Sense about Science ? equipping people to make sense of science and evidence
On Friday 16th September 2016, we ran a Standing up for Science workshop hosted by the Francis Crick Institute. We were joined by fantastic panellists and over 60 enthusiastic early career researchers (ECRs) representing different organisations and fields for a day of dynamic discussion.
The workshop opened with a panel of scientists sharing their experiences of interacting with the media about their controversial research topics. Dr Gia Aradottir from Rothamsted Research talked about the difficulties she faced from a media hostile to GM crops. She was part of the ‘Don’t destroy research’ campaign, which encouraged the public to discuss, not destroy a GM wheat trial at Rothamsted Research. Gia advised the attendees about the importance of participating with the media, as journalists will run the article with or without your scientific input. Professor Stephen Keevil discussed his role in campaigning to prevent a European Union Directive that threatened to impede clinical and research applications of MRI. Stephen talked about the importance tailoring your message for the general public, while avoiding oversimplification which you will regret later. Dr Robin Lovell-Badge shared his thoughts on the best way to combat the misrepresentation of science in the media, using his experiences in working with embryonic stem cells. Robin advocated talking to the media as much as possible, but being careful not to be pushed into speculative claims, or commenting on unpublished research.
Over the lunch break, participants discussed the positives and negatives of the way the media cover science. These thoughtful group discussions fed into the second session of the day, where attendees had the opportunity to put their questions and concerns directly to a panel of journalists. Tom Whipple shared his daily routine in writing as science editor for The Times, highlighting his time constraints. He discussed the role of embargos and how they are used in science journalism, and emphasized the importance of researchers being available for comment when journalists call, not one week later! James Gallagher talked through his experiences as a health reporter for the BBC, particularly the different requirements to make articles suitable for print, radio and television. He talked about the responsibility of journalists to accurately report science to their readers and explained how he decides if an article should be covered, and how much input the newspaper editor has in this decision. Claire Coleman discussed her role as a freelance journalist, explaining the importance of scientists being available for comment. She reassured ECRs that you don’t have to be a world expert in the field to engage with the media, pointing out that that scientists can't complain about misrepresentation if they don't stand up and speak out. All panelists discussed mistakes they have made and how they are corrected, agreeing that this is much easier with online articles than those in print.
The final session of the day was the nuts and bolts of standing up for science. Participants shared their thoughts on what obstacles ECRs face when doing so, including a lack of confidence and time, and opposition from senior scientists. The three panellists gave advice on how to combat these issues. Hermione Lawson, Senior Press Officer at the MRC, talked about the support that press offices at funding bodies, universities and institutions can give to ECRs when they first start to interact with the media, including interview practice. Hermione emphasized the importance of not feeling that you have to answer every question a journalist might ask you in an interview. Chris Peters from Sense about Science spoke about the Ask for Evidence campaign, and how ECRs can and should get involved to hold organisations to account for the claims they make. Chris talked about the successes of the campaign, and explained that the public are interested in the evidence behind claims made in politics and the media. David Robert Grimes, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Oxford, discussed his experiences at debunking pseudoscientific claims in the media. David was insistent that you do not need to be an expert in the field to set the record straight, anyone with a scientific background has a duty to combat misinformation. He encouraged ECRs to become more vocal in their criticisms of bad science, stating that it is the role of scientific researchers to share the scientific consensus on important issues around science and evidence with the public.
The clear message of the day was to actively engage with the media and public to stand up for science.
If you want to attend a future workshop, or are part of an organisation that would like to partner a Standing up for Science event, please email Joanne at email@example.com
With thanks to all our workshop partners:
Association for Clinical Biochemistry and Laboratory Medicine
Birmingham City University
The British Institute of Radiology
The Francis Crick Institute
The Institution of Engineering and Technology
Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine
Medical Research Council
Royal Meteorological Society
Royal Pharmaceutical Society
Society for Applied Microbiology
Society for Experimental Biology
University of Glasgow
University of Leeds
University of Manchester
University of Reading
University of St Andrews
University of Stirling
University of Warwick
Top tip 1: Ask for Evidence. If you’re being sold a product or asked to believe a claim then you deserve to know whether it’s based on evidence – or imagination.
Top tip 2: Detox. It’s a marketing myth – our body does it without pricey potions and detox diets.
Top tip 3: Superfood. There is no such thing, just foods that are high in some nutrients.
Top tip 4: Cleansing. You shouldn’t be trying to cleanse anything other than your skin or hair.
Top tip 5: If it sounds too good to be true… it probably is.