The Science Media Centre (SMC) began work in December 2001. It is housed within the Royal Institution (RI).
Susan Greenfield, the RI's director, describes herself as 'the midwife' of the initiative while the support of then UK science minister, Lord Sainsbury, has also been noted in articles about the SMC (eg, New independent media centre aims to give scientists a voice, Financial Times, Jan 30, 2001).
The Science Media Centre's director is Fiona Fox, who is said to be in overall charge of running the Centre and setting its strategic direction together with the SMC's Board. Fox's background, which includes undisclosed links to the Living Marxism network, is mainly in media relations.
The SMC's Press Officers are said to be responsible for
'communicating the Centre's key messages' to the media, including managing 'the media database' which includes information on which scientists journalists should be referred to. An article on the SMC co-authored by Greenfield says, 'Greenfield's aim is to help journalists to find the right scientist to talk to at the right time.'
Despite its close links with Greenfield and the RI, the SMC describes itself as 'an independent venture'. Prior to its launch, Greenfield said she hoped to get money for the project 'from the trade unions' (Financial Times, Jan 30, 2001), but that never materialised and most of the SMC's funding is via corporate donations. Funders with biotech interests include Astra Zeneca, Dupont, Pfizer and Powderject.
Within a matter of months of its launch the SMC was already embroiled in controversy over its activities. It stood accused of operating 'a sort of Mandelsonian rapid rebuttal unit', and of employing 'some of the clumsiest spin techniques of New Labour'. These claims arose out of allegations of a 'secret campaign to descredit' a BBC drama relating to GM crops (see: Lobby group 'led GM thriller critics', The Observer, June 2, 2002). The connections of the director of the SMC to the Living Marxism network, and the SMC's funding, have also attracted critical comment.
Prof David Miller of Strathclyde University is amongst the SMC's critics, '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.' (The Guardian, Tuesday February 11, 2003)
The SMC describes itself as 'working to promote the voices, stories and views of the scientific community to the news media when science is in the headlines' (emphasis added). It also says it's in the business of 'pro-actively promoting a spectrum of scientific opinion ' (emphasis added).
This language is derived from a Consultation Report on its role, published by the SMC in March 2002 and said to have been the result of wide consultation with leading scientists, science communicators and the media. The topic of GM comes up repeatedly - almost 20 times in a report which in full only runs to around 30 pages including appendices.
Revealingly, the report notes that 'the majority of people consulted - including many of those who helped establish the initiative... reminded the SMC team several times that the impetus for the initiative came from people who are concerned about improving the image of science and renewing public trust in it. They also pointed out that the impetus for the Centre emerged from a strong consensus that media coverage of such issues as GM and BSE had been "bad for science" .'
In a Financial Times article published a full 15 months earlier, the emphasis is similar, the role being planned for the Centre would be to help 'sceptical and impatient journalists' get their stories right on controversial issues such as 'animal research, cloning and genetically modified food' (New independent media centre aims to give scientists a voice, Financial Times, Jan 30, 2001)
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