From my point of view, I can see how an SMC for the European Union might work very well. Except – and here’s the challenge – there is no such thing as a European public; not that I’ve come across anyway. In fact, that is one of Europe’s treasures. Every single member state is different, and even within member states, things can be different.
Professor Anne Glover
In a roundtable discussion at ESOF 2012, Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Commission Professor Anne Glover considered how a continental Science Media Centre (SMC) might benefit scientific communication within the European Union. Professor Glover drew on her previous experience as Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland, and used the United Kingdom’s SMC as an example, to explore the ways in which an EU SMC might facilitate the dissemination of relevant information to the public.
The United Kingdom’s SMC exists ‘to promote the voices, stories and views of the scientific community to the national news media when science is in the headlines.’1
By connecting expert scientists with science journalists, the SMC allows pertinent information to travel from those in the know to the pages of national newspapers. Moreover, the SMC employs a unique funding structure by allowing a maximum annual contribution of only £5000 from any one of its sponsors. However, as of April 2012, the SMC had over 100 sponsors,2
ranging from Coca-Cola to the Wellcome Trust. This model allows the centre to maintain sufficient financial support, whilst avoiding the risk of becoming overly dependent on any one party.
Professor Glover was Scotland’s Chief Scientific Adviser following the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull. The eruption, which released tonnes of glassy dust into the atmosphere, resulted in widespread disruption for air travel across much of northern and western Europe. As Professor Glover explained, in times of crisis such as this, SMCs have the capacity to deliver scientific information in a clear and timely manner.
"There was a volcanic eruption and in Scotland, airspace was closed down very quickly," she explained. "Because of weather conditions, the plume came right over the country. The First Minister of Scotland got in touch with me and said, "Why on Earth are we closing down airspace? Volcanoes must erupt all the time." Well, I’m a life scientist so I didn’t know much about volcanology, but I needed to know why it was erupting, how long it was likely to last, how the plume composition of this volcano was different from other eruptions and what the implications would be if we flew aircraft through the cloud.
"Journalists wanted to know why, when, and for how long people were going to be inconvenienced. They needed information very quickly, and it was extremely hard to get the information out. A lot was coming through government communication services which I don’t think was at all effective on reflection. Whatever we think of governments, I think there is always a feeling that we are not being told everything, or that there might be hidden agendas. It’s much better if journalists are operating independently.
"At the time, we weren’t accessing the UK SMC, but if we had have been, here is what I think would have happened. The SMC would have contacted its database of journalists in order to quickly convey the following information. In the case of Eyjafjallajökull, the dust was very glassy. A jet engine – and here is something that might terrify you – operates at a temperature above its own melting point, so essentially, it should melt. It doesn’t melt because of the fantastic engineering of capillary air channels to allow the cooling of that engine. If you block those channels, then
you have a problem. If glassy dust melts inside these capillaries, it will choke off the air supply and the engines will fail."
Professor Glover contends that the creation of an EU SMC would be beneficial but challenging
In this sort of situation, where science is at the forefront of national news headlines, Professor Glover believes that SMCs provide a vital service to scientists, journalists and the public at large.
"Scientists can provide the information for journalists, and journalists can then talk about it," she said. "In an event like the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, I think that an SMC would have been useful. I don’t know how many of you were inconvenienced by that particular eruption, but if you were, you will understand how frustrating it was not to know what was happening and why. It just seemed like events were conspiring to disrupt all of our lives. In that sort of environment, an SMC can quickly assemble experts to whom journalists can address questions. This is a very effective communication channel as it makes life easier for the journalists, it’s timely, and I think that it’s good for readership and for the scientists who get the information out."
Professor Glover went on to consider the advantages of the unique funding model that has been adopted by the UK SMC.
"It’s a really carefully, cleverly honed system," she enthused. "They have a huge number of contributors in terms of funding. Again, I think that this is very important. If a media centre gets its funding predominantly from government, or predominantly from an industry, there is always the worry in people’s minds that influence is being exerted. By limiting the amount of funding that can come from any one subscriber, the UK SMC avoids any undue influence. The disadvantage, of course, is that the SMC has to go to each of these subscribers every year and get the money – there is the challenge. But it keeps things very open. Lots of people have an interest in the centre but nobody has a controlling interest. This is a very good thing."
Whilst Professor Glover argued that the advantages of an EU SMC would be clear, she did point out that several challenges would be involved in its creation.
"From my point of view, I can see how an SMC for the European Union might work very well," she said. "Except – and here’s the challenge – there is no such thing as a European public; not that I’ve come across anyway. In fact, that is one of Europe’s treasures. Every single member state is different, and even within member states, things can be different. I think that journalists know their audiences very well, but it might be a challenge to provide information on particular events.
"However, I raise such issues not as obstacles but as comments. I think that we need to consider how to hone a system to be fit for purpose; to be able to deliver what we would want in Europe. And what’s the value? I mean, do we not get good stories already about things that happen in Europe? I’ve seen lots of very good articles about science in Europe and within different member states. I suppose the challenge for me would be to provide a better appreciation of these issues within Europe. We live in a very strange world. It’s an exciting world and it’s a great time to be alive in many ways. On the other hand, we are quite insulated and when things happen,we expect them to have no impact whatsoever on our lives. We get very annoyed and there’s a huge blame culture.
"I notice this all the time. It’s quite saddening that somebody has to be blamed for the eruption of a volcano. A media centre could really help to release expert information quickly. People might realise that we live in a natural world and that sometimes, things don’t work out how we’d like. Understanding really helps. For me, those are the sorts of issues that we need to consider, but at the end of the day, there is almost no instance in which having expert, quick, effective communication, would not improve life immeasurably in a whole number of areas."
It seems then that Professor Glover is convinced of the benefits of an EU SMC. However, there are still creases that must be ironed out before a cross-continental body can be created to improve scientific communication within the European Union.
1 Welcome, www.sciencemediacentre.org
2 About us: Funding, www.sciencemediacentre.org