Catching runaway scare stories

Two decades ago, writes Fiona Fox, animal research was “science’s dirty little secret”. Campaigners had exposed genuine abuses of animals, but universities, afraid of bad publicity and sometimes violence, discouraged their staff from appearing in public to explain the countervailing benefits of such research. Unfortunately, this only fed into a narrative that scientists were doing terrible things behind closed doors.

Since 2002 Fox has served as the founding director of the Science Media Center (SMC), which describes itself as “an independent press office” and was set up in response to a government report calling for resources to help scientists engage with the media. She was a somewhat surprising appointment. Her degree was in journalism, rather than a scientific subject, and she was working as head of press at the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development. Furthermore, she had a background in what she herself describes as “radical left politics”. The former editor of the GuardianAlan Rusbridger, wrote to her employers to complain about the fact that she had been “a contributor to Living Marxism … a magazine and movement which grew out of the Revolutionary Communist Party”. At the time Fox’s sister, Claire, remained a director and leading figure within the group. “This”, Rusbridger went on, “was an organization which praised the IRA and Saddam Hussein, defended the right of racists publicly to deny that the Holocaust occurred while comparing environmentalists to the Nazis.” He also described the SMC as “a sinister pro-biotech ‘lobby group'”.

In addressing such claims, Fox acknowledges that the SMC was funded by biotech and pharmaceutical companies – among many others, now including government departments, charities, media organizations and universities. She is broadly supportive of GM foods, but takes a positive, pro-environmentalist position on climate science. When there is “a strong scientific consensus on one side”, she sees it as the role of the SMC to promote that. She even takes the trouble to refute those who complained about the uniformity of views on a panel she put together for a press conference (now surely long forgotten) about the science of statins in 2014.

Above all, Fox is committed to the view that “when scientists embrace controversy, go on the front foot and patiently explain their work to clients, they can bring the public and politicians with them”. Her book uses a series of “media controversies” to explore how this works in practice. In the case of animal research, Fox explains, the Home Office had long produced annual statistics on the numbers and species involved, but these were “published quietly on the government website” and “promptly seized upon by animal rights groups who sent them with their own spin to their chosen reporters”. In 2006 Fox set up proper press conferences to release the new statistics, “with four or five scientists, vets, animal technicians and [ethics] experts available to explain and provide scientific context for any increases or decreases in the figures”. She appeared on BBC Breakfast to defend animal research. More time, the SMC created “a double act”, involving a Parkinson’s patient named Mike Robins, “one of the first UK recipients of deep brain stimulation”, and a scientist who had “tested it on monkeys before putting it into human trials” . After the technique had been explained, Robins “would stand up, calmly reach inside his shirt, and turn off the device. The tremors would slowly take hold and after a few agonising minutes, Robins’ body would be in the grip of shockingly violent and all-consuming shaking… Then Robins reached back into his shirt, flicked the switch back on and his body returned to its peaceful state”.

None of these initiatives transformed public opinion: many people remain hostile to animal research, and indeed to GM foods and climate science. But it does seem plausible that the debates have become less heated and more informed by scientific input; that a rapid response can help “stop a runaway scare story in its tracks”; and that experts need to get in early, as “the news media will not suspend coverage until all the facts are known”.

Fox includes a chapter on Sir Tim Hunt, the British biochemist and Nobel laureate who attracted worldwide condemnation in 2015 for his comments about his “trouble with girls” in the lab. Fox does not defend his ill-judged attempt at humour; Indeed, at the time she took the opportunity to set up interviews and op-eds from senior female scientists who “wanted to use the row to draw attention to the barriers women in science”. Yet she also publicly expressed her view that Hunt was “the wrong poster boy for sexism in science”.

She points out, for example, that “there was a noticeable difference in response between the female scientists we approached who knew Hunt and those who did not. The former group insisted that he was not sexist. Those who did not know him were furious”. She also learned “how he had fought a successful campaign to have a nursery established at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology and had tried to do the same (albeit unsuccessfully) at the Francis Crick Institute – something Hunt, characteristically, never thought of up himself”.

Though Hunt had issued an apology, Fox adds, “it was about the furthest you could get from the kind of slick, stage-managed apologies that we hear from politicians and celebrities with huge PR machines”. Yet she was unimpressed by “the suggestion made by several of his friends of drafting a slicker, more rehearsed apology for him”, and instead set up an interview that would allow “people to hear his authentic voice.” The initial rush to judgement, when institutions publicly disassociated themselves from Hunt, did indeed give way to a less one-sided debate, though eventually he and his wife – the equally distinguished scientist Mary Collins – decided to leave the UK.

As this episode suggests, Fox is unsympathetic to attempts to “control the narrative”. There is much in the book about her “repeated hard-fought battles against government moves to restrict independent scientists from speaking publicly”. While scientists consulted about policy decisions are “often fiercely independent from government in their operational work and advice”, she points out, “they have little or no autonomy when it comes to the communication of that advice”. She even cites cases where highly politicized figures such as Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s former director of communications, weighed in on how science should be presented to the public, for example by preventing a leading Covid scientist from being interviewed about a paper that she published in the Lancet.

While “politicians have every right to reject scientific advice”, Fox would like them to do so openly, to “publish it and explain why they have come to a different conclusion”. Despite the attempts by some to turn it into a scandal, she therefore welcomed the fact that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation openly expressed its opposition to vaccinating all children in September 2021, and the government then explained why it had decided not to follow this advice. She also believes that the pandemic “has demonstrated that the public can be trusted to absorb uncertainty and make judgments in the face of complexity”.

The central claim of Fox’s book is that we have witnessed “a revolution in the culture of science” that has transformed scientists into “accessible experts central to our national life” – a revolution in which the SMC has been both “product” and “catalyst” “. She is delighted that news editors now generally “see science reporting as an area to be led by specialist science, health and environmental health”, and that the Covid crisis gave scientists “the chance to explain aspects of the scientific method that would never make the news in ‘peacetime’, leading to much excellent (and widely read) journalism about “the R number, the latest modeling and the science of variants”.

Beyond the Hype offers a lively insider’s account, with plenty of entertaining detail about how Fox threw the then environment minister, Michael Meacher, out of a press conference, her spat with the Daily Expressand how a photographer for Nature wanted to have her “pose with my stiletto on top of a pile of newspapers”. She notes the challenges faced by the people she works with, namely with ever-tight deadlines and press officers in highly corporatized universities, but, surprisingly, has much less to say about the challenges faced by scientists. Those offering official guidance surely have an incentive to be overcautious, as we have arguably seen during the pandemic, given the massive reputational and other risks of arguing for policies that turn out to lead to increased infection rates or loss of life. It is genuinely difficult to sound both appropriately speculative, particularly about preliminary findings, and authoritative. In contentious areas such as climate science, any caveats can be interpreted by interested parties (and the media) as expressing doubt. But although she offers little detailed guidance to scientists, Fox is to be conferred on a book that makes their crucial importance to the public conversation vividly clear.

Matthew Reisz is a freelance journalist who has worked as editor of the Jewish Quarterly and as a staff writer at Times Higher Education

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