A Science Media Centre for ERA? / Why science journalists must be vigilant

From the Spring 2013 issue of EUSJA news

A Science Media Centre for ERA?

The UK Science Media Centre (SMC) has just celebrated its 10th anniversary and is widely acclaimed for its positive role in (re)engaging the media with science and acting as an intermedi- ary between the research community and journalists. The SMC concept is being adopted in other countries too. But how would a SMC for the EU work and what would its role be?
This was the subject of a brainstorming workshop held in Brus- sels on 12-13 November 2012. The meeting followed an initial discussion in Berlin and an expert roundtable at ESOF in Dublin in July that year. Around the table in Brussels were representa- tives from the EU institutions, the European Science Foundation, COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) and a handful of media including EUSJA members. Also present was Ed Sykes from UK SMC and Sile Lane from Sense about Science. Erika Widegren of Atomium Culture, who initiated the EU SMC discussion, led the meeting.
The two-day meeting looked first at the mission, remit and services of an EU SMC and then at financial and governance issues. A clear outcome of the discussions was that trust would be a defining element in determining whether the centre would work or not.
The EU Chief Scientific Adviser, Anne Glover, joined the meet- ing briefly and is clearly a supporter of the idea. She is keen that initiatives such as an SMC are established to support the environment for evidence-based policy-making within all the EU institutions.
The mission of an EU SMC was jointly defined as: ‘Serving the public by facilitating communication between European media and research communities’. The EU SMC should also cover ‘Europe’ as defined in the European Research Area (ERA), i.e. EU-27 + associated states.
Three core areas of activity were proposed. Firstly, activities relating to ‘press office’ functions and other services for journalists, secondly training services and provision of material for both scientists and journalists, and thirdly activities relating to coordination and support for existing and new national SMCs in Europe.
The independence of an EU SMC was vital and although it was likely that EU funding would be needed to initiate the organisation, the medium to long-term financial model should look to that of the UK SMC where funding was obtained from a very broad spectrum of bodies. Following the Brussels meeting, Atomium Culture is putting together a project plan for the start-up of an EU SMC with a five-year timeline. The plan should be available for discussion in the near future.
The SMC debate continued at a major science communication meeting that took place in February 2013 as part of the Irish Presidency of the EU and could be part of the agenda for WCSJ in Helsinki. If plans run smoothly, the ideal kick-off for an EU SMC would coincide with the new EU research framework programme (Horizon 2020) in 2014.
For more information on the proposed EU SMC contact Atomium Culture at eusmc@atomiumculture.eu or contact me via• email at tim.reynolds@intacomm.net.

Tim Reynolds


Why science journalists must be vigilant

Let’s say it clearly from the beginning: I have a big interest in the whole issue because I have been working at a project for establishing an Italian Science Media Centre managed by science journalists since before the Doha World Conference in 2011.

I have been actively working with the existing International network of Science Media Centres and with several fellow science journalists to increase the value of this model: I think it can be very useful for a well informed society, upon the condition of being applied in full transparency, and with the goal of serving the journalists first, and the science second (and industry third, if ever).

I produced a panel on the SMC model at the PCST conference in Florence, in April 2012, with among others The EU Chief Scientific Adviser Anne Glover and Fiona Fox, Executive Director of the UK SMC, and later was at several meetings, including the “secret” one (not in the official programme, and on invitation only) that was held at ESOF Dublin, and the one in Brussels where I personally invited Tim Reynolds to write for EUSJA.

At the end of the Brussels meeting, we were all told that the project would not be discussed in Dublin – as it was originally intended by the organisers at Atomium Culture – because many among the participants agreed with me that after two full days it was still too much a preliminary project.

As I said repeatedly in Brussels, all the crucial issues about the beneficiaries of the project (many insisted that good journalism needs a National angle and strong root), its goals and its independence were systematically skipped, while the attention was put almost exclusively on bureaucratic matters.

Erika Widegren agreed that the project was still too immature, and reassured us all citing a time frame of 5 years.

Now the crucial questions are still there.

I can only repeat once again what I said repeatedly in person to Erika Widegren: if you use expressions like “proactive trasparency” and promise to send the info about “your” conference to the critical journalists, then you have to keep your word (especially when that conference is heavily funded with public EU money). If you don’t, instead of establishing the good base for a healthy relationship with journalists, you end up being perceived as a threat, as someone willing to hide things and to cut corners.

My friends who run the UK Science Media Centre and the SMCs in other parts of the world know well – probably because they live in countries in which the power of the media is still quite strong and respected – that every attempt at avoiding open debate would be very counterproductive.

I hope the science journalism community will be consulted and actively involved starting from Helsinki (I suggested Atomium Culture to do so), and I am sure that the debate will continue online.

You’re all invited to contribute.

Fabio Turone
(EUSJA board member)