It is more important than ever to communicate science effectively. We must ensure accurate and evidence-based information about research is distributed through the media, particularly on controversial and headline news where most misinformation can occur. Here, I will give you a background to the Science Media Centre (SMC) and my internship opportunity with them.
In February 2021, I was lucky enough to be an intern at the SMC. My primary focus with the A Short Scientist blog has been to make science understandable to the masses. I wasn’t happy with how the media portrayed science, so at the start of my PhD I decided to change that. After three years of writing my own articles, I was coming to the end of my PhD journey and wanted to explore some more avenues open to me outside of academic research. What better way to see how journalists find out about new research and findings to report in the national media, than with an internship at the SMC?
The SMC’s philosophy is: “The media will DO science better when scientists DO the media better”. Explaining complicated scientific findings to someone not used to the technical jargon is tough, and not something routinely taught or emphasised during STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) degrees. However, by now you know how important this is to me. As the SMC works with scientists, engineers and other experts, and supports them in their engagement with the media, it seemed the perfect place to see if their methods were aiding better science communication. The SMC hold their own media briefings for journalists to access new research/findings and produce “Round Ups” and “Rapid Reactions” where experts can provide comments to breaking news stories/new research for journalists to use in their articles. In doing so, the SMC creates more opportunities for researchers/experts to get their voices heard on the important science, health and environment stories of the day.
The SMC was established in 2002, as part of a push to renew public trust in science after the huge media storm over (since proved false) claims in 1998, that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism in children. The original paper by Andrew Wakefield in the Lancet was redacted and he was struck off the medical register. (You can read more about the importance of vaccines in my 2019 article: Vaccines Cause Adults). The SMC became its own independent charity in 2011, housed in the Wellcome Collection, London, helping journalists speak to experts in the field, gain various points of view on emerging research and hopefully, lead to better/more accurate reporting of science in the media.
The internship programme offers applicants a competitive, paid, one month internship which provides a flavour of what working on the front line between science and the media entails. This is ideal for scientists/science enthusiasts who want to explore a career in this area. The internships run through the year and applicants for the May-Dec 2021 intake closed this week (Tuesday 27th April); for future applications and more information, follow this LINK. I secured my February internship back in October 2020 and the SMC were kind enough to allow me to work part time whilst I continued my other part-time employment. So, in February, I had two part-time jobs and was trying to revise for my viva; it is safe to say I needed a power nap on the first Monday (my Mondays were split 50:50 between my two jobs).
The SMC, like many other companies, have moved online during the pandemic and have adapted their work (and internships) accordingly. The pandemic has been, as you all know, a continuous stream of news and science for over a year now, and the staff at the SMC have been relentless in their work. Each month has been a record breaking month for briefings they have held or summaries they have collated; it was a very fast-paced environment, exactly what I expected from the placement in such times. At the start of each working day I would create a round up of the front pages from the national press for the team, highlighting science stories in various categories such as health, environment, technology and opinion pieces. This is something I really enjoyed and I have tried to continue this one morning a week, to ensure I am on top of the most prevalent stories. There were countless press briefings during my internship, some included coverage of approval for the Human Challenge Trials, what vaccine passports may entail, the first results of the effects of the UK vaccine roll-out and many more which you can find HERE. Many of these were embargoed at the time, meaning the discussed topics/results were confidential until a specified time/date after the briefing. It was great to be in front of the news stories. One of my other tasks was to collate quotes used in media outlets from the scientists who had provided comments for the SMC Rapid Reactions or Roundups. This could be a long task if it was a big news story and featured in most papers. My final notable tasks, were to report back to the team about briefings I attended by Chatham House (an independent think tank) and a summary of the findings from a study which investigated stories about “health data”.
The SMC isn’t without its criticisms though. One prominent critic is the former president of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), Connie St. Louis. In the first of a three part series, Connie and Fiona Fox (director of the SMC) answered the question “does the UK model help journalists?” (i.e. does the SMC aid better science journalism). Connie’s prominent argument is that the SMC reduces science journalists willingness to go out into the world and FIND the stories, and that the SMC can thus set a “science journalism agenda”. Whilst I agree that the SMC does not cover the entirety of science research (they avoid topics in physics, space, computational research etc. as there are fewer experts/academics on their books), where they are focused (on health/medicine and environment research), they perform incredibly well. The SMC have been praised throughout the pandemic for their work, ensuring accurate science is reaching the general public. I would highly recommend this internship to anyone who is intrigued by the interface between scientific research and the media. Now it is down to us scientists to get even more science stories out to the public. Which areas do you think the media neglect?