COMMONS

MPs call for fairer science reporting and policy making

29 March 2017

The report by MPs on the Science and Technology Committee is calling for new measures to ensure clearer consideration of scientific evidence in policy making, and greater backing for public dialogue and engagement with science.

71% of people believe the media sensationalises science

The Science Communication and Engagement Report found that people have a strong desire to know how science affects their daily lives. However 71% of people believe the media sensationalises science, and 67% say they have no option but to trust those governing scientific information. Just 28% believe that journalists check their facts when reporting scientific matters.

'Boaty McBoatface'

Remarkably the Committee also found that the 'Boaty McBoatface' incident, where a competition to name an arctic polar ship created a social media storm, actually increased public engagement with science, and demonstrates how audacious ways of stimulating dialogue can be of public benefit.

Recommendations

The Science Communication and Engagement Report recommends that:

  • The Government must not deliberately conflate scientific considerations with political, financial or legal matters when making policy decisions, and the Cabinet Office ‘Green Book’ on public consultations must make it clearer how scientific evidence is considered independently of wider matters.
  • Media organisations must take greater care to avoid ‘false balance’, where opposing scientific views are presented with apparent equal weight even if the overwhelming majority of scientific evidence is weighted on one side. The Committee found this has been particularly evident in reporting around climate change.
  • The Committee takes a dim view of the practice or organisations issuing embargoed press releases prior to the availability of fully peer reviewed journal reports, as this is impeding journalist’s ability to carry out proper fact checking or to challenge the claims made.
  • The Government must ensure a more robust redress mechanism in cases where scientific evidence is mis-reported by the media, which is lacking in the current Leveson reforms.
  • Two key programmes to promote public dialogue and engagement in policy making, Sciencewise and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement should be extended including through adequate funding in the Government’s Industrial Strategy.

Crucial to policy making

Stephen Metcalfe MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee said:

"Robust consideration of scientific evidence is crucial to policy making and really affects our daily lives and we have seen over many years through the debates around BSE, climate change, MMR and new medical treatments. However too often the clever practice of communications overshadows the true advice of experts, and the public are left bewildered, and not knowing who to believe.

"This affects Government policy too, Ministers and decision makers must take greater care to set out exactly how scientific evidence is being considered, and ensure they cannot be accused of discrediting or skewing the evidence for financial reasons or to suit political aims.
 
"Reporting scientific and particularly health issues accurately is also a big responsibility for media organisations if they are to retain public trust, and we need to give the public greater reassurances that they are being properly informed and engaged."

 Further information

Image: iStockphoto

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