Science Media Centre

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Group.png Science Media Centre  
(Think tank, Propagandist, Big Pharma/lobbyistPowerbase Sourcewatch WebsiteRdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Science Media Centre uk.png
Formation2002
Sponsored byAstraZeneca, BP, Bayer AG, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Dow, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Novartis, Oxitec, Pfizer, Reed Elsevier, Sanofi, Wellcome Trust
"Independent" media briefing centre for scientific issues in the UK, enjoying close links with the British government and corporations.

The Science Media Centre (SMC) is an "independent" media briefing centre for scientific issues in the UK, conceived and hosted by the Royal Institution starting in 2002, and enjoying close links with the British government. It is now based at the Big Pharma front organization Wellcome Trust.[1] Its stated position is that it is not neutral, but "unashamedly pro-science,"[2] which means aligned with the government and industry.

After SMC was founded in the UK, sister bodies all operating under a "unified charter"[3] were formed in other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Japan.[4] SMC claims that there are "over twenty Science Media Centers around the world — either in operation or being established,"[5].

In December 2013, the Education Media Centre was launched, modeled on the Science Media Centre but purportedly "independent."[6][7]

Controversies

Dr David Miller of the Stirling Media Research Institute is amongst the SMC's critics. He is quoted in an article in The Guardian as saying:

The Science Media Centre (SMC) is... not as independent as it appears. It was set up to provide accurate, independent scientific information for the media but its views are largely in line with government scientific policy. The SMC made much of its charitable status, yet its charity number is the same as that for the Royal Institution (RI); in other words, it is almost synonymous with the RI. Similarly, its independence was supposed to be guaranteed by the fact that no more than 5% of its funding comes from any one source; yet 70% of its funding comes from business, which could be said to have similar interests. The SMC has since had the ac.uk removed from its email address after complaints that only academic institutions that were not corporately funded were entitled to this were upheld.[8]

In a critique of the SMC in Nature journal, the science policy journalist Colin Macilwain said the SMC "offers the media a clearing house for scientific briefings and packaged quotes from scientists" and commented on plans to set up a Science Media Centre in the US:

The London SMC's narrow approach to risk assessment — if you want to hear about the risks of nuclear power, say, just ask your local nuclear engineer (see Nature 471, 549; 2011) — sits happily with the prevalent ethos of British journalism. This was, of course, immortalized by the otherwise-obscure poet Humbert Wolfe: “You cannot hope / to bribe or twist, / thank God! the / British journalist. / But, seeing what / the man will do / unbribed, there's / no occasion to.”[9]

Although it initially promised to "provide an anti-GM scientist and a pro-GM scientist, a pro-legalisation of cannabis scientist and an anti-, etc, etc."[2] its record since then has shown otherwise. Connie St. Louis, the director of the Science Journalism MA program at City University London and president of the Association of British Science Writers, wrote in Columbia Journalism Review that SMC "has cast biased press briefings such as one on GMOs, funded by Monsanto and invited unwitting and time-starved journalists. The results have been catastrophic. The quality of science reporting and the integrity of information available to the public have both suffered, distorting the ability of the public to make decisions about risk. The result is a diet of unbalanced cheerleading and the production of science information as entertainment."[10]

A July 2013 profile in Nature explained the controversial nature of SMC's efforts:

"Perhaps the biggest criticism of Fox and the SMC is that they push science too aggressively — acting more as a PR agency than as a source of accurate science information. In December 2006, for example, the UK government indicated that it planned to ban scientists from creating hybrid embryos containing cells from humans and other animals. A public consultation had found unease with the research, and early media coverage tended to focus on the ethical concerns, quoting critics such as members of the Catholic clergy.
"Researchers, funders and scientific societies organized a campaign to change the government's mind. The SMC coordinated the media outreach, hosting five briefings at which scientists played down ethical qualms and said that hybrid embryos were a valuable research tool that might lead to disease treatments.
"The resulting media coverage reflected those views, according to an analysis of the campaign's effectiveness commissioned by the SMC and other campaign supporters. More than 60 percent of the sources in stories written by science and health reporters — the ones targeted by the SMC — supported the research, and only one-quarter of sources opposed to it. By contrast, journalists who had not been targeted by the SMC spoke to fewer supportive scientists and more opponents. The SMC was 'largely responsible for turning the tide of coverage on human–animal hybrid embryos,' says Andy Williams, a media researcher at the University of Cardiff, UK, who carried out the analysis. (The eventual bill would allow hybrid-embryo research.) But Williams now worries that the SMC efforts led reporters to give too much deference to scientists, and that it stifled debate. 'It was a strategic triumph in media relations,' he says."[3]

