The Science Media Centre is ten years old. Wow. I never expected when we started in 2008, that it would still be around a decade later, such is the often fickle nature of government-funded projects.
The last decade of memories appear to me as a blur of science-infused news events, crises, breakthroughs and discoveries. It was a privilege to work with so many of our talented scientists and journalists, to see behind the stories and to watch science news travel around the world as we worked with our international SMC colleagues.
There are thousands of stories on the SMC’s fancy new website that document the work it has done over the last decade. But here then are just ten random thoughts from me, extracted from over 10 years of working at the centre of science and the media.
1. GMOs – the topic that just kept on giving (us headaches)
We were quick out of the gates covering genetic modification at the Science Media Centre and naively perhaps, believed there was potential for some decent evidence-based discussion of the issue in the media.
Instead, we stumbled into a war of attrition between anti-GM groups like GE Free New Zealand and the Sustainability Council, battling Crown Research Institute scientists who were doing their best to carry out GM trials in their labs.
A decade ago, the poster child for GM was Monsanto, which did little for its own image with its heavy-handed business tactics. It didn’t help that Monsanto also produced one of the most widely-used agricultural chemicals, the herbicide Roundup (another contentious science story).
Any discussion of GM was framed around concerns over safety and the control of biology by big corporations. There was a lot of good genetic science going on a decade ago, but scientists were ducking for cover.
New Zealand’s GM research programme was limited in scope anyway, but was dealt a blow in late 2008 when there was a biosecurity breach at a GM brassica field trial at Lincoln. Then in 2009, protestors cut down Scion’s GM pine trees, ruining that trial. AgResearch received the most heat for its transgenic cows research at Ruakura. It was all too hard, so GM research really ground to a halt.
Then we had elaborate and ultimately discredited campaigns from the likes of Gilles-Éric Séralini, the French scientist and activist, to try and prove GM food can cause cancer. We went through a few years of virtual silence from New Zealand scientists on the issues as the National Government showed little interest in trying to re-open the GM debate. More latterly, new techniques such as gene editing have revolutionised the field, but the public knows little about them. Sir Peter Gluckman’s call as he left his post as chief science advisor to the Prime Minister for a new public debate on GM, is one we need to urgently take up.
2. Emotional earthquakes
I didn’t really appreciate what Cantabrians went through in February 2011, until two minutes after midnight on November the 14th 2016, when the Kaikoura earthquake rattled my Wellington apartment.
On the fifth floor, I was perfectly placed to feel the unique characteristics of this quake. I thought the five floors above me were about to come crashing down on me as my liquor cabinet crashed to the ground and my 55-inch TV took a nose dive. The following day we went to Dunedin to the Science Communicator’s conference, where GNS scientists were able to update attendees on what the latest data on the quake had revealed. I met Paul Gorman, who arrived from Christchurch exhausted having spent the day covering the quake for The Press. It had stirred up a lot of the memories of trying to function in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake, which Paul eloquently recounts in his book Portacom City.
Ironically, many of us had also been at the Science Communicator’s conference that day in 2011 when the big one hit Christchurch and I remember the worried looks and shrinking audience as South Islanders ducked out to call their loved ones.
The scientists who responded to the insatiable media demand for information after the quake went on their own emotional rollercoaster. Mark Quigley, the University of Canterbury geologist, literally brought the media into his liquefaction-swamped home to explain what had happened under the Canterbury plains. GNS scientist Kelvin Berryman had an impossible job trying to keep the information flowing to the public while trying to placate risk-averse government officials and ministers.
We all learned so much from the quakes about how to do better science communication and a generation of journalists became veterans in natural hazards reporting.
3. The dark days of climate denial
It was 2009 and the IPCC meeting in Copenhagen was about to kick off, when a cache of emails stolen from some of the world’s leading climate scientists was leaked on the internet.
