Science and the media – a call to action

13 January 2010

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Category: Communications & media

science–media.jpgAct now to safeguard improvements in science reporting – that is the message to the scientific community and government in the UK from a new strategic report published today. The report covers many aspects of the relationship between science and the media, and draws on new research which found that specialist science news reporting in the UK media is in relatively good health.

What does the report have to say about animal research and the media? In the final section it looks at openness and transparency on the part of the scientific community, and its very last recommendation calls for more openness on animal research, where it said restrictions remained 'even in academia'. It agreed that these restrictions arose from fear of being targeted by extremists, but added:

'... activities of animal rights extremists have dramatically declined in recent years as a result of new laws and police activity. Many extremists are serving jail terms and there have been no recorded violent attacks on UK scientists for over a decade.'

The report noted that:

'Many institutions still have extremely cumbersome and restrictive rules governing media work around animal research, with one science university having a requirement that agreement from over 15 unit heads must be sought before allowing any journalist entering an animal facility. While science reporters have always been sensitive to security issues when covering animal research, many are frustrated by the continuing difficulties in getting access to animal researchers and labs despite their track record of balanced and considerate coverage.'

The example cited represents extreme caution on the part of the university, to put it mildly. But the report does acknowledge:

'... there has been a dramatic increase in the number of scientists speaking to the media about animal research and organisations like UAR [that’s us!] and funding agencies like Wellcome and the MRC have worked hard to change this defensive culture.'

The report also cited positive moves by King’s College London, where Professor Roger Morris, Head of the School of Biomedical & Health Sciences, has spearheaded a process of change which he says has:

'... changed the default from refusing to allow a journalist into a lab unless there is a very special reason to do so, to allowing science reporters into a lab unless there is a very special reason not to.'

The report concludes that the fear of being targeted by animal rights extremists is real and unpleasant. But it recommends that:

'... given the importance of animal research to many of the major scientific developments we believe companies, scientific institutions and universities should review their communications strategies and bring them in line with those for other controversial science stories.'

Understanding Animal Research already has a programme which encourages research establishments to do just that, and we invite anyone who would like our help to get in touch.

Science and the MediaSecuring the Future was commissioned by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) as part of the UK Science and Society strategy, and draws on new research from Cardiff University. The working group was chaired by Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre, who said:

'While there is much to celebrate about science in the media today, it was our conclusion that the scientific community and government need to engage more with the wider crisis in journalism and the impact on the reporting of science in the future.... We as a society have come to rely on the media to report complex science to a mass audience on some of the most important issues of our times. This report is a call to arms to all those who care about the reporting of science to start thinking creatively about ways to shore up science journalism without undermining its independence.'