Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Archive for the ‘Communicating Science’ Category

Do we need a Female Brian Cox? Inspiration, Role Models and the Media

Posted by Athene Donald on November 23, 2010

Last week I talked to undergraduates in Cambridge about my new role as Gender Equality Champion within the University, about the sort of activities I envisaged in my new role and how I had got to where I am in my career.  I was really pleased to get an email about 24 hours later saying how I had ‘inspired’ at least one of my audience as she had listened to me talk about my life.  As teachers – of whatever level and whatever subject – to inspire someone is an incredibly satisfying thing to do, but so rarely do we get told we’ve done it. It is indeed one of the key motivations for teaching, to be able to pass on one’s passion to at least a fraction of those listening. Teachers are so incredibly influential in determining our individual trajectories, but often do not know the impact of their actions.

A little while ago, I wrote about this from the pupil’s angle, citing my own experience at school as putting me off biology as a teenager but inspiring me to do physics. Around the same time a piece appeared in the Guardian by Alom Shaha  asking  Where’s the Female Brian Cox?, pointing out that “ Girls are crying out for a female scientific role model” . As it happens Alom Shaha is a science teacher at my old school, Camden School for Girls in London. In my day it was a girls’ grammar, now it is a comprehensive for girls with a mixed sixth form.  (By the by, this is something I had found quite disconcerting when I went back to talk to the sixth form earlier this year: same hall, differently populated, no longer white and female!) I happen to think the fact that it was an all  girls’ school was relevant to my career choice and the topic of this post – no one told me girls didn’t do physics. So, my only role model may have been my excellent Physics teacher, but I also had no one putting me off. That my choice of subject was unusual was not brought home to me until I turned up in Cambridge as a fresher.  Single sex teaching will have to be a subject for another day, however.

So to return to Alom Shaha and his argument that celebrities can lead to aspiration, and possibly also inspiration. He says

‘There are lots of initiatives out there to promote female scientists as role models, but I suspect that having one woman scientist with Brian Cox’s level of fame would have the same impact as many of these initiatives combined. Like it or not, appearing on TV is still one of the best ways to become a role model for young people.’

I only agree with this up to a point, as I’ll explain below. Teenagers are so overwhelmed with images of celebrities – who clearly are making megabucks, something else that is hard for them not to feel aspirational about – that it is difficult for them to realise that celebrity in itself does not bring satisfaction or happiness, and that something quieter but more cerebral might have its own attractions. It is not going to be an easy message to get across. This fixation on celebrities is true whether or not one is talking about role models.  I was staggered to be told by a young woman, at this same meeting with undergraduates last week, that her housemates seemed to think wanting to do a PhD and follow an academic career was rather sad, and implied she was lacking something because she didn’t want to settle down, have a family and be a housewife.  This is 2010 and I thought that was left behind around the time of my own youth. It is hard not to see this as the WAG model of success, and I had not expected to find it in Cambridge where students undoubtedly have the wherewithal to be a great deal more than someone else’s other half.

So, there are 3 different concepts being discussed here: role models, inspiration and the charisma of a TV presenter like Brian Cox. I think they are different and will influence different people in different ways. But specifically I want to question whether role models have to be the same sex to inspire, and secondly if a single presenter really is sufficient to change girls’ worldview of science.