In January 2014, Independent Science News reported, "Imagine if the New York Times or NBC published, under appropriately scathing headlines, a full and detailed analysis of how GMO corporations perennially manipulate the scientific literature? . . . It is for just this reason that BASF, Coca-Cola, Merck, L'Oreal, Monsanto, Syngenta, Smith & Nephew, the Nuclear Industry Association and their competitors now support coordinated attempts to manage scientific news coverage in the form of the UK's Science Media Centre. And now, having decided that this method of information control is effective, or maybe that the threat from the internet is sufficiently serious, they are adding some international offshoots."[11]

SMC "Spearheads Attack" on Séralini Study

In September 2012, Prof. Gilles-Eric Séralini and a team of researchers at the University of Caen in France published a study finding serious health problems — tumors and liver and kidney damage — in rats fed diets of Monsanto Roundup Ready corn and rats fed low doses of Roundup itself.[12]

The study was front-page news in France, but according to the UK's SpinWatch, there was far less coverage in the English-speaking world, and what coverage there was was negative, filled with "ready-made quotes from scientists savaging the study" that had been "spoon-fed" to news outlets by SMC.[13][14] The New York Times even referred to one of the SMC's "experts" in its coverage.[15]

According to Times Higher Education, SMC's Fiona Fox claimed credit for "several television news programmes" reporterdly having "rejected the story after reading the quotes."[16]

Monsanto appears to have assisted with the dissemination of these quotes.[17]

Business magazine Forbes published six attack pieces on the Séralini study in the ten days following its release, according to SpinWatch, with the first two pieces drawing extensively from SMC quotes.[13] Finally, a September 25 Forbes article by pro-GMO campaigner Henry I. Miller of the Hoover Institution and American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) advisor and fellow unabashed GMO cheerleader Bruce Chassy headlined with the claim that the study was "fraudulent" and went on to accuse Séralini not just of "gross scientific misconduct" but also of having "a long and sordid history" of "activism."[18][13]

A subsequent open letter by a group of prominent scientists and academics with expertise on GMOs noted, "Reporting of the Séralini paper in arguably the most prestigious segments of the science media: Science, the New York Times, New Scientist, and the Washington Post uniformly failed to 'balance' criticism of the research, with even minimal coverage of support for the Seralini paper (Carmen, 2012; Enserink, 2012; MacKenzie, 2012; Pollack, 2012). Nevertheless, less well-resourced media outlets, such as the UK Daily Mail appeared to have no trouble finding a positive scientific opinion on the same study (Poulter, 2012)."[19] Moreover, the letter pointed out:

"[T]he use of common methodologies was portrayed as indicative of shoddy science when used by Seralini et al. (2012) but not when used by industry. . . For example, Tom Sanders of Kings College, London was quoted as saying: 'This strain of rat is very prone to mammary tumors particularly when food intake is not restricted' (Hirschler and Kelland, 2012 ). He failed to point out, or was unaware, that most industry feeding studies have used Sprague-Dawley rats (e.g. Hammond et al., 1996, 2004, 2006; MacKenzie et al., 2007). In these and other industry studies (e.g. Malley et al. 2007), feed intake was unrestricted. Sanders' comments are important because they were widely quoted and because they were part of an orchestrated response to the Seralini study by the Science Media Centre of the British Royal Institution. The Science Media Centre has a long history of quelling GMO controversies and its funders include numerous companies that produce GMOs and pesticides."[19]

A 2013 review of the Séralini study (in the context of criticism) by scientists at the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) also found "critical double standards in the evaluation of feeding studies submitted as proof of safety for regulatory approval" to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).[20] The attack on the study spearheaded by SMC was also pronounced to be "off base" by Dr. Michael Hansen of Consumers Union in testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Food Labeling in September 2013.[21]

Human genetics and reproductive technologies

In 2006 the UK Government published a paper detailing proposals for revision of the law on assisted reproduction and embryo research, including proposing the setup of a new body, the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos (RATE), which would replace existing regulatory bodies (the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and the Human Tissue Authority).[22]

The Science Media Centre coordinated a response from selected scientists to the proposed revisions of the law on assisted reproduction and embryo research. The responses show a trend of criticising plans to restrict human reproductive technologies. For example, Dr Allan Pacey, British Fertility Society (BFS) Secretary, said, "There is a sense that the Government has been quite conservative and has missed an opportunity to be more radical and forward thinking. As we now work to a very high standards of clinical governance, there’s a good case for regulations being less strict than they were when the laws were first drafted."[23]

Lord Robert Winston, Emeritus Professor Of Fertility Studies at Imperial College London (Hammersmith Hospital), said, "It is highly disappointing that the thinking in the Department of Health is so impoverished that they could not see the need to reduce the regulation of routine IVF, which is no longer an experimental procedure and should not be subject to additional regulation."[24] In fact there are serious and well-recognised dangers attached to IVF treatment.[25]

