Scientists! The media needs you!

December 4, 2013 — 10 Comments

Scientists want more science, more accurately represented, in the media. Yet I find they so rarely want to come on the radio and talk about it*

I work on a large daily current affairs radio programme, and certain big topics get covered frequently. The state of the economy, immigration laws, high-speed rail, welfare; those and many more get regular outings on air. Climate change is another topic that, in one form or another, will warrant regular discussion.

On most subjects, finding knowledgeable pundits on either side of the debate isn’t too tricky – especially for the ‘big topics’. But when it comes to climate change, something funny happens. In fact, it’s a problem more broadly across most scientific topics.

People don’t want to talk about it. Scientists – the ones who know their stuff the most – seem the most reticent to get on the radio to explain what they know.


Good scientists don’t want to go on air

From the many conversations I’ve had with scientists, university press officers and other science-representation groups, I believe the following to be true: the more specialised a scientist is, the less qualified they feel they are to talk to the media about it.

But why?

Science is a highly complex and specialised profession. Academics trade blows over incredibly niche little-by-little discoveries through peer-reviewed journal articles. The more you know about your specialist field, the more you think you’re not necessarily in a position to be ‘the authority on all of climate change’ (or whatever your specialism is) in a five-minute radio interview.

And, the more you know, the more you dislike the way your speciality is portrayed in the media. The less willing you are to devalue your work by debating it with someone who just hasn’t studied it like you have, and who is out of step with the scientific community.

But here’s the problem: that ‘someone’ is perfectly happy to be on the radio, and there’s a real danger your viewpoint – and more importantly your scientific research – won’t get properly represented.

Global warming sceptics are easy to book

Let me be more specific. Let’s take a basic “is climate change happening?” debate: yes or no. The following is absolutely typical in my experience:

I call round lots of universities and lots of climate change experts. They all say “yes it’s happening” but “no I couldn’t possibly come on the radio today…I’m not the right person for this”. Or, often, “no!! I won’t argue with a climate-change sceptic! They don’t deserve to be on. I don’t want to be party to giving their view equal weight in the debate!”.

Well, there’s one hour left until we’re on air, and at this rate your opponent’s viewpoint will be the only one that gets heard. What’s more – from the conversation I had with you – you sounded like the perfect guest. Please do the interview.

Meanwhile…I find that climate change sceptics are in comparatively short supply. Yet everyone I call on that side is willing to come on the radio in a heartbeat. So here we are in a situation where, because so many scientists are unwilling to come on the radio, the majority scientific viewpoint (in my experience) is in danger of being woefully underrepresented.

I must pause, briefly, to address a question some of you will be thinking:

Why must you represent the minority viewpoint at all? Surely that’s mis-representative?

I’m a radio producer and journalist. I’m not a scientist. I’m not an economist. I’m not a breastfeeding new mum. I’m not a ‘victim of the bedroom tax’. I’m not qualified enough on the vast majority of subjects we discuss to decide to completely silence a particular point of view. If people hold that opinion, it deserves some representation. So it’s my job to do that, rather than to unilaterally stifle particular sides of the argument.

And, as much as many in the scientific community dislike it – there are lots of global warming sceptics, not least our audience. And as with any media debate, if one side makes an overwhelmingly better case, that should shine through on air.

But if no-one’s willing to give that side of the argument, there’s a problem.

But I digress; for more on this particular debate I suggest you read this.

Scientists! Please embrace the media!

I know it’s easier said than done – but I really wish scientists were more happy to come on air. The fact is, the media ‘rules of engagement’ aren’t going to change. Sometimes you’ll only get a few minutes to discuss a HUGELY complicated topic. Sometimes you might have to debate with someone who you quite simply think is wrong and hugely underqualified. But those are the parameters in which the majority of the population will normally discuss your speciality, if at all.

And if you tell me you can’t come on the radio, or you don’t want to, I’m going to have to find someone else who can. And they may well know far less than you. And that’s not annoying for me because it makes my job more difficult. It’s annoying because I care deeply about doing my best to make sure scientific viewpoints are portrayed fairly and accurately to seven million listeners.

Thank goodness, then, for organisations such as the Science Media Centre. They get it – they fight to get science in the media, represented as accurately as possible. They’re adept at responding to media requests. For anyone grumbling about the under-representation or misrepresentation of science in the media – get behind these guys and help them do something about it.

Brian Cox is too busy to do all of the interviews on all of the science all of the time*. Scientists: science needs you!



Coverage of science in the media is a gigantic topic – I could only mention one tiny point here. I’d like to give the above a couple of additional caveats:

1. There are LOTS of brilliant scientists willing to be in the media. I know that. My point is that there are, arguably, not enough!

2. There are LOTS of brilliant scientists willing to discuss climate change. And despite what I write above I’ve never failed to book the guests I need. However, by comparison with other professions, in my personal experience it can prove more difficult.

3. This is NOT a post about the way the media covers science – with the exception of the penultimate section. That’s a whole other debate.

4. Another ‘whole other debate’ is the way the media deals with the ‘climate change debate’ – where the majority of scientists would argue there’s no debate about whether climate change itself is happening. I appreciate that, but it is not my point – I merely use it as an example of an occasion where I’ve found many scientists hesitant to speak.

5. The headline of this article was an exaggeration, ok? (see points 1 – 2!).

6. I’m JOKING about Brian Cox!

10 responses to Scientists! The media needs you!

  1. I agree, but I also think it’s a bit chicken & egg. While there’s ill-informed science reporting in the media, scientists will be nervous about being misrepresented or inappropriately sound-bited, particularly on controversial topics (and what other kind of science actually gets reported?).

