This is a guest post by Lisa Heaney. Lisa is a researcher at the Manchester Pharmacy School.
Science is becoming an increasingly common feature in the media and that’s something to be celebrated. It can be hard for non-scientists to understand new research findings, particularly if they are reported by people who are also non-experts. This is where we (the scientists) come in. People are always banging on about public engagement and how important it is (Hannah Roberts did a great blog post about it), but what if you don’t want to go to a school and explode things (although, seriously, why would you not want to do that)? Public engagement is anything that helps non-experts to understand and engage with science. You don’t know how, I hear you cry? That’s fine, that is where Sense About Science comes in.
Sense About Science is a charity that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion. They work with scientists, publishers, policy makers, the public and the media with the aim to improve the dialogue about science and evidence. So, why am I talking about them? Sense About Science has created the Voice of Young Science network, which engages hundreds of early career researchers in public debates about research and evidence. As part of this they run Standing Up for Science media workshops, which I attended. They also produce Standing Up for Science guides, to help early career scientists talk about their research. Many of us will have been infuriated by inaccurate reporting of research findings in the media. Have you ever seen a headline promising a huge breakthrough or a wonder drug, only to find that the research underlying the claim said no such thing? Could you even find the evidence so you could check it? It would be wrong to think that the responsibility of accurately portraying scientific discoveries is the media’s alone. We have our part to play, by making our research (and ourselves) accessible to as many people as possible.
The Standing Up for Science workshop itself aimed to help scientists engage with the media and to bridge the gaps between us. The first part was a panel discussion where senior academics talked about their interactions with the media. The panellists, including the University of Manchester’s very own Professor Matthew Cob and Dr Susanne Schultz, shared their insights into science and scientists in the public domain. The second part was a panel with journalists from the BBC, who explained what it was like in the fast-paced life of a journalist. They also explained what they look for when selecting stories, how they approach a story, and how they balance producing news and entertainment with fact checking. They also answered questions regarding ways the media can misrepresent the facts and polarise debates. One of the topics discussed was global warming, how it has been poorly and inaccurately reported in the media for years, as well as how a number of media outlets are trying to make amends. The final part of the day (if you don’t count the trip to the pub) was the “nuts and bolts” of standing up for science. This was a practical guide to how early career researchers can have their voice heard in debates about science. It included what to do when you are approached by journalists and how to respond to bad science when you see it.
This is where I was introduced to the Ask for Evidence campaign. Ask for Evidence aims to help people request the evidence behind news stories, marketing claims and policies. Do you doubt that some foods can both cure and cause cancer, as many of the tabloids would have us believe? Have you ever shouted “it’s not that simple!” when presented with a science-related headline? Have you seen a beauty product making claims that are too good to be true? You don’t have to be a passive consumer, patient, voter or citizen – challenge the claims of everyone from politicians to perfume companies and make decisions based on evidence. Sense About Science have also compiled quick guides to evidence on a number of subjects, from climate to crime, and detox diets to drugs policy. If you don’t understand the evidence you get, that’s ok, you can also contact a scientist through Sense About Science. Whatever you do, do something to Stand Up for Science.