Alom Shaha’s implication in his article was that girls at his school needed to see a female presenter to be able to identify with science as a career  – this must be particularly directed at physical sciences and engineering, since the number of women entering university to study biology is at least equal to men. But I wonder if that needs to be true. Do they look at Brian Cox and think I would love to be able to do the exciting kind of science he does (and I must admit I haven’t watched any of his programmes myself, so have no idea how he comes across), or do they look at him and think science looks fun but it can’t be a career for me because he is male?  I would propose that for many of them – if they have any penchant for science – they are as likely to feel the first emotion pure and simple without necessarily regarding his gender as relevant. Only if the girls never come across images of female scientists then, yes, I would agree with Alom Shaha; as long as they do I am not so sure. The article that was brought to my attention after my post on stereotype threat makes clear that if pupils never see a woman scientist portrayed they can undoubtedly draw negative conclusions about their own abilities as a female scientist. But if they do, I wonder how influential a single iconic figure may be as a role model (unless specifically they are seeking a scientific media career), so that the gender of this iconic person may be less important than implied.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if there was a female Brian Cox, but he has his own mystique due to his previous existence in D.Ream. He has been able to come to the fore not only because he is articulate and passionate and the camera loves him, but also because he has had the support and knowhow behind him of a wife Gia Milinovich herself from the media, who has been able to facilitate his transformation into a TV star (at the same time, incidentally, as losing much of her own status).  So, if there were a female who happened to have a similar pedigree, it would be totally wonderful but, as the responses to the Guardian article made clear, there are a lot of women scientists who have got onto mainstream science programmes but not prospered or been taken up by the media in a substantial way, perhaps in part because their pedigree does not contain all these additional fortuitous elements.

But, for myself I am not convinced a single superstar female scientist would necessarily do as much good as a steady stream of many women scientists – both images and in the flesh – who just start turning up in many situations: textbook and publicity photographs, on TV and in podcasts, being used as ‘experts’ by the media written and visual, and dropping into schools to talk about their passion. If TV is to be used as a vehicle to encourage girls I suspect, as I said in a previous comment, actresses portraying women scientists turning up in much acclaimed serials and soaps would be substantially more effective than a single high profile female presenter. The trouble is currently that the concentration of visible women is so miserably low that the scientific profession remains looking overwhelmingly male.  So can we start a campaign for having women scientists photographed more and displayed casually in more places (incidentally I know a professional photographer who was desperately keen to create such an exhibition to take around the country, but could never raise the funds to do so – any funders out there?); for having more podcasts by women that can be played to schoolchildren of all ages; for girl’s teenage magazines to feature scientists from time to time; and – scriptwriters please note – some lab dramas featuring smart (young?) women doing exciting things in science,  or a female Dr Who. All these strands are important.  If female scientists’ (apparent) presence were as ubiquitous as male’s, maybe we wouldn’t need to worry about the gender of science presenters on TV – and then maybe we could stop having this debate.

Posted in Communicating Science, Education, Teaching, Women in Science | Tagged: , , , , | 11 Comments »

Writing the Right Stuff

Posted by Athene Donald on October 12, 2010

Almost everything I have written over the last 30 odd years has been in the standard format of so-called ‘scholarly articles’ and grant applications.  There is a certain style to this, rather formal and usually retaining the passive voice – though that is a fashion that is fading – a general style that has been referred to as ‘didactic dead-pan’. (If I were properly ‘dead-panning  didactically’ here, I would give you the reference for that quote, but I  will refrain).   Occasionally, if I were feeling daring in a review article I might have used a rhetorical question; that was as exciting as it got. But in the last few weeks I have had to think much harder about genre, and not just for writing posts for this blog.  This was brought into focus as I composed a speech at the end of last week to give in the distinctly archaic format of a Cambridge University Discussion, held in the Senate House (and for which appropriate academic dress, in the form of a gown, is a requirement to add to the solemnity of the occasion).

I have only spoken in a Discussion once, when I was Chair of my Department’s Personnel Committee. At the time we were all very concerned by an initial set of proposals regarding assimilation of staff onto a payscale with a single spine, a payscale that appeared to advantage those at the top at the expense of those near the bottom (I should point out that the payscale was substantially modified before its introduction, in part because of the views expressed at the Discussion).  And that time, counter to the solemnity I have just referred to, the dignity was disturbed by a spontaneous burst of applause at the end of my speech, much to my surprise.  Nevertheless, as I composed my remarks this time, and thought about what I wanted to say, I realised that the how was also much in my mind: the style that seemed appropriate felt rather like a Victorian novel, Disraeli perhaps or George Eliot. Maybe it is the ghost of Discussions Past that has been hovering over my typing fingers.

