I don’t want our scientists beige

I was one of those who was more upset by seeing Matt Taylor reduced to tears at a press conference than I was by his shirt. My reaction was not because I thought the row distracted us from a wonderful science story. Most of the mainstream media chose to ignore the row anyway, and it appears to have done little to dampen the huge public appetite for this enthralling story. And of course if the furore had been caused by a scientist acting really badly then we wouldn’t be arguing to ignore it on the grounds that something quite beautiful was also going on.

Nor is it unusual for debates to explode on the blogosphere and social media around the fringe issues raised by these spectacular science stories. Ed Yong once told me the most useful thing about being on the SMC’s press lists was that it helped him work out what to avoid writing about. The SMC and science journalists do news, our best science bloggers and commentators do something different, and I think the debate around the shirt raised some really interesting issues for those of us who obsess about science in the media and science communication.

While most of the commentary focused on sexism in science, I want to concentrate on a different issue raised in the debate which is much discussed at the SMC, about the extent to which we need to manage scientists like Matt Taylor who are about to be put in front of the global media. It was quite striking how many of those with concerns saw the solution as more training for and control over scientists as a way of avoiding such pitfalls in future. Some suggested that if science communications professionals had more power this would never have happened, and asked where Matt’s employers were when he donned the shirt. Others suggested that Matt be exonerated because it should be the role of the European Space Agency to protect scientists from themselves in these circumstances, and wondered what on earth the science journalists were doing when they interviewed him in that shirt. The implication of all these calls is that scientists would behave better if only employers, science communications professionals and journalists had more control over the way in which they present themselves. I am not so sure, and while I know that these commentators are trying to work out ways to reduce sexism in science, I would say be careful what you wish for. Any more controls on scientists introduced by managers will not just be used to tackle sexism.

I spend part of my life with senior corporate PR officers who would love nothing more than to wield more power and influence on what their scientists say, do and wear. And you will not find a science press officer who has not been dismissed by senior scientists refusing to heed our advice, so more power sounds alluring. But I am really wary of this agenda. I don’t want my scientists all polished and trained and managed and terrified of going off-message, and this desire to sanitise and homogenise scientists worries me. I want the public and media to access the knowledge and years of research of our best scientists, and if that sometimes comes with off-message mavericks, open toed sandals and technical language that’s fine with me. In short, I don’t want our scientists beige and sticking to a line. We get enough of that from our politicians.

I started to feel like this early on in this job. Just months in, I was invited to sit in on a meeting of all the press offices planning an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA in 2003. Francis Crick was dead by then, so the big name guest speaker was James Watson. The meeting was dominated by a discussion of how to stop Watson revisiting his questionable views on the potential of genetic engineering to reduce the numbers of disabled people, a point he had apparently made in an interview where he said he wished he could have used genetic engineering to correct his own son’s disability. I was too new in science to speak up at that meeting, but left feeling depressed that a group of clever young press officers were putting so much energy into controlling an 80-year-old Nobel Prize winner who was talking from sixty years as a geneticist and from his own personal experience. I have felt that same discomfort many times since. The worst briefings at the SMC are the ones where the scientist has obviously been through a gruelling training exercise focused on what he or she can say without getting their institution into trouble. It’s always obvious to the journalists when scientists are holding back, and I would argue that the possibility of poor coverage dramatically increases as journalists start to feel they are being spun rather than getting to the truth.

Of course part of our job as science press officers is to help our academics to navigate the stormy and often cruel seas of the media, and of course we should use our expertise to prepare scientists for the difficult questions and bear traps. As part of being profiled for Nature last year, I was invited to a photocall where the photographer asked me to place my high-heeled boot firmly onto a carefully prepared pile of newspapers with the Daily Mail on top. You wouldn’t have to be Alastair Campbell to refuse to play ball. I now partly wish that some savvy press officer had taken Matt Taylor aside to say why not lose the shirt, if for no other reason than to save him a lot of misery in what should have been the best week of his life. But that is a world away from employers, science communicators, journalists and trainers stepping in to sort out scientists who might go off-message.

Let me emphasise that I am not justifying sexist or offensive language or behaviour in science. As well as differing with those who dismissed this row as an ugly stain on a beautiful science story, I am also not with the camp who say “lighten up” every time someone raises these kinds of concern. But for me there is an issue of perspective. In twelve years of running press briefings twice a week, I have never encountered an example of sexist or offensive language (or dress). In contrast, it is not at all uncommon for speakers to be pulled from SMC panels at the last minute, or for briefings to be completely sabotaged by faceless senior corporate PR people or senior managers who believe it is OK to stop their academics speaking out. I have lost count of how many scientists have told me that they want to speak out on animal research and other contentious issues but are not allowed to by their institution.

I once had a tense exchange with a science communicator who made a speech about the need for scientists to undergo ‘listening’ training after objecting to researchers being too strident in their dismissal of homeopathy. The clear implication was that the listening training would make them less strident and more sympathetic to the arguments for. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to be nice and we should not be insulting people who choose homeopathy because of the very real limitations of medical science. But really?! Don’t we want some scientists to be strident while others are mild mannered, some that are bruisers while others are much more reflective and considered? Don’t we want scientists for all seasons? I’m a big fan of training scientists on how to translate a four year complex study into a sound bite for ITN news, but that feels very different to these sinister-sounding calls for re-education of scientists we have a problem with.

Good science press officers and communicators, of which there are very many, see their role as supporting and facilitating their researchers to share their knowledge and expertise with the wider public. I have no doubt that there were some great press officers behind the media operation around Rosetta, and where I agree with many of those commenting on this “shirtstorm” is that this interview is one of the best examples of both women in science and scientists unspun. My fear is that if we all go beige, we will inadvertently lose moments like this.

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

Source: Science Media Centre UK

Image source: Getty Images

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