British public in science following debacles over the handling of supposed hazards in the MMR vaccine, genetically modified crops and BSE. The real value of the SMC lies in how much it manages to achieve in that direction. Will that be measured? Can that be measured?

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