The current subject of the Discussion is the introduction of a Combined Equality Scheme which has slowly traversed its way through the layers of university committees, all of which I appear to sit on – so I have seen this document multiple times in subtly different versions.  As one part of this Scheme, Champions have been introduced for the three equality strands of Gender (that’s me), Disability and Race.  As champions, we wanted to turn up to this Discussion to state our total commitment to mainstreaming Equality within the University, even if not a soul turned up to oppose the Report on the Scheme; in fact two people did, one of whom seemed to think equality was a luxury which could be done away with in times of financial stringency.  I reproduce my remarks at the end of this post, so you don’t need to wade through them if you don’t want to, but they are there to illustrate my point about genre. Read the speech, and then compare it with my style in the Fight Debate published in Eureka last week; if you can get behind the paywall you can read the whole thing, but a part of it is also included at the bottom of this post. Or indeed compare the Discussion style with this blog and you will see what fun I am able to have now in constructing different ‘voices’, an opportunity I don’t recall ever having had previously during my professional life.

But there is also a serious scientific as well as linguistic point here, relating to interdisciplinary working.  If you compare how physicists and biologist write, for instance, they approach things in different ways. That is true even in the very titles they choose for their papers. Looking at the table of contents in last week’s PNAS, a journal I have deliberately chosen since it encompasses essentially the whole breadth of pure science within each issue, the differences become very obvious.

The first two titles in the cell biology section of this recent issue are:

Polyunsaturated liposomes are antiviral against hepatitis B and C viruses and HIV by decreasing cholesterol levels in infected cells

Lateral opening of a translocon upon entry of protein suggests the mechanism of insertion into membranes

I’ve marked up in bold the active verb in each; such verbs are missing if you look at the first title from the Chemistry section:

Hydration dynamics at fluorinated protein surfaces

and verbs are equally missing from the Physics section:

Direct search for a ferromagnetic phase in a heavily overdoped nonsuperconducting copper oxide

With no verbs in the physical science titles there is no active sense of discovery, nothing to let you know (from the title alone) what the key conclusions of the paper are, just a description of the scope of the paper. I don’t know where these stylistic differences came from – I hardly think it is because physicists are less certain about what they are discovering – but it seems to be fairly general. There are titles in this issue that buck the trend, but I suspect if I applied a statistical test I would find the difference was significant. I say this with some confidence because I have for ages wondered why it was that biology titles felt somewhat alien, and I think now I’ve worked it out.

You could argue that the wording of the title is immaterial, but I think it is symptomatic of differences in style and approach throughout; somehow there are cultural norms ingrained in us as we are taught and trained in our particular discipline. There is nothing spelt out, and it isn’t clear why the differences have evolved. At school, children may explicitly be taught about genre writing, and how to write in different styles for a broadsheet or a tabloid, for instance.  Nothing is said about writing styles for science; indeed, far too little is said about science writing at all!  Nevertheless, if I want to start publishing my interdisciplinary work in a journal from a different branch of science maybe I need to tune into this with more care if I want to satisfy the referees, regardless of the quality of the science itself.  It looks like another challenge and potential pitfall for progressing interdisciplinarity.

My remarks at this week’s Discussion:

Deputy Vice Chancellor, I speak to you as the University’s Gender Equality Champion, one of the three new champion’s roles formalised in this Combined Equality Scheme.  The role initially was created in the mind’s eye of our previous Vice Chancellor, who wanted to focus thoughts on the importance of true equality.  As a university we have certainly not succeeded particularly well in the past; our history is glorious but also formally excluded women for more than 90% of its existence. Even recently segments of our multicultural and diverse society will have continued to feel excluded or under-valued. It is high time we dealt formally and properly with the consequences of failings consequent upon our long history.

