Academics call for more critical journalism and public interest in science media centres, reports Mićo Tatalović.
Science media centres, institutions that aim to improve the coverage of science in the media, seem to be proliferating.
New ones are being planned or created in Denmark, Germany, the European Union and the United States, following the ones that are already operating in Australia, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom.
And a possible creation of such a centre in the developing world was discussed at last week's PCST2014 (13th International Public Communication of Science and Technology Conference) in Salvador, Brazil (5-8 May).
But now a body of academic research is emerging that challenges the self-professed independence and objectivity of the information provided by the Science Media Centre (SMC) in London, United Kingdom, which is said to have inspired the set-up of others.
Its briefings on various issues, including those of relevance to development, such as genetic modification (GM) or renewable energy, are reported on by British mass media, such as the BBC and The Guardian, which have a global audience and influence.
Researchers are questioning two of the SMC's claims: to provide neutral scientific views to promote better representation of science in the media, and to be independent of its many funders, who are largely the corporate world and the government.
Instead, they said at PCST2014, corporate lobbyists feature high on the agenda, which is dominated by the topics close to corporate rather than public interest.
And the journalists who uncritically report on SMC briefings and quotes sent by the centre are being taken for a ride by a lobby organisation instead of a neutral science information provider, they said.
"I would close down the Science Media Centre," said Connie St Louis, former president of the Association of British Science Writers and a senior lecturer at City University, London. She conducted a small study on the centre's impact on UK science reporting in the 12 national newspapers in 2011 and 2012.
The SMC's main activities include sending out 'expert reactions' - quotes on issues in the news - and holding media briefings, essentially small press conferences with a few experts.
She found that more than half the SMC's expert reactions were covered in the press and, in 23 per cent of the stories that included these, the only quotes were those that came from the centre.
"Whatever the SMC delivered to them is what they used," St Louis said of those 23 per cent of stories. "The SMC never claims to deliver a balanced [argument], so it's really interesting that many of them weren't using somebody independent of what the SMC offered."
Within the stories that did quote other sources, 32 per cent of those independent views opposed those offered by the SMC expert reactions, suggesting that the centre's quotes fail to reflect the full range of opinions on a topic.
The SMC's media briefings were reported even less critically: 60 per cent of articles based on them contained no non-SMC mediated source.
For a public relations (PR) organisation's messaging service, that's quite a success, said St Louis.
Scientists or lobbyists?
David Miller, a professor of sociology from the University of Bath, United Kingdom, presented a more scathing analysis of the SMC, based on a combination of methods, such as analysing the SMC's website content and sending out freedom of information requests. He looked at which experts the centre uses - given that its mission is to get scientists' views across.
What he found was that some 20 of the 100 most quoted experts were not scientists, as defined by having a PhD and working at a research institution or a top learned society. Instead they were lobbyists for and CEOs of industry groups.
"If you say you quote scientists and end up using lobbyists and NGOs, the question is: how do you choose which lobbyists or NGOs to have?" he asked. "Why don't you have lobbyists who oppose genetic testing or members of Greenpeace expressing their view rather than bioindustry's position? That really reveals the kind of biases that are in operation."
An example Miller gave was the case of a controversial, and now retracted, study that found GM to be causing harm in rats, where Canada's SMC tried to also get quotes in support of the paper - something that would never happen with the UK centre, he said.
Miller also analysed the SMC's funders and the types of topics it covered, finding that funding sources were not always completely or timely disclosed online and that at least one funder believed it was giving money to the centre for dissemination of its GM research.
While he found no evidence of the SMC favouring any particular funder, he claimed it did favour particular corporate sectors, and that the topics it covered "reflect the priorities of their funders".
On the other hand, public health and issues to do with the top killer diseases in the United Kingdom were lower on the SMC agenda, and they featured much more rarely in its work.
Both Miller and St Louis hope to publish their full findings in a peer-reviewed journal soon.
A powerful coalition
At the PCST2014 session, Andy Williams, a lecturer at Cardiff University, United Kingdom, presented his 2013 paper in Journalism Studies, in which he examined the media representation of animal-human hybrid embryos in the United Kingdom between 2006 and 2008.
A proposal to ban such research was opposed by what he called "a powerful coalition of scientific organisations" coordinated by the SMC.
He found that this broad lobbying coalition used the centre's media briefings to dominate the news agenda and get the ban proposal dropped.
Williams saw it as problematic that the SMC privileges scientific authority over the lay public's views. He also took issue with the SMC's claims that its work provides neutral scientific advice when it is single-sided PR, exclusive of differing opinions.
