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« University challenge | Main | Celebrity greens inflagrante »
Thursday
May222014

What is the Science Media Centre for?

I'm grateful to a reader for pointing out something interesting about the Science Media Centre, and in particular about the experts it selects for reaction to major stories. Take a look at the most recent rapid reaction articles on its website and consider the institutions represented:

Bengtsson story*

Expert

Institution

SMC funder?

Hulme

KCL

y

Lewis

UCL

y

Ward

LSE

 

Haigh

Imperial

y

Maslin

UCL

y

Palmer

Oxford

y

Allen

Oxford

y

National Care of the Dying Audit

Expert

Institution

SMC funder?

Brooks

Association of Palliative Med

 

Sleeman

KCL

y

Statins

Expert

Institution

SMC funder?

Chico

U Sheffield

 

Weissberg

Brit Heart Foundation

y

Greenwood 

UCL

y

Collins

Oxford 

y

Antibiotics and asthma

Expert

Institution

SMC funder?

Shaheen

QMUL

 

Thomas

Southampton 

 

Sutcliffe

UCL

y

Boycott

Asthma UK

 

Mers-coronavirus

Expert

Institution

SMC funder?

Farrar

Wellcome Trust

y

Dunning

Imperial

y

Brown

Soc Gen Microbiology

y

Evan

U South Wales

 

Neuman

Reading 

 

Jones

Reading 

 

Openness in animal research

Expert

Institution

SMC funder?

Willis

AMRC

y

Hunter

BBSRC

y

Willetts

BIS

 

Farrar

Wellcome Trust

y

Downs 

Soc Biology

y

Borysiewicz

Cambridge

y

Leong

ABPI

y

Robinson

AC3RS

 

Arthur

UCL

y

Chapman

Soc Endocrinology

 

Murphy

Soc Biology

y

Bates

Bioindustry Ass

 

Tooke

Acad Medical Sci

 

Baker

Home Office

 

So on my somewhat small sample, some 22 out of 37 experts (60%) who were approached for comment by the Science Media Centre worked for organisations that currently fund the Science Media Centre.

It's a bit like a promoted tweet on Twitter, isn't it?

*I have not included Bengtsson as one of the experts, since he was the subject of the story.

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Reader Comments (22)

Since when were PR men 'experts'?

May 22, 2014 at 1:32 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

SMC used to be funded by Exxon.. Bob must have had a word... ;-)
http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/about-us/funding/

still got BP though

May 22, 2014 at 1:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

This is worth noting but I see no essential problem with this so long as the link is transparent. The objectivity of the source will become clear with the coverage and the openness to and willingness to allow rebuttals. Essentially it is no different from the way science operates. It is the openness and debate that counts. For me, this is why the Bengtsson story is important: It signals a lack of openness and a fear of debate.

May 22, 2014 at 1:46 PM | Unregistered Commenterbernie1815

My personal view looking at the data: the percentage of SMC experts this blog post represents is about 1.4%.

Cherry picking less than 2% of their experts is a seriously flawed approach, and if you want to criticise, you need adequate data to support the criticism. Any statistician will tell you that the skew in such sampling undermines any possible conclusion one way or the other.

May 22, 2014 at 2:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterChris Creese

I would not be surprised if there's at least some element of pay-to-play in the SMC's way of doing business. But I don't think the chart above is that compelling, at least as evidence for a strong pay-to-play bias. Even without a pay-to-play bias you'd expect to see lots of Oxbridge types, the British Heart Foundation on a piece on statins, and so on. The amount of prominence for UCL and King's does seem a little surprising, which may indeed have something to do with their decision to fund the SMC; but likewise it could be related to the fact that they're conveniently located in London (or to old-boy considerations, or it could just be happenstance). Overall universities provide a very small slice of that funding pie chart, yet a small majority of the quoted sources have a university affiliation (and the majority would probably be a lot larger if it weren't for that apparently-untypical piece on openness in animal research). You'd also need to know what proportion of all relevant professional bodies and research centres are funding the SMC to get a clearer idea of whether the ones that do are being rewarded with extra prominence. (The Wellcome Trust relationship is probably the most interesting: SMC is currently set up in Wellcome's London digs.)

On the other hand, you may as well go ahead and mark the Home Office as an SMC funder, given that central government gives the SMC more money than the whole university sector.

May 22, 2014 at 3:38 PM | Unregistered Commenteranonym

@Chris Creese. It's actually a pretty good sample for a quick "reality check" study. If I were using similar results to e.g. target email marketing, I'd be happy to rely on the conclusion for the brief period that it took to extend the analysis to a larger sample.

May 22, 2014 at 3:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Hot news, ready to eat.

".....news journalists often don’t have the luxury of time.." "When a story breaks – whether it’s the latest flu epidemic or health scare, or a potential nuclear crisis – the SMC persuades leading experts to drop everything and engage with the story, then contacts journalists at all the major news outlets..."

"Bob Ward is a member of the Science Media Centre advisory committee."

"Myles Allen is on the Editorial Board of Environmental Research Letters .... He states: “I wasn’t even aware of it until yesterday, and still haven’t seen the paper — nor do I wish to see it, since rejected papers are meant to be kept confidential.”

http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/working-with-us/for-journalists/roundups-for-journalists/

May 22, 2014 at 4:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterBetapug

The SMC’s philosophy is written:

“The media will DO science better when scientists DO the media better.”

Yes, I know. Its probably just typos.

May 22, 2014 at 4:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Reed

jamesp, on my blog on the Bengtsson story timeline, I wrote
"The Science Media Centre gives the reaction of a number of experts and Bob Ward."