The creation of this Combined Equality Scheme brings together many actions needed to bring the University into compliance with the Law. Currently we are not doing well on the compliance front, and this should be a source of shame. What we have in the Scheme is a clear statement of the approach of the university in dealing with the different equality strands. It gives a brief overview of the University’s functions and activities in order to fulfil its aspirations to be a good employer, which extend to actions beyond mere compliance.  By bringing together a previous grand total of 38 policies and papers into a single, easily digestible document we will not only have much greater clarity of vision and purpose and greater transparency, but in the process reduce the administrative burden on both the central bodies and individual members.

The law may upon occasion be an ass, but the new duties incumbent on us under the Equality Act 2010 require us to respond, as does natural justice for our students and employees. I have watched this Scheme during its gestation. I have followed it through a series of committees – the Equality and Diversity Committee, the Human Resources Committee and finally University  Council, all of which I sit on – so I have seen how each committee has helped to mould the final article, to ensure a balance of pragmatism and aspiration wrapped up in the necessities of the legislative framework. I believe it represents a significant step forward for the University and all its employees. I warmly commend this Combined Equality Scheme to you.

Compare that with my response to the question Are TV science presenters more important than leading practising scientists? in the Fight Debate from last week’s Eureka magazine. I was putting the ‘No’ view, to counter Evan Harris’ ‘Yes’ piece. I can only include part of the article here; for the full thing it’s back behind the paywall I’m afraid.

What would TV presenters of science be able to present if it wasn’t for the work of scientists?  They can be as charismatic as you like, brilliant at enthralling the public and communicating the wonders of science. But if the scientists weren’t beavering away day by day, however uncharismatic they may be (or perceived to be) there would be no wonder of science for the presenters to communicate.

And who makes more lasting difference to the world we live in? Let’s look at some figures from the past to see whose legacy is longer and more important.  Back in 1964, because of my interest in ornithology I was given tickets to the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures given that year by Desmond Morris. Some may remember him as the author of the once controversial book ‘The Naked Ape’. In 1964 he was better known as a presenter of Zoo Time on ITV. Contrast his current status, and the contribution he has made to science in the long term, with Dorothy Hodgkin who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in that year for her beautiful and ground-breaking X-ray studies, notably of the vitamin B12. Her seminal work continues to be an inspiration to many; her appearance on a Royal Mail stamp this year is testament to her impact.

Fast forward a few years, and the media darling was Magnus Pyke, an eccentric scientist who succeeded – with a great deal of arm-waving in a literal sense – in putting complex ideas across to a lay audience. Consequently in 1975, he was the highest rated living scientist in a New Scientist poll for the ‘best-known and most characteristic scientist of all time’………

Posted in Biological Physics, Communicating Science, Equality, Interdisciplinary Science | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Eureka! -Choosing the 100 Most Influential People in British Science

Posted by Athene Donald on October 7, 2010

This piece also appears as a guestblog on the Times’s Science blog “Eureka Zone” (behind the paywall).

When an invitation to join the panel to help draw up the Eureka100 powerlist in science arrived in my inbox, my fancy was certainly tickled and I readily accepted. However, as the process evolved it became clear in just how many different ways the phrase ‘ most influential people in British science’ can be interpreted. Does it mean simply practicing scientists? Certainly my first assumption was these would represent the majority of entries.  Over what time period did influence need to have been exerted; in other words were we trying to produce a list of ‘old farts’, to use Will Carling’s memorable phrase, or those at the peak of their profession now whose influence would continue to increase? Or perhaps we should be searching out those who were clearly upwardly mobile but perhaps not yet reached their peak. How widely were we to spread our net beyond actual practicing scientists? Should it include politicians, policy makers, captains of industry and those associated with the media? These may well not be scientists, may not even have studied science beyond GCSE/O Level but that definitely does not preclude them from wielding power and influence within the sector. Each of us came to the table with different internal weightings of these sorts of factors, and that led to some lively banter and discussion as we tried to draw up an agreed ranking. Throw the need for good journalistic copy into the mix and things only got more complex. Ultimately the ‘editorial decision is final’, as they say.