The timing was no coincidence and as diplomats from around the world met to work on an agreement to tackle climate change collectively, the media was full of reports that cherry-picked quotes from the scientists and appeared to make them doubt their own scientific conclusions or even worse, conspire to falsify them.
It was a well-constructed and malicious misinformation campaign. But it captured the narrative. Copenhagen was a failure. Several investigations cleared the scientists involved, but huge damage to their credibility was done. It wasn’t until a few years later that the tide started to turn on the climate change deniers and the media had a major role to play in that. We fought tooth and nail with climate sceptics through that period who complained about our work to anyone who would listen.
But New Zealand publishers gradually stopped publishing opinion and commentary from climate change sceptics. Climate scientists and the IPCC became better at communicating their research. Most significantly, the evidence of rapid change due to rising temperatures started to become more apparent.
It is remarkable to think how much the discourse around climate change has changed in a decade. We don’t waste column inches talking about whether the climate is changing, but instead argue about how we should respond. That is indeed progress.
4. The new invigorates the old
The SMC has always been popular with print, broadcast and online journos pressed for time and looking for experts to check a claim or science-related context to flesh out a story. Over the years, the big media groups have, not surprisingly, been its biggest users.
However, we were always anticipating a flourishing of new media outlets that would offer new ways for science to be covered in a way that would appeal to different audiences. We looked in particular at the US, where not for profits like ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity were going quality investigations on medical and environmental issues.
We watched with envy the development of STAT, Vox, Real Climate and even IFLS, which despite its clickbait headlines, was bringing science to a whole new demographic. It took a long time for independent online media outlets to emerge. But alongside Scoop, we now have The Spinoff and Newsroom, both of which have science sections. We have the Aotearoa New Zealand Science Journalism Fund which puts up tens of thousands of contestable dollars every year to support science-related projects.
That new blood has reinvigorated the mainstream media too. Projects like TVNZ’s Re:, RNZ’s The Wireless, Local Focus and the investigative teams and correspondents at the big outlets have offered increasing breadth and depth when it comes to science-related issues.
Long may they continue to evolve and endure.
5. The subtle art of silencing science
Some of the most fraught conversations I had over my years with the SMC wasn’t with journalists or scientists, but with people in the research sector who often saw our mission of giving journalists timely access to scientists, as being in opposition to their larger goals.
Shaun Hendy hit the nail on the head in Silencing Science, his book that detailed the often subtle, but sometimes quite overt efforts to stop scientists from speaking out publicly when the media most needed their input.
I can’t remember how many times we were pulling our hair out trying to find a scientist to front to the media on a major issue of public interest, only to find the country’s leading experts unable to speak.
I think our colleagues in the sector and in government have learned the hard way what can happen when a vacuum replaces scientific information. That is when the real problems begin. I see progress in this area, scientists are growing in confidence and demanding to have their say. As we face many social, environmental and health-related issues and a flurry of policies to tackle them, their input into public discourse is more important than ever. Scientists need to be able to inform the discussion without fear of negative repercussions.
6. A decade of discoveries
It was a big decade of scientific discoveries and breakthroughs and I always loved seeing the buzz starting to build in the scientific community just before a game-changing, Nobel-worthy finding went public.
So it was with the confirmation of the Higgs Boson and detection of gravitational waves. We were all watching, scientists ready to deliver commentary, as the Curiosity Mars rover parachuted down to the red planet.
Locally we proudly hosted press conferences when our scientists made the cover of Nature or Science, such as for the ANDRILL Antarctic ice drilling programme or the sequencing of the bovine genome which several New Zealand scientists were heavily involved in.
This is when the scientific world is at its best – years of painstaking work pays off in the form of new knowledge that transforms our understanding of an area of science. I was privileged to witness many of those moments and to talk to many of the scientists involved.
7. Media battlers who just love science
Let’s face it, science isn’t the sexiest round to have in the newsroom. Politics, crime, entertainment and sports all get far more resources and interest from editors. But science is the by far the best round in the newsroom.
