Research Intelligence - Briefing encounters

Pairing rapid-response scientific expertise with breaking news stories is the Science Media Centre's core mission. Paul Jump reports

June 9, 2011

The lowest point in Science Media Centre director Fiona Fox's previous job as a press officer for an international development charity came when she rang a national newspaper to try to place an opinion piece written by the organisation's chief executive.

"The editor said he would only take it if we could get Bob Geldof to put his name to it," she said in an interview with Times Higher Education.

Embittered by media indifference to international development in the absence of a celebrity angle, Ms Fox decided to look for a job in a field that did not require any "puff".

Settling on science, even though she had studied journalism, she applied to become the inaugural director of a fledgling organisation set up to provide a rapid scientific reaction when science stories hit the headlines.

The impetus was the House of Lords Science and Society inquiry, chaired by Lord Jenkin of Roding, which reported in 2000 in the midst of media and public alarm over BSE, GM foods and the MMR vaccine.

Ms Fox credited Lord Sainsbury of Turville, a committee member and a former science minister, with convincing the Royal Institution to be the Science Media Centre's "midwife".

The problem for Ms Fox was that Baroness Greenfield, who was then the head of the Royal Institution, had no intention of giving the directorship of the centre to someone with no background in science.

But the journalism graduate's response that "the last thing you need is some brilliant postdoc who doesn't understand the media" won her an interview. Amid a dearth of candidates with both scientific and media expertise, she got the job.

Her first task was fundraising. Lord Sainsbury had insisted on complete independence for the centre, with no donor allowed to give more than 5 per cent of its running costs. This puts the current cap, with around 80 donors, at £21,000.

But this "small amount" meant that Ms Fox secured donations from about half of all those she approached - a proportion that would be the envy of professional fundraisers.

Media organisations, science-based companies and science institutions were all asked to contribute, but the public's suspicion of government on scientific topics such as MMR meant that asking the state for money was considered beyond the pale.

However, this policy was abandoned four years ago as the distrust shifted towards industry science.

But independence did not prevent a Department of Health official from ringing Ms Fox ahead of the centre's first briefing, on multiple vaccines, to tell her not to run it for fear it would stir up more controversy over MMR.

"I had to think about it, but it only took me about five minutes to phone back and say 'no'," she recalled.

"The moment I say 'let's keep things quiet' is the moment the SMC shouldn't exist. We were set up because scientists who should have spoken out over GM stayed quiet."

She is similarly robust with a decreasing trickle of would-be funders who have asked for briefings in exchange for funding.

"The day that we run a press briefing because we got some money from someone is the day that journalists won't trust us any more," she said.

The need for independence has also been key to the advice Ms Fox has offered to similar bodies that have since been established in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Japan and Denmark - not to mention the proposed British lookalikes in the fields of education, religion, public health and social work.

The irony was that, although the Royal Institution had never once tried to exert influence over it, the Science Media Centre had not yet realised its intention to break free, legally speaking, from its midwife.

In 2009, financial problems at the Royal Institution came to light, raising fears that if it went bankrupt, it could take the centre with it.

It was not until last year, when Sir Richard Sykes was appointed chairman of the Royal Institution, that the Science Media Centre got the go-ahead to establish itself as an independent charitable body.

The sting in the tail came earlier this year when lawyers realised that the centre's independent status meant that its tenancy in Royal Institution premises was no longer guaranteed, prompting a rather frantic search for temporary accommodation.

The Wellcome Trust's offer of space for three months won the ensuing "bidding war" that Ms Fox was gratified to have provoked, but the centre's ultimate destination has yet to be decided.

But wherever the centre goes, Ms Fox is committed to go too. She said her lack of scientific background was never a hindrance, partly because she surrounded herself with "brilliant young scientists from Oxbridge" and spent every Sunday for a year in the library "teaching myself some of the main concepts".

"Besides, by the time science hits the headlines, it is very often more about the questions raised by the science," she said.

"And unless people are lying to me, one of the beauties of this job is discovering how many people think the SMC is doing a good job."

Next week, in the second of a two-part look at the Science Media Centre, improvements in the media's coverage of science over the past decade will be assessed.

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