Should scientists enter the media fray on the most controversial aspects of stem cell research when the row is clearly about much more than the science? This is a question that many in the scientific community have raised over the past year in relation to the furore over human-animal hybrid embryos. When the UK Science Media Centre first ran a couple of our trademark 'Background' briefings on hybrids and chimeras in mid 2005, the story was covered responsibly by the science reporters in the inside pages. But when the Government revealed its intention to ban this area of research because of public revulsion, hybrid embryos became front page news. Some scientists point out that from that moment on this debate has been much more about politics, policy, regulation and religion than about science. And of course they are right - even in the midst of the Easter-tide assault from the Catholic church, much of the media focused on what it meant for the debate over a free vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill - will MPs be whipped by the PM or the Cardinals was the question favoured by political commentators.
I do believe that scientists need to make careful assessments about the risks and benefits of doing media work at times like this. But, for me, that careful assessment comes out firmly in favour of engagement. It is worth reflecting on the huge media furore over genetically modified (GM) crops back in 1999. The UK's top plant scientists watched in horror as their research was sensationalised, hyped and trivialised. With a handful of honourable exceptions, the real experts on GM science ran in the opposite direction leaving the coast clear for campaigners and commentators on both sides who played fast and loose with the science.
The public have every right to say no to GM technology or human-animal embryos, but no-one interested in a healthy democracy can want people to arrive at these important decisions without having an accurate understanding of the science involved. My colleagues have been monitoring inaccurate references to hybrid embryos in the news for some years now, and suffice to say the number of real howlers has increased dramatically since politicians and Cardinals have entered this debate. Truth, it seems, is often the first casualty of a science story turned media 'row'. For me this makes it all the more important that stem cell scientists should have their voices heard in this debate, and should take every opportunity to explain the science.
That doesn't mean there are no risks involved in engaging with the debate when it's taking place at such a high volume and temperature. However I believe that the key scientists have avoided many of the pitfalls by sticking resolutely to explaining the science. Indeed I have absolutely marvelled at how many times scientists like Stephen Minger, Robin Lovell-Badge, Lyle Armstrong, Chris Shaw and others can repeat their favoured ways of explaining hybrids in simple and compelling terms.
Another risk is that the scientists most in the public eye will be accused of hyping the significance of hybrid embryo research and its potential medical applications. I think Martin Evans's intervention in this debate has been extremely important and well timed, but I did slightly baulk at his suggestion that some scientists may be guilty of hyping hybrid research - an accusation repeated by the Daily Telegraph's respected science editor Roger Highfield. There is no question that the huge media interest in hybrid embryos has had the effect of exaggerating the significance of this research over other areas of stem cell research. But the fault lies not with the scientists but with the vagaries of a media that always privileges the new and sensational.
I have listened intently to all the scientists who have taken the lead on engaging with the media on this issue over the past two years, and they have always been incredibly cautious about the claims they make. Those scientists who enter this debate under more controlled circumstances with trusted journalists need to acknowledge that whenever science becomes the subject of a media storm, the nuances, uncertainties and caveats will often disappear. It's amazing that Nobel Prize winners and the heads of funding agencies have entered this debate to express their backing for this research, but we also need to champion the scientists at the sharp end like those doing back-to-back interviews responding to alarmist attacks over Easter with considerably less control over the output.
Whether we like it or not, the days when scientists could stay in their ivory towers and just pop out now and again to announce a new discovery are over. The debate over GM showed that the scientific community has to work hard to address public concerns and earn support for new techniques, and that the opportunity to do that comes often in the midst of a media storm. So far all the signs show that the efforts of the scientific community have not been in vain. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's rigorous consultation on hybrid embryos last year showed that when the public understand the science and the potential implications, 61 per cent can get beyond the 'yuk' factor and accept this research, while Cardinal Keith O'Brien's references to Frankenstein and monsters did little to stop a Times poll finding a clear majority in favour just after Easter. Leaders in the Times and the Financial Times in the past few months have clearly linked the public support to the scientific community's new willingness to enter the fray of one of the most controversial issues in science - the times really are changing.
The Science Media Centre will be involved in co-ordinating scientific reaction to several of the science aspects of the Bill as it comes back to the Commons in may - if you are happy to do any media work on PGD, tissue typing, embryonic stem cell research etc please contact Kate on 020 7670 2981.