Bunny girls, clones and a comet

May 16, 1997

The media loves science and scientists increasingly need the media. It is a symbiotic and sometimes fraught relationship. Julia Hinde reports

Science, it appears, is suddenly sexy. Where it may have once taken a back seat in the national press, the 1990s has seen the public and the media embrace everything from astrophysics to human genetics. Now it is rare that a day passes without some academic revealing their life's work to the press, or without a scientist offering an academic opinion on some event or issue of national policy. Where a cloned sheep may once have been of interest only to scientists, today such a beast is headline news.

People are interested in the world around them; in the food they eat, in the air they breathe and in the unknown; and the media knows it. Science may be of interest to readers and viewers, but why should any self-respecting scientist turn to the press, when a journalist has only a few centimetres of newsprint, or seconds of air-time, to sum-up years of hard work using non-scientific terms?

Richard Dawkins, Oxford University's professor for the public understanding of science, says: "If science is important enough to do, then it's important enough to talk about.'' According to Professor Dawkins, there is also an element of self-interest which should encourage scientists to reveal their findings. "Money for research comes from the taxpayer. The taxpayer may not feel willing to fork out unless they know what their money goes to provide. I think young researchers who have research grants almost owe it to the public, who are ultimately paying them." He added that scientists sometimes exaggerated the difficulties of communicating in simple terms. "There are one or two branches of science which are genuinely very difficult, but most are easy enough to explain."

The Wellcome Trust encourages its scientists to share their findings, so much so that all new postgraduate researchers attend communication skills courses.

Paul Wymer, head of communications and education at the Wellcome Trust, explains that the trust believes the public should be involved in the debate over the future direction of science. "This can only happen if scientists are encouraged to talk to the press,'' he says. Within the scientific community, with increased competition for funding, there appeared to be a recognition that winning support for research may depend not only on scientific credentials, but also on an ability to communicate ideas. "Funding councils are starting to encourage the people they fund to address themselves to the wider community,'' says Dr Wymer.

Where scientists who went to the press may once have been viewed by contemporaries as in some way less-scientific, times appear to be changing. "Where there used to be snobbery if the chap next door had been talking with the media, now there is almost admiration. Media successful scientists are useful role models," he says.

Professor Dawkins says he has never been aware of suffering a loss of reputation by going to the press, but not all see the experience this way.

American immunologist Polly Matzinger, an ex-bunny girl whose first academic paper was co-authored by her dog, believes a high profile is double-edged. "Of course I am less regarded (by my peers) for talking to the press.'' Dr Matzinger has spent the past year on a world crusade raising awareness of her "Danger Model" theory, which seeks to explain how the body's immune system works.

Those of us who do go out to the public are not rewarded for it,'' she adds. If anything you are less likely to get funding because of it. The people who award the funds are not the public, they are fellow scientists. They see it as a few scientists, such as myself, hogging the limelight."

John Grattan has a cautionary tale about dealing with the press. "I was to be quoted on page two of The Guardian. I was really excited. I told all my colleagues to look out for it. And then there it was. Throughout they had quoted the wrong man. Suddenly all my work had been done by a climatologist from Cambridge, not an Aberystwyth geographer."

Having not quite made his newspaper debut in The Guardian, he was soon to make a comeback in The Express. "I had done some work about how volcanic eruptions in Iceland seemed to coincide with Bronze Age abandonments of settlements in Scotland. I suggested that the two may be linked. "The next thing I knew I was on page three of The Express. They got my name right, but said the Icelandic volcano was long overdue and that it could erupt at any time and we could all die. I felt I had been duped." Dr Grattan is still convinced that it is important to speak to the public and to address a wider audience, but his experiences have made him wary.

Scientists are scared how the press will write about them,'' he says. "They feel that the press and scientists have different motivations. The press are looking for a story which is not necessarily the one we are trying to tell them. There is a fear of misrepresentation." He adds: "It often seems that journalists only have time to talk to you when they need you. If it involves them taking time, they don't bother."

The media certainly cared about Dolly, probably the world's most photographed sheep. Her mother's clone, Dolly made history in February. According to her makers, she is still causing a stir as news of her creation only slowly filters to non-European and non-American media, and into students' essays worldwide. Television companies are still queuing to tell the story of how Dolly was made, while phones at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, where Dolly was created, are still ringing. Harry Griffin is the assistant director of the Roslin. "Dolly was clearly a major scientific breakthrough and of interest to the scientific world generally,'' he said. "We felt the science which made Dolly had pervasive consequences, and therefore should be known to scientists more widely.

Ian Wilmut published a paper a year earlier which used essentially the same technique to produce cloned lambs from embryos. When it was published the phones rang for a week, so we knew there would be a lot of media interest when we announced Dolly.

We worked with media consultants for three months deciding how to co-ordinate activities. We were expecting it to be a big story, but not so big, nor the media's tenacity in pursuit of the story to be so great. Certainly it was the press who was interested in this story and not the public.

A handful of the public contacted us but most of those were American high school students wanting help with essays. Email is a menace when you are in the public eye. "I think it was right to be open. We are happy with the outcome, but we have developed a tactic of deliberate inefficiency with email.''

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