    That kind of thing can destroy your reputation amongst your peers, which ultimately affects your chances with publication and grant applications. The stakes are high, and a lot of the time it just isn’t worth the risk. Some media training would help people feel more confident, but isn’t a priority for (cash-strapped, publicly-funded) academic institutions.

    I can solve your climate change problem though – Tamsin Edwards (@flimsin, She’s media savvy, puts her points across beautifully clearly and her PhD supervisor was the one and only Prof Cox!

    • Amy – I totally agree!

      It’s always a risk. I guess it’s far more acute in science that in many other professions. With high stakes it makes sense for individuals not to risk their funding.

      But also – it’s incredible when important research gets shared with millions of people because of a scientist who’s always embraced the media. And surely that’s the best possible value for money on that precious grant?

      I know it’s not that simple though…

      And Tamsin sounds perfect!

  2. I think there are lots of us who would – for me the problem is pressure from colleagues. If I could go on a radio show and chat about science, I definitely would. But as soon as you ask me a question outside my realm of experience, and I think my peers are listening, I suddenly think ‘shit, if I get it wrong, I’ll be so embarrassed!’ Having spoken to a lot of my scientist peers at sciencey-media conferences, I’m not alone…

    Grown up peer pressure!

    • A really interesting and important point. And another example of why science is sometimes very different to a lot of other professions when it comes to chatting in the media. Professional mud-slinging just isn’t that simple…

  3. Ben Alderson-Day December 4, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    Good post Tim, I would agree with a lot of this.
    Two things I would say, from a science-ish perspective.
    1. I suspect some researchers may be reluctant to come on a show because the production team will (inevitably, for planning reasons) already have an idea of the angle they want to take on the issue, which could be over-simplified/cartoonish/plain inaccurate. So yesterday’s coverage of the sex differences in the brain paper in PNAS quickly became “men are hardwired to do x, women y, brain scans show”, and in efffect, contributors are invited to comment on that debate,not what the paper actually said*. Dorothy Bishop has done a storify of her experience yesterday of trying to comment on that paper** – unfortunately in that case, the item got bumped by 5Live, but at least she was prepared to contribute.

    2. I understand that you might not feel qualified to exclude certain viewpoints on a scientific issue, but I think many scientists do expect the BBC as an institution to make a judgement in certain cases, such as climate science. There will be some questions where there is an important debate to be had; there are others where the scientific community is overwhelmingly of a particular opinion. Producers and editors should be considering each time whether they are creating a false impression of a balanced debate by constantly booking flat-earthers. And you don’t necessarily see that balance in how other topics are reported: for example, economic coverage quite often only includes one guest, offering the City viewpoint on x – you don’t dig up a Marxist to have a knockabout debate with them each time. (Maybe that’s not a great example). Anyhow, my point is that producers probably can make judgements on which scientific topics need a range of viewpoints to be heard.

    All in all though, I would agree that scientists can and probably should do more to engage with the media – if we’re unhappy with how something is being explained, no-one else is going to do it.

    *To be fair, university press officers and individual researchers also contribute to this problem.


    • Yes yes yes..

      On 1) I would agree that when it comes to science, over-simplification definitely happens and it must be frustrating as a scientist to have to comment on something that you KNOW the story isn’t even about. In some cases the main news bulletins and programmes aren’t the right place for extended scientific discussion. So for something like a daytime 5live show it may be the simplified treatment that even allows the opportunity to mention the original, detailed study, if only briefly. Great that she was willing to discuss it – and annoying that 5live dropped her. Being dropped sometimes is unavoidable, but sadly some networks do it far too often (not me though!).

      For 2) – yes you’re right. We recently did another climate change piece which was broadly an ‘either side of the fence’ discussion (more nuanced than that though). To achieve a better editorial balance over time, in the new year we’re re-booking the ‘climate change is definitely happening’ guest for a more detailed appearance where they are the only guest and where they can discuss it with callers. Hopefully that’s the right sort of decision (even if many would rather the climate sceptic doesn’t get near the radio on either occasion!).

  4. Tim,

    Being an experimentalist, I am much less interested in discussing the model and under which conditions it works or does not work, as I am in finding a solution. Give me a call. I am the Outreach Coordinator for the ATLAS Experiment on the LHC at CERN. I have 3000 physicists ready to be on the radio to talk about what we do (well, 2999, if you don’t want to count Brian, who is a very active part of our team).

    Last week, we announced through our Social Media and RSS News feed that we had made a fundamental measurement, finding that the Higgs boson decays to fermions. For the first time, we know (meaning it is experimentally confirmed) what gives mass to particles of matter (as opposed to carriers of force). This is another very important clue in our understanding of the universe.

    The news was picked up by Spanish, South American, Russian and Korean media, as well as The Conversation in the UK, but not by the BBC. I have a list of physicists (from all over the globe) waiting for a phone call to talk about this topic and how it and what we are doing can and will one day dramatically affect our lives. And I also know, from my friend Brian’s experience, that this science fascinates a very large audience.

    So, in my opinion, we do not have a problem of resources or demand. We have a supply-line problem. Both of our worlds need to do a much better job at bridging the divide. Give me a call, any time you like, and I’ll find a physicist for your show. No problem.

    Best Regards,

    • From you perspective there certainly doesn’t seem to be any problem with resources or demand.

      Great to hear from you – next time we cover the Higgs boson/CERN/particle physics I’ll be in touch – would be good to expand my contacts list by a further 3000!

  5. The Science Media Centre does great work. I hope you also know of Sense About Science – responding to misrepresentation of science and hooking up journalists with scientists is what they do! And there’s the Voice of Young Science network – which is all about getting young scientists to Stand up for Science.

    Scientists – before you turn down an interview take a second and realise that either your side of the argument isn’t going to get presented – or someone else is going to do it badly.

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