So at the end of the process am I satisfied the list does justice to all, and that it really does represent a meaningful take on the UK today?  Well no, I think we could have produced many variants of this list each of which would have been equally valid. There simply isn’t a single figure of merit that can be accurately quantified for this purpose. We have produced a list of spurious accuracy – as I described it at the time – and the scientist in me is worried by a measurement that may look precise but is so inherently inaccurate. Unfortunately I am also used to ranking other imprecise things, grants and departments come to mind, and so rather too well-used to having to compare apples and oranges in ways that can also make one feel very uncomfortable. There will be many people on the list whom readers will think ‘why on earth are they there’; for me that group would include Prince Charles and Heston Blumenthal.  There will be other names which some readers will see as dreadful omissions – insert your own favourite omission mentally here. Everyone reading Eureka would have created a different list according to their own internal weightings, prejudices and knowledge.

However I am quite sure that there will be some people, such as our number 1 Paul Nurse,  about whom everyone can agree. He clearly should be there or thereabouts; furthermore, he is a prime example of someone bucking the apparent brain drain that has been hitting the news in recent weeks.  We also got it right about Andre Geim , ranking him high even before Tuesday’s announcement about the Nobel Prize More debatable is whether George Osborne should have been on the list – he was very high up at times, and then in the final iteration simply banished to the politicians’ list, along with Vince Cable and David Willetts.  From my contribution to the Fight Debate, it will be clear that I was not that keen on public communicators being high up on the list. People like Brian Cox zoomed up and down the list; he eventually settled at number 24, with David Attenborough somewhat higher at number 7.

There was a debate (initiated by Evan Harris as I recall) about whether we needed a woman in the top 10. I argued against any such tokenism (I’ve written previously about the pros and cons of women-only prizes here). Women had been proposed on merit, and were placed as accurately as the males. That’s how it should be.  In the end the top-ranked woman, Nancy Rothwell, came in precisely at number 10, just below her Manchester colleague Geim.  Had women mysteriously not been put forward at all I would have adopted a very different position about this, but the number overall in the list strikes me as reasonable if hardly impressive at 12. We must hope that if the process were to be rerun in 10 year’s time the position would be significantly different.

In the end I think the list has probably downplayed the influence of government advisors such as John Krebs and Adrian Smith in favour of individual scientists, although I am delighted to see my Cambridge colleague David MacKay well regarded because of the importance of his role as CSA at DECC  – see my comments on him here (scroll down, but behind the pay wall). I am not entirely comfortable that the CEO’s of the Research Councils are separated out to another list (with the exception of the outgoing chief of the MRC Leszek Borysiewicz , because he doubled up as the incoming VC of my own university), but Mark Walport seemed to be regarded entirely differently as head of the Wellcome; no one else had problems with this but I saw it as a slightly artificial distinction.

I could go on; we all had pet issues that made us nervous, so don’t ask us to defend the detail of the outcome.  But then, what do you expect if you ask a committee to produce a list like this? To adapt Nietzsche “You have your list. I have my list. As for the right list, the correct list, and the only list, it does not exist.”

Added 1145 am Oct 7 2010: See also fellow judge Alice Bell’s blog on the meaning of ‘influence’.

Added 1300 Oct 7 2010: It has been brought to my attention that the full list of the 100 names has been published at the UCL STS blog without a paywall, and including some comments.

Posted in Communicating Science, Research, Science Culture | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Am I having an Impact?

Posted by Athene Donald on September 24, 2010

The scientific community is fairly sensitised to the word ‘impact’ by now, and many of us will have written Pathways to Impact Statements, and read some too. I sit on the REF Physics Pilot panel, so I have seen a broad range of submissions from universities seeking to demonstrate impact and yet, when it comes to my own research, it seems I don’t recognize impact closer to home. I have no intention of spilling the beans about what I have read elsewhere, or pass comment on how the REF Pilot has gone, but I would like to share some thoughts about just how hard it is to know, close to home, what is good/bad or indifferent.

