Three cheers for PPL Therapeutics! Not for their success in cloning pigs (although this is worth at least three cheers), but for their success with the media coverage of those five little piggies. Press coverage in the United Kingdom of the cloned pigs was almost universally positive. With only a few exceptions, journalists from The Express to the Financial Times presented PPL's success in glowing terms.
Has the British media (and, perhaps by implication, the British public) suddenly come around to the idea of cloning? Are we seeing a national change of heart? Probably not. But what we are seeing is, as Tony Blair might put it, a change of emphasis in the press reporting of the issue. Instead of focusing entirely upon the cloning technique, the reports on the pig clones emphasise the medical benefits that the cloning research might bring. Through a combination of nuclear transfer and genetic modification (GM) techniques, PPL could in the future be the first to develop pig organs that can be safely transplanted into human patients.
The positive response to the cloned pigs might have little to do with the story itself and more to do with public attitudes towards organ transplants. Human to human transplants are thought by all to be a good thing. Although transplant surgery was not regarded as such in the late 1960s when Christian Barnard performed the first heart transplant, today it is seen as a vital part of modern medicine. But there are not enough organs to go around and, as a result, people are dying. And it is because of this real need for a new supply or donor organs that many are able to overcome our unease about animal to human transplants. It seems to be a general rule of thumb that when a new technology has clear and medically important goals, public acceptance is quick to follow initial feelings of surprise and concern.
Perhaps PPL Therapeutics is just good at media spin. But maybe media spin isn't such a bad thing in science. Elsewhere in BioNews, we cover a new report published by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee which considers the issue of media coverage of science. One of the report's recommendations is that scientists should 'take the rough with the smooth and learn to work with the media as they are.'
Scientists certainly do need to be more 'media savvy'. But perhaps more important is a demonstration of confidence (but not arrogance) about their work. Open dialogue and honesty are vital, but at least for media purposes scientists should not let this approach make them look indecisive or defensive. After all, those who raise concerns about science - whether environmental groups worried about GM crops, or church leaders worried about genetic genetic testing - seem to have no lack of confidence about their own position. In fact, their approach to media relations often reeks of astounding arrogance. So, perhaps instead of spin doctors, what we need is spin scientists!