Back in the dark ages, back before there was a Science Media Centre, the Royal Society sent me on a media training course for scientists.
This was in the early 2000s, and the country was in the midst of a debate over genetic modification. The course was designed to frighten young scientists, so that if they ever had the misfortune to encounter a journalist they would be able to confidently assert that they didn’t know much English (‘ein bisschen’) and ask if the journalist had seen ‘mein tourbus’.
It worked. Other than a short stint on Our Changing World, I didn’t talk to a journalist for another seven years.
So imagine my terror when in 2008 I joined the management team at the MacDiarmid Institute and Paul Callaghan told me that I needed to build a media profile. Worse, journalist Eloise Gibson had read the very first thing I had written in the MacDiarmid Institute newsletter and wanted to interview me about it. ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ was not going to get me out of this one.
Luckily, I had heard that the Science Media Centre had just been set up to help scientists deal with journalists without having to pretend your train had just gone into a tunnel. I sent them an email, and ex-Radio New Zealand journalist Dacia Herbulock was dispatched to visit us out at the old IRL (now Callaghan Innovation) campus in Lower Hutt.
Dacia explained that not all interactions with journalists had to result in dismemberment of the scientist (not unless the journalist is Kim Hill and the scientist is the outgoing Chief Science Advisor). In fact, if more scientists were willing to talk to journalists, she said, we would have a better shot at informed public discourse. Journalists, and the public, might even start to trust scientists a bit more.
And so it came to pass.
Scientists like Mark Quigley, who fronted for the science community during the Canterbury earthquake sequence, and Siouxsie Wiles, who stepped up to counter misinformation from Fonterra during its botulism scare, came to see working with the media as part of their job. In 2011 Mark was named the third most trusted leader in Canterbury, ahead of then Prime Minister John Key, and in 2018 Siouxsie was named as one of three finalists for Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.
University of Auckland and Te Pūnaha Matatini physicist Georgia Nixon recently took a look at the impact of the SMC on the media profile of scientists it works with. By scraping the websites of major news organisations, Georgia has shown that taking a SMC Science Media Savvy course or providing comment to one of its Expert Reaction columns can permanently boost a scientist’s presence in the media.
Working with the SMC and New Zealand’s media has had a huge impact on me personally. The two books I have written, Get Off the Grass and Silencing Science, both evolved out of the writing I did on the SMC’s blogging platform Sciblogs. When I look at the work I do today at Te Pūnaha Matatini – using data to understand society, politics, and even the media – it is clear that my early encounter with the SMC was a turning point in my career.
SMC Director Dacia Herbulock, her predecessor Peter Griffin, and the team all deserve a great deal of credit for making the Centre the success it is today. Trusted by journalists and scientists alike, the SMC has transformed the way that the two communities work together. Thanks folks!