By Sannah van Balen
This week I conducted my first ever interview! At SCK•CEN, the communication with the public regarding ionizing radiation is currently being studied. There appears to be incompleteness in the knowledge transferred from scientists to the public (often through the media). Often, the term “radiation” triggers an association to nuclear energy and power stations while many other applications exist that involve ionizing radiation – just take a look at various medical techniques in hospitals! So when the public was asked whether they would like to receive more information concerning the risks of ionizing radiation the answer was affirmative. Consequently, the quest for better communication with the public started. Since the media is one of the platforms through which science is communicated, I was suggested to contact Ms. Fiona Fox, founding director of the Science Media Centre (SMC) in the UK. The SMC is an initiative started by the scientific community to respond to controversial news stories (e.g. the autism-related controversy on the MMR vaccine). While the scientific community has no difficulty in reporting on new discoveries and research, Ms. Fox explained that a clear weakness was present when it comes to responding to stories that have already been labeled controversial. The SMC facilitates the communication between the two fields to ensure that the articles will contain the most accurate and correct scientific information.
When facilitating such communication between the media and the scientific community, various challenges appear. How will you get scientists motivated to be involved? When I asked this question to Ms. Fox she referred to a previous case in which the social attitude to genetically modified food became incredibly negative even though the mass media was not given accurate information. Due to this extreme negative reaction of the public, the research in this new field was diminished. This case study clearly shows a direct cause-and-effect situation in which the lack of information results in a one-sided debate and the attempt to stop further research. The fact that in this case the topic was genetically modified plants does not mean that it could not be repeated in the case of ionising radiation. Ionising radiation comes with many risks and uncertainties; communicating about these risks couldprevent their social amplification through the media and thereby providing a path to further applications rather than blocking future research.
Public surveys organized by SCK•CEN have shown the various levels of trust the public has with regards to the media, scientists, industry and decision-makers. A clear difference was detected between the confidence people had in scientists and industry regardless of whether the scientists were associated to an institution. So my second question to Fiona Fox was how this link between scientists and their corresponding institutions, whether it be industry or university, affected their ability to communicate with the media with regards to conflicts of interest and trust. Ms. Fox reminded me that the scientists participating in the Science Media Center are not involved for self-promotion; they are requested to comment on hot topics in the media at a specific instant. The cycle usually starts with the media asking for an expert opinion on a topic; the SMC will ask an expert in their network to comment and reply to journalists. The center does not hold any specific position in controversial topics besides being “pro-science”, which seems logical considering it’s a science-based initiative.
When looking at the funding mechanism of the SMC, it becomes clear why the trust and confidence in the organization has remained very high. Each funder may only donate to a certain extent to prevent any type of overpowering financial control. Another interesting point in the distribution of funding is that the media contributes very little financially. Since the print media is practically dead there is no money to donate. In Belgium, the media holds a relatively low level of trust compared to other sectors. Having such a financial system could return the trust to the media as they would regain the position as mediator between science and public rather than an independent money-making business. Having trustworthy sources and communicators would increase the interest and understanding of scientific topics, including ionizing radiation.
In general my rather short interview with Fiona Fox enhanced my understanding of how scientific topics could be introduced and well-explained to the public. The next step could be to set up a similar initiative in Belgium to promote the distribution of accurate and trust-worthy information focusing on ionizing radiation.
I hope you enjoyed my summary/discussion following the interview with Ms. Fiona Fox! I only have one week left at SCK•CEN so soon I will have to pass on this blog to the next writer. I hope you enjoyed my posts as much as I enjoyed sharing my experience with you!