Dr Stephen Minger, Director of the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory, Kings College London, objected to the ban on non-human (animal) egg cells for human cloning: “Whilst I am happy to see that the Review continues to support the use of donated embryos for stem cell derivation, I am very disappointed that the Government’s position is to ban the use of non-human oocytes [immature egg cells] for the derivation of cloned human embryonic stem cell lines."[26]

James Lawford Davies, a solicitor specialising in reproductive and genetic technology at Bevan Brittan LLP in London who subsequently became a partner in the London-based law firm Lawford Davies Denoon, disagreed with the Dept of Health's suggestion of a ban on the creation of human-animal hybrids for research purposes: "The proposals do little to move forward from the status quo. The HFEA has indicated it could licence the creation of hybrids for research purposes under the existing law, and the Science and Technology Committee said that the law should only be amended to explicitly allow such research. In contrast, the government is suggesting this should be banned – presumably to avoid headlines."[27]

In 2007 the government decided not to go ahead with RATE after all.[28]

Are the SMC experts representing the popular or informed view? Not according to the NGO Human Genetics Alert, which says, "Although food crops, bacteria and animals have been genetically engineered for the last 20 years, there has been a worldwide consensus, embodied in legislation in over 60 countries, that we should not attempt to do the same with human beings. This is because crossing this line would lead inevitably to a future of ‘designer babies’ and a new consumer-driven eugenics."[29]

Human Genetics Alert says the UK is the weak link in the otherwise fairly unified stand against human genetic engineering by governments in Europe: "In Europe, nearly all countries except Britain have signed the Council of Europe Convention on Biomedicine and Human Rights, which prohibits the alteration of the human germ line by any methods. It is extremely unusual for governments around the world to create outright bans on specific scientific techniques, and this underlines the seriousness of the reasons against allowing genetic modification. Any decision to cross this line is a matter for the whole of global society, and it is inconceivable that the UK should be allowed to make this decision on behalf of the rest of humanity."[30]

Rebutting BBC Drama "Fields of Gold"

SMC briefly and inadvertently became part of the news during 2002, following its involvement in rebuttals of the BBC GM-skeptical drama "Fields of Gold." According to Nature, "Fox got hold of an advance copy, invited leading scientists to a viewing — complete with free popcorn — and sent their reviews to reporters. 'Then the shit hit the fan,' Fox says. Robert May, then president of the Royal Society, called the film 'an error-strewn piece of propaganda' and some newspapers echoed his and other scientists' criticism. The film's two writers, one of whom was Alan Rusbridger, editor of newspaper The Guardian, hit back, accusing the SMC of being a pro-GM mouthpiece for the companies that fund it."[3]

History

SMC's roots were in the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report Science and Society, 2000, which declared: "The culture of the United Kingdom science needs a sea-change in favour of open and positive communication with the media. This will require training and resources; above all it will require leadership."[31]

The consultation report that preceded the setting up of the SMC declared, "There is a widespread belief that the UK's post-war love affair with science has been replaced by an emerging anti-science mood which both fears the rapid development of science and is losing faith in the ability of science to solve society's problems."[2]

Baroness Susan Greenfield, who was Director of the Royal Institution from 1998 until she was laid off in 2010,[32] led the process of creating the SMC, calling herself the "midwife" of the organization.[2]

The consultation interviewed a number of prominent, unbiased scientists and journalists, but also a number of people with clear bias, such as Tony Gilland of the Institute of Ideas, David Sainsbury, Lord Taverne, Vivian Moses (Chair of CropGen), Andrew Gay of Huntingdon Life Sciences, and Peter Marsh of the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC).[2]

Personnel

Board of Trustees

Advisory Committee

Staff

  • Fiona Fox, Chief Executive
  • Helen Jamison, Deputy Director
  • Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Officer
  • Edward Sykes, Head of Mental Health & Neuroscience
  • Selina Hawkins, Development and Operations Manager
  • Fiona Lethbridge, Press Officer
  • Robin Bisson, Science Information Officer
  • Alice Kay, Press Office Assistant

Funding

Some of SMC's current and former funders (most of which are individually capped at 5% of SMC's revenues, with some notable exceptions such as Wellcome Trust) include:

(Funders current as of August 2013 are listed here.)


