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Not arguing with the REF

Ted Nield applauds a recent announcement by Lord Drayson.

Geoscientist 19.9 September 2009

Lord Drayson, Science MinisterThe Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the UK professional organisation for science writers is, like the Geological Society, the oldest of its kind in the world (founded 1947), and your Editor has served as its Chair for the past three years (yes, three – GSL presidents have it easy).

Being a firm believer in quitting while ahead, I recently handed over to my successor, during my term of office’s climactic event – the World Conference of Science Journalism 2009. That we succeeded in attracting 950 participants from 70 countries to London was wonderful. That the meeting should also have given rise to actual news was all the more marvellous for being so unexpected.

On its first full day, the Conference welcomed Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, who used the occasion to make an announcement. In the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF), he said, scientists would be given points for communication. The Government, he said, was changing the way it judged researchers’ performance because of the seriousness with which it took public engagement. “We believe that scientists have a duty – particularly when funded by taxpayers – to engage in communication of the challenges and the potential ethical concerns about their science, and that will be included in the REF” he told us.

Such a move is long overdue and should be applauded – as should the good Lord’s mature attitude to the way science is covered by the media. During a debate in which he participated that same day, after asserting his belief that science coverage in the UK media was “the best in the world”, Drayson said that a “period of reflection” had followed the bogus scaremongering stories that had blighted coverage of GM foods and the MMR vaccine.

He hit the nail on the head when he said “I believe the key is that science journalists are in charge of the story and not general journalists”. This was music to the ears of SJs, who often must look on in impotent despair as science–based stories escape from their grasp, vanish into the maw of general news and come out horribly mangled. Drayson also recognised that “sensational” reporting was a necessity, and not necessarily an evil - as long as the science was correct, of course.

One of the great attractions of science as a beat is that it is so often about “good” news. It is, by its nature, often sensational. “Sensationalism” is usually used pejoratively, but is part and parcel of interesting the wider public in the fantastic things that science does. As Drayson concluded, “We need a society that is awestruck by science, not dumbstruck by it”. Hear hear – and to make it so, we need scientists who are not dumbstruck before the media. Encouraging them, via the REF, to go out there and engage, can only assist the process. All eyes will now be on the Funding Councils. Bureaucracies have a n uncanny knack of achieving in implementation precisely the opposite ends to those intended; so it will be interesting to see how (or indeed whether) they can implement this laudable initiative in imaginative and intelligent ways.