Where else can you hang out with people who are creating new knowledge, often with amazingly complex tools and in beautiful, exotic locations?
That is why, over the last decade, while many reporters came and went from newsrooms, a stable of them continued filing science story after science story, in the face of cutbacks and indifference.
Science is in their blood, people like Jamie Morton, the New Zealand Herald’s indefatigable science reporter, Veronika Meduna, the former RNZ host and Conversation NZ editor, and Joanna Wane, who has done so much in-depth reporting for North & South. There are many more and a new group of them emerging with better support as the relevance of science to society has become more apparent to their editors.
So I take my hat off to all of them and urge you to support them. Consume their work, reach out to them with feedback, tell their editors you value them, contribute to their crowdfunding campaigns – their work is too important not to.
8. The curse of the Daily Mail
Ben Goldacre’s excellent book Bad Science came out in 2008, the year the SMC started, and the British doctor’s examination of how science is often manipulated, misunderstood and misreported by the media, became a motivational handbook for us. We later named a series of training workshops we ran for the media, Spotting Bad Science.
The book struck to the heart of our mission – which was to foster better coverage of science-related issues in the media. The MMR controversy in the UK, which set back vaccination programmes for years, Goldacre explained, was a mix of truly bad science, failure of peer review and irresponsible media coverage. He wanted to avoid anything like that happening again and we wanted to make sure New Zealand never had its MMR moment.
The Bad Science movement swept the world and we made a lot of progress with journalists here who were amazingly receptive to our efforts to help them upskill to deal with the flood of hype, dodgy claims and vested interests that go hand in hand with the promotion of science. Still, a lot of that good work was and continues to be undermined by media outlets chasing clicks, running syndicated stories that hype up scientific claims or even openly peddle pseudoscience. The biggest overseas offenders are the Daily Mail and News.com.au, but their copy is eagerly received here – it rates well. The only answer to this is a more sustainable business model for news, one not reliant on advertising. On that front, we’ve a long way to go.
9. When the science isn’t settled
The most interesting science stories, but the ones that are most problematic to cover, are those where the balance of evidence doesn’t clearly skew one way or where emerging research threatens to overturn conventional wisdom.
We’ve seen respected groups of scientists go to war with each other, such as in the debate over the role of saturated fat in our diet.
We’ve seen whole industries turned upside down when isolated studies are seized on by the public, such as in the use of the chemical Bisphenol-A to line food containers.
No area of science coverage is more problematic as medical science, particularly where human safety is at stake and nuanced findings don’t fit neatly into short headlines.
Sometimes, the scientific community and regulators don’t help themselves, like when the World Health Organization categorises a substance according to how carcinogenic it is to humans – who can forget the bacon and cancer headlines.
The SMC has always tried to reflect the balance of evidence and encouraged scientists to accurately articulate uncertainty in research findings. The task will not get any easier as journalists attempt to make sense of ever-more complicated areas of research. But their success at doing so will to some degree determine the progress of some of those new areas of discovery.
10. Honouring the scientists who step up
One of the best things we did in the Science Media Centre’s first decade was set up Science Media SAVVY, the country’s only media training programme tailored to people who need to communicate science-related information to a broad audience.
It wasn’t an easy sell to the research sector initially. Communications teams had their own way of training their experts and didn’t always appreciate outside interference. But we were constantly hearing from scientists that they felt ill-equipped to engage with the fast-changing media.
Dacia Herbulock put a huge effort into designing a programme back in 2011-12 that combined science communication theory, practical experience in front of the camera and engagement with journalists in their newsroom environment. Seven years on, SAVVY is an integral part of what the SMC does. Hundreds of scientists have gone through the two-day course and the surveying we did showed that it increased their confidence and their media exposure. Some of the SAVVY participants have gone on to become science communication stars. Others simply know what to expect and how to confidently respond when the media calls upon them.
Without those experts across the domains of science, meeting the media’s need for context and clarity, the SMC would never have been able to achieve the impact it has had.