 

Sponsors

EventDescription
AstraZeneca
BPMultinational oil company implicated in the 1953 Iran Coup.
Bayer AGOwner of Monsanto
Boeing
Coca-Cola
Dow
GlaxoSmithKline
MerckBig pharma with a long rap sheet of unethical practices
Novartis
OxitecUK based biotechnology company that develops genetically modified insects with an inbuilt genetic extinction technology.
PfizerA multinational big pharma company. Making a killing during COVID
Reed ElsevierLarge publisher with a 7-7 connection
SanofiFrench Big Pharma company
Wellcome Trust4th wealthiest charitable foundation in the world


References

  1. Science Media Center of the United States, About, organizational website, accessed February 2014.
  2. a b c d e Science Media Centre, Consultation Report, organizational report, March 2002.
  3. a b c Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named nature
  4. Science Media Centre, International SMCs, organizational website, accessed February 2014.
  5. Science Media Center of the United States, SMCs, organizational website, accessed February 2014.
  6. Fiona Fox, Science Media Centre, When Science Meets Education, organizational blog, December 16, 2013.
  7. Education Media Centre, What Is EMC, organizational website, accessed February 2014.
  8. John Crace, Peer trouble, The Guardian, February 11, 2003, accessed 29 Sept 2009
  9. Colin Macilwain, Two nations divided by a common purpose, Nature 483(7389). 14 Mar. Accessed 19 Sept 2012
  10. Fiona Fox and Connie St. Louis, Science media centers & the press, part 1, Columbia Journalism Review, June 17, 2013.
  11. Jonathan Latham, BioScience Resource Project, Fakethrough! GMOs and the Capitulation of Science Journalism, Independent Science News, January 7, 2014.
  12. Gilles-Eric Séralini, Emilie Clair, Robin Mesnage, Steeve Gress, Nicolas Defarge, Manuela Malatesta, Didier Hennequin, Joël Spiroux de Vendômois, "Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize," Food and Chemical Toxicology, Available online September 19, 2012.
  13. a b c Jonathan Matthews, Smelling a Corporate Rat, SpinWatch, December 11, 2012.
  14. Science Media Centre, expert reaction to GM maize and tumours in rats, organizational press release, September 19, 2012.
  15. Andrew Pollack, Foes of Modified Corn Find Support in a Study, New York Times, September 19, 2012.
  16. Paul Jump, Research intelligence - Shock troops check 'poor' GM study, Times Higher Education, October 4, 2012.
  17. Corporate Europe Observatory, Study on Monsanto's GM maize intensifies concerns about EFSA's reliability – Monsanto strikes back with PR offensive, organizational article, September 21, 2012.
  18. Henry I. Miller and Bruce Chassy, Scientists Smell A Rat In Fraudulent Genetic Engineering Study, Forbes, September 25, 2012.
  19. a b Susan Bardocz, Ann Clark (University of Guelph), Stanley Ewen (Consultant Histopathologist, Grampian University Hospital), Michael Hansen (Consumers Union), Jack Heinemann (University of Canterbury), Jonathan Latham (The Bioscience Resource Project), Arpad Pusztai, David Schubert (The Salk Institute), and Allison Wilson (The Bioscience Resource Project), Seralini and Science: an Open Letter, open letter published by Independent Science News, among other publications, October 2, 2012.
  20. Hartmut Meyer and Angelika Hilbeck, Rat feeding studies with genetically modified maize - a comparative evaluation of applied methods and risk assessment standards, Environmental Sciences Europe, 2013, 25:33.
  21. Michael Hansen, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Consumers Union, Testimony on SB 1666, Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Act, Before the Senate Subcommittee on Food Labeling, U.S. Senate subcommittee testimony, September 17, 2013.
  22. Human Tissue Authority (2012) Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos, acc 27 Nov 2012
  23. Science Media Centre (2006) Scientists respond to the DoH review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, Dec 13, acc 28 Nov 2012
  24. Science Media Centre (2006) Scientists respond to the DoH review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, Dec 13, acc 28 Nov 2012
  25. Jacqueline Mroz, High Doses of Hormones Faulted in Fertility Care, New York Times, 16 Jul 2012, acc 27 Nov 2012
  26. Science Media Centre (2006) Scientists respond to the DoH review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, Dec 13, acc 28 Nov 2012
  27. Science Media Centre (2006), scientists respond to the DoH review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, Dec 13, acc 27 Nov 2012
  28. Human Tissue Authority (2012) Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos, acc 27 Nov 2012
  29. Human Genetics Alert (2012), Human Genetic Engineering on the Doorstep: The threat of ‘mitochondrial replacement’ techniques, November
  30. Human Genetics Alert (2012), Human Genetic Engineering on the Doorstep: The threat of ‘mitochondrial replacement’ techniques, November
  31. UK House of Lords, Science and Technology - Third Report, government committee report, February 23, 2000.
  32. Martin Robbins, [http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2010/jan/11/susan-greenfield-sacking-royal-institution Susan Greenfield sacking: Now the Royal Institution can focus on science], The Guardian, January 11, 2010.
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