"A lot of the language used to describe [SMC media briefings] stresses that they were a chance for the scientists to explain the science in their own words, but - crucially - in a neutral and value-free way," he said.
But this ignores the fact that these were tightly managed events pushing persuasive narratives, he added, and that they were set up to secure maximum media impact for the scientists involved.
Specialist science journalists were fed "information subsidies" by the SMC and were far more likely than other journalists to quote pro-hybridisation sources, Williams said.
He added that, in this case, the "news media was too complicit and reliant on its PR sources. It was consequently less likely to be independent, critical or quote a more plural range of sources."
Finally, he said, such scientific PR campaigns, raise the prospect of self-censorship, where scientists hold back from engaging in honest and open debate so they can present a united front with colleagues who have worked hard to promote an issue to the media.
Journalists must investigate
Fiona Fox, the SMC's chief executive, insists that the centre covers "all areas of science that are newsworthy and in the media headlines".
"The science stories we work on are the controversial, messy science stories that hit the headlines - that is the criteria - nothing to do with the potential of specific areas of science to make a profit," she tells SciDev.Net.
She adds that "the SMC does not believe that 'links' to industry automatically equate to a compromise in the quality or integrity of a piece of science".
"We have generally taken the view that the main responsibility for investigating and exposing any significant conflicts of interest should lie with the journalists reporting science stories and we applaud those reporters who take that responsibility seriously and report serious abuses prominently in the media," she says.
Fox says that the "true independence of the SMC can only be judged on what we do and how we behave, and journalists should continue to scrutinise that and hold us to account - as they do".
Regarding quoting non-scientists, she thinks that the overwhelming majority of the 3,000 experts in the centre's database are "research scientists who have academic qualifications and a track record of research and publications".
"However, we also claim to facilitate the voices of the 'scientific community' and there are lots of experts who have been appointed to senior positions in the science world who may not have a research background," she says.
"Experts like these are seen as representing the scientific community on some issues. We would be very unlikely to ever ask them to comment on a new scientific study, but we would quote them on relevant issues where they speak for the community and with the backing of their trustees and member organisations. But I would emphasise that these kinds of experts are very much the minority."
And she says the centre has a new and more proactive conflict of interest policy.
Although the SMC largely appears to be deflecting criticisms, Miller said he is seeing signs of substantial change following academic critique of the centre's work, such as the new conflict of interest policy. But much more remains to be done, the PCST2014 session heard.
So what else needs to be changed and how could an SMC in a developing nation avoid the criticisms levelled at the UK centre?
Ways to improve
Williams suggested several ways to improve the situation, including for the SMC to proactively seek voices from scientists with a broader range of views and to include more critical voices.
We need a science media centre that has the interests of science journalists and journalism at its core, he told SciDev.Net. It should be encouraging and leading truly independent journalism in the public interest, he said.
Williams added that "science should love that, because science needs critical scrutiny, and it needs to be seen as encouraging critical scrutiny".
"In the long run," he said, "that would be better for both science and public interest."
For Miller, the key recommendation revolves around the SMC's corporate funding, which he said must be much more openly discussed in relation to policy on science and science communication more generally.
"If it's to be an organisation which doesn't run the risk of pursuing particular corporate agendas, it needs to insulate itself from corporate funding," he told SciDev.Net.
The issues on which there are plenty of corporate funding for science, such as genetic modification, stem cells and nuclear power, dominate the SMC's work, Miller said.
Instead, he would like to see the SMC focus more on public interest science, such as public health and finding cures to diseases.
"The problem is not that they promote science, as they say they do, but that they promote pro-corporate science," Miller said.
St Louis also wants to see more scrutiny and transparency in science and the work of the SMC.
But she was most concerned about government money going to the SMC, which was "essentially a PR agency". Given that the UK government already funds science dissemination through its research councils, rather than doing so again via the SMC, it should instead support critical and objective science journalism, she said.
"Research money is very short. Why are they spending money twice?" she asked. St Louis estimated that at least half a million pounds (more than US$840,000) of government money had been spent on the centre since its creation in 2002.
The money would be better spent, she said, by creating a foundation to nurture investigative science journalism.
An SMC for Africa?
Although there is evidence that a type of science media service for the developing world, for example in Africa, is badly needed, there was no indication at the conference that anyone was working on one.
An Egyptian delegate asked what such a centre would look like and a Mexican delegate asked how its staff could be trained to avoid the pitfalls described for the UK's SMC.
The speakers said that such a centre should have sound and transparent funding policies, involve journalists in its running and work in the public, rather than the corporate, interest.
As a final warning, St Louis added that an SMC in some parts of the developing world could be more prone to fall under government influence and censorship.