We need to stop political spin from polluting public trust in science

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Keeping science and politics socially distanced from each other is the best way to ensure government spin doesn’t damage trust in the former, says Fiona Fox



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27 April 2022

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Michelle D’urbano

WHEN the BSE crisis deepened in the 1990s, John Gummer, then minister of agriculture, invited the press to photograph him trying to feed a beefburger to his 4-year-old daughter, claiming that scientists had advised it was perfectly safe to eat the meat. In fact, they had said there was a low but “theoretical” risk of getting BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a neurological disease of cattle.

But this more nuanced take didn’t reach the UK public at the time because the scientists giving it were hidden from view, just as they were during later crises, such as the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption in Iceland or the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Gummer was glossing over the scientific uncertainties to deliver a clear “message” that was convenient for the UK beef trade. As a result, the public were misled and trust in science suffered.

To avoid this in the future, there needs to be a clearer separation between science communication and government communication, so the public can hear science directly from those doing it.

One of the few positives in the pandemic was seeing so many leading scientists on our TV screens. While the UK prime minister Boris Johnson used the Downing Street press conferences to deliver key policy decisions and “messaging”, he was flanked by chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty who summarised new data and answered media and public questions on the science. This was science communication at its best when most needed and it was a hit with the public. Trust in scientists topped 90 per cent at times as the pandemic unfolded.

Despite this, when the government spin machine got too involved, things got less sciency and more political. As head of the Science Media Centre, an independent organisation promoting scientific literacy in reporting, I lost count of the times I lined up briefings on pandemic-related findings with a panel of great researchers only to turn on a news broadcast and hear ministers announce those findings early. The result: coverage by political journalists with little science but often with government spin.

That wasn’t the only problem during the pandemic. Ministers got a rebuke from regulators for announcing major developments that would impact us all without making scientific data they relied on available for others to assess.

Even more worryingly, in a revealing essay about behind-the-scenes government strategy, Lee Cain, Johnson’s former director of communications, called for a more centralised structure to ensure clear single “messaging” on issues like covid-19. That comms officers are desperate to control the “narrative” in a national crisis is nothing new. But such calls only bolster the case for ensuring science is presented independent of government announcements.

Luckily, we have a precedent. After years of complaints about the way official UK statistics on everything from crime to unemployment were being spun by politicians, campaigners finally convinced the government to address this in the 2017 Code of Practice for Statistics. The result is that figures about our national life are first published as raw data by organisations like the Office for National Statistics. Politicians can comment on these figures like the rest of us, but taking the initial communication away from ministers means we see the numbers without political spin.

Applying this idea more widely would be good for all of us. Critically, the system would also establish the principle that science needs to be impartial and free from politicisation.

The loss of control might be painful for government, but the benefits in terms of public trust in science would be worth it. As the pandemic has shown, that really can be a matter of life and death.

Fiona Fox is head of the Science Media Centre and author of Beyond the Hype

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