Royal Society study media coverage (12/8/2003)

Below is a Guardian piece on how The Royal Society has announced an inquiry into "whether the public is being dangerously misled by the way new research is carried out and publicised".

But this inquiry was already being touted to the press back in January, in terms that made all too clear the RS's intent - the headline in The Independent was "Scientists blame media and fraud for fall in public trust" - and which explicitly tied the inquiry into concerns about the GM debate in particular.

The RS has also been coordinating their work with a parallel inquiry run by a lobby group called Sense about Science, in which senior Fellows of the RS and well known GM supporters are very much to the fore - see Strange Bedfellows, http://ngin.tripod.com/190303d.htm.

We asked journalist Andy Rowell, author of DON'T WORRY IT IS SAFE TO EAT, for his comments (item 1).

Incidentally, the "consumer representative" that Andy Rowell refers to, Nick Partridge, has been a controversial figure within the gay community over his highly-paid role at the Terrence Higgins Trust and, in particular, THT's perceived over-cosiness with the drug company Wellcome. Another source of disquiet has been Partridge's cosiness with parts of the medical establishment and his involvement in what some have labelled "Gay McCarthyism" - the hounding of those with views not regarded as medically orthodox (see, for example: Dirty Medicine: Science, big business and the assault on natural health care, Martin J Walker, 1993). 

1.Rowell on RS latest
2.Scientists study media coverage of their research
1.Rowell on RS latest

It is interesting to see that the RS has finally announced its peer review working group today that is an "investigation into the ways in which the results of scientific research are made public."

Patrick Bateson, the RS Vice President argues that "Peer review has been criticised for being too secretive, conducted behind closed doors and assessed by anonymous referees. It has also been suggested that it provides a way in which the establishment can prevent unorthodox ideas, methods and views, regardless of their merit, from being made public. We want to see if any evidence supports such a claim".

But rather than being a genuine critique of peer review, the danger is that the Working Party will represent a hatchet job by the RS on its critics, once again attacking scientists who have been critical of GM and other technologies.

When The Independent first wrote about the story in January, the article said the RS would examine the work of both Pusztai and Chapela and Quist. From today's Guardian it seems the review will definitely attack Pusztai.

Alarm bells ring because the RS Working Group is certainly stacked with RS supporters and members of the scientific establishment, rather than being a truly representative body of all groups interested in science and peer review. The RS Press Release reads:

"A working group, chaired by Professor Sir Patrick Bateson, Vice- President of the Royal Society, and including members from the fields of consumer affairs, journalism, scientific publishing and academic and industrial science, has today issued a call for evidence to encourage submissions by the end of September about the strengths and weaknesses of current practices by researchers in communicating their results, and possible alternatives".

From this, with the emphasis implied by placing consumer affairs at the top of the list, you would expect consumer organisations to be strongly represented on the panel. Not so. Out of a panel of 14 there is just one consumer representative.

Sir Patrick Bateson FRS (Chair), Vice President, Royal Society.
Dr Phillip Campbell, Editor, Nature
Dr Linda Cummings, Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow, Dept of
Mathematics, University of Nottingham
Professor John Enderby FRS, Chair, Royal Society Publishing Board
Andrew Greene, Merlin Biosciences
Professor Paul Harvey FRS, Head, Dept of Zoology, University of Oxford
Professor Justin Lewis, School of Journalism, Cardiff University
Dr Alan McNaught, Royal Society of Chemistry
Dr Mike Owen, Senior Vice-President, GlaxoSmithKline
Nick Partridge OBE, Chair, Consumers in NHS Research
Dr Andrew Sugden, Senior Editor, Science
Professor Kathy Sykes, Professor of Public Understanding of Science and
Technology, University of Bristol
John von Radowitz, Science Correspondent, Press Association
Ms Alex Williamson, Publishing Director, BMJ Specialist Journals
2.Scientists study media coverage of their research
John Ezard
The Guardian, Monday August 11, 2003

The Royal Society, Britain's most eminent academy for scientific research, yesterday announced an inquiry into whether the public is being dangerously misled by the way new research is carried out and publicised.

The initiative stems from growing anxiety over complaints about unreliable research findings which are given huge media coverage.

The society set up a working party with a wide brief to investigate the reliability of existing checks on work funded not only by the government but by large companies and by pressure groups.

Two of the controversies which helped trigger the inquiry were concern over coverage given earlier this year to the Raelian Movement's unproven claim to have cloned humans, and an earlier dispute over findings on the risks of genetically modified food.

Yesterday Sir Patrick Bateson, who heads the working group, said researchers could attract publicity "for highly questionable results even when they offer no evidence that their research has been checked".

The society wants the group to recommend improvements to present methods since research, right or wrong, could have "quite profound effects on public opinion and policy".

The inquiry is being held in a climate where results from researchers - because of their profession's reputation for objectivity - are increasingly seized upon and reported round the world.

A check found that in the past week the trusting phrase "research shows" had been used 73 times on the Guardian's incoming home wires service. The service covers thousands of reports from the Press Association news agency, freelance agencies, the Central Office of Information, and public relations agencies.

In the past month the same phrase has been used 28 times in reports in the Guardian, 22 times in the Times, 15 times in the Daily Mirror and 14 times in the Daily Mail.

The Royal Society group will look at "peer review", the process used by most science journals to vet research papers submitted to them. This involves scrutiny of the papers' results and interpretation by scientists in the same field.

The working group includes Phillip Campbell, editor of Nature; Andrew Sugden, the editor of Science; Professor Paul Harvey, head of Oxford University's zoology department; Mike Owen, the drug company GlaxoSmithKline's senior vice-president; and Jon von Radowitz, the Press Association science correspondent.
By Andy Rowell and Jonathan Matthews
The Ecologist, April 2003

As soon as the current public debate on GM began, the attacks on Pusztai started up again... The Independent ran the headline, "Scientists blame media and fraud for fall in public trust". The article gave the Royal Society's views on why the public no longer trusts experts like themselves. In the article Pusztai's work is categorised as "fraud". Pusztai's peer reviewers, we are told, "refused it for publication, citing numerous flaws in its methods - notably that the rats in the experiment had not been fed GM potatoes, but normal ones spiked with a toxin that GM potatoes might have made."

Almost every word of this is a fabrication. Pusztai's Lancet paper successfully came through a peer review process which was far more stringent than that applying to most published papers. There was no "fraud". Rats were fed GM potatoes. There was no "toxin".

The claims in the article follow a pattern. Last summer, for instance, the Royal Society's Biological Secretary, Patrick Bateson wrote in the journal Science and Public Affairs that the Lancet published Pusztai's research "in the face of objections by its statistically-competent referees".

Bateson is one of those charged with liaising between the Sense about Science Working Party and the ten-member Royal Society working group on peer review, which he heads. According to The Independent, one of the cases that will be informing that work is that of Pusztai.

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