May 22, 2014 at 4:42 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

All looks rather incestuous.

Or maybe just a case of "follow the money".

May 22, 2014 at 4:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

What percentage of all UK "institutions" support the Science Media Centre? Is it less than 60%?

May 22, 2014 at 6:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterCurious George

There was some discussion of biased coverage by SMC from Andy Williams (Cardiff) at the Nottingham 'Circling the Square' conference.this week. Does SMC see scientists as 'clients' to promote, or is it a neutral source of information?

This gives a summary of Williams' own work and that of David Miller.

May 22, 2014 at 8:11 PM | Registered CommenterRuth Dixon

Consensual incest?

May 22, 2014 at 8:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterManfred

Government/media/bigscience/academe self-licking lollipop. Every agenda except the truth unless it's by accident.

But having said that, nothing much to see here, business as usual. It's not for the rest of us.

May 22, 2014 at 8:23 PM | Unregistered Commenterrhoda

Thanks to your anonymous reader for pointing out that my employer - King's College London - makes a contribution to the SMC. That's the first I knew of it! So how does that support your comparison with promoted tweets? And what would you advise me to do now - not offer journalists, through the SMC, my thoughts about climate change and through these journalists reach their readers? Or should I try and persuade KCL to withdraw their support for SMC? Would that I had such influence!

May 22, 2014 at 9:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Hulme

I wasn't suggesting that individual academics would be supporting SMC. How would that work? If institutions are funding SMC as a way of getting publicity for their staff and promotion for themeselves, does that not make you uncomfortable. If the people who are quoted are appearing because they work at institutions that fund SMC, I would have thought people might ask questions about whether they were getting a true reflection of opinion among relevant scientists.

I recall the choice of people asked to comment on the Oxburgh inquiry - all accused of wrongdoing during Climategate - and I don't think anyone could argue that this was anything other than attempt to mislead the public. That presumably was the SMC's funding streams talking rather than the public interest.

In answer to your question, the SMC - if we really need one at all - should probably be funded by the press. The media are supposed to be holding the scientists to account rather than reprinting their press releases.

May 22, 2014 at 9:41 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

I'd definitely recommend looking up Andy Williams's work, and Alasdair Taylor has a v good summary of the science-media discussions from the conference Ruth mentions

May 22, 2014 at 9:57 PM | Registered Commenter@warrenpearce

" The media are supposed to be holding the scientists to account rather than reprinting their press releases."

The epitaph of the sad lamented 4th Estate, fighting each other to qualify for the Geoffrey Howe award.

Or just lazy, riding a given? Either way, losing respect and circulation by the day.

Long live the 5th Estate!

May 22, 2014 at 10:29 PM | Registered CommenterGreen Sand

You can't understand what this centre is for -- and you certainly can't write an incisive take-down of it -- unless you understand that it is a direct product of the Labour and Tory government-instigated university auditing system, the Research Excellence Framework. Under the terms of the REF, the value of university departments is partly estimated on the basis of the extent to which individual researchers have managed by their own efforts to secure a public audience for their research work. It is a very weird and distorting arrangement. But you cannot simply frame it as some kind of conspiracy between academics and government. Government calls the shots, and some academics have been happy to help them decide the terms of engagement. But *everybody* has to play.

May 23, 2014 at 9:04 AM | Unregistered Commenterjpg

PM

"the reaction of a number of experts and Bob Ward"

:-)

May 23, 2014 at 9:24 AM | Registered Commenterjamesp

This apparent concern about who funds the SMC seems intrinsically linked to the question about whether those who fund it get preferential access and their views promoted.

I can offer my experience, though this is based only on a handful of interactions with SMC. In the cases that I've experienced, the SMC have emailed a list of relevant experts. They ask for people willing to give a relevant interpretation or informed opinion on the science question at hand. Only some respond. Thus the claim that 22 out of 37 experts who were "approached for comment" were from organisations who fund SMC is unlikely to be accurate. Rather: 22 out of 37 who chose to provide a comment were from organisations who fund SMC.

The list of relevant experts emailed is not restricted to those from organisations who fund SMC (e.g. I know of requests made to Swansea, Exeter, Edinburgh, MMU, Oxford, NOC, UEA, Met Office: only 3 out of 8 appear on SMC's list of current or previous funders).

I think they want to work with as many scientists as possible, with no restriction or preference to those that provide their funding.

But perhaps those universities/research organisations who have supported SMC are also more active in encouraging their staff to volunteer to be on their register of experts? Seems a reasonable thing to do if they've chosen to support the SMC. But nevertheless it is still consistent with an overriding desire of both the SMC and these institutions to support more accurate and informative reporting of science in the media.

May 23, 2014 at 4:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterTim Osborn

SEPTEMBER 18, 2017
end of the global warming slowdown and prospects of limiting warming to 1.5C

Scientists from the Met Office presented their latest data on global temperatures – including evidence which suggests the ‘slowdown’ in global surface temperatures has come to an end, and that temperature rise has recently accelerated again.

At the same time, a new paper published in Nature Geoscience examines the carbon budget for 1.5C – in other words, how much more CO2 we can afford to release if we are to limit warming to the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, taking into account recent emissions and temperatures.

Speakers:

Prof. Stephen Belcher, Met Office Chief Scientist

Prof. Adam Scaife, Head of Monthly to Decadal Prediction at the Met Office Hadley Centre

Prof. Myles Allen, Professor of Geosystem Science at the University of Oxford

Prof. Michael Grubb, Professor of International Energy and Climate Change at UCL

http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/end-of-the-global-warming-slowdown-and-prospects-of-limiting-warming-to-1-5c/

Sep 19, 2017 at 5:52 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

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