Now there are some obvious examples of ‘impact’ that no one would dispute – unless purely for the sake of debate. From my own department, Richard Friend’s research on organic semiconductors has spawned an industry – which may or may not yet prove to be economically successful – and his third spin-out Eight19 has just received funding. Under any set of criteria I think one can conclude his research has had impact, although I would go so far as to say (based on some REF submissions I saw) it would be possible, even so, to write a case that completely obfuscated this incontrovertible fact if not careful.  But, for most of us, without a spin-out or even a patent to our name, we probably wonder if we have indeed delivered in a way the government would recognize, however certain that what we are doing is exciting, cutting edge and entirely  worth funding.  And I would posit that actually we may have no idea of how, where or indeed why others may see impact in the work that we did for our own motivations. I would like to illustrate this supposition based on my own experiences, brought sharply into focus by a recent blogpost by an ex-colleague and collaborator Ian Hopkinson, entitled Wallpaper paste and the giant death ray.

For many years I worked on starch granule structure; indeed it was my first foray into a real, messy biological system and I cut my teeth on it. I used primarily synchrotron radiation, with a few neutrons thrown in for good measure, to characterise the underlying structure, the hierarchical packing in the granule and to explore the differences between different species, cultivars and mutants. I worked with plant breeders and biochemists, and learnt a lot of my basic plant biology from Alison Smith at the JIC, during a wonderful few years of collaboration, and benefitted from a long and enjoyable relationship with Dr Peter Frazier at Dalgety-Spillers, now defunct and transformed into part of du Pont (shortly after which the interaction died a sudden and rather sad death).  The interest in starch, however, actually started from a very different starting place based on my background on mechanical properties of synthetic polymers: Dr Andrew Smith at the Institute of Food Research was pursuing a project on extruding starch and wanted to understand the mechanical properties of foamed foods, as exemplified by Cheesy Wotsits, and so I set out, through a collaboration with them, to study the deformation and failure of such products, and how processing affected these properties and consequently ‘mouthfeel’.

The more I learnt about this process, and the more (awkward) questions I asked, the more I realised that people didn’t have a very firm grip of starch granule structure, the raw product, or at least not in a way that satisfied the physicist in me. So, for nearly 20 years, I worked on ways of characterising the internal structure of the granule.  With some of my collaborators we ran a series of international conferences dedicated to bringing people from very different backgrounds together, from chemical engineering to plant breeders (see the 2nd volume we published as a conference proceeding for further information). Tom Waigh , working with me as a PhD student, made the connection between the packing of the amylopectin side chains into lamellae with side chain liquid crystalline polymers, another subject I have tangled with in the past, and that framework helped to explain many aspects of starch’s response – to heat, to cold, to processing etc. Above all we had fun. And when it ceased to be fun, I walked away (although, to my shame, I still have one outstanding paper on my desk a year after the departed student sent it to me). By that point I did not find it difficult to resist the offer of 100 different wheat varieties  to compare and contrast, and similar blandishments.

However, I may have walked away and stopped reading the literature, but what I did is still out there. Now to some extent it is coming back to haunt me or, to use more politically correct language, it is coming back to demonstrate that, without me knowing it, it has had ‘impact’. The first indication of this was from the BBSRC who decided to include me in their list of 50 scientists who had made a real impact on the UK’s society and economy. Their 2009 publication Bioscience:Biomillions was meant to exemplify this to Government, although I was fairly stumped when asked to estimate what the net value derived from my research had been. They continued to be interested in using this work as a significant example (or perhaps they were just making their life easy by using the same examples) and in their May 2010 Impact Feature chose to highlight this work in their section on ‘Food Fighters’.  OK, so this all ties in with the source of my funding and is perhaps just saying my work had gone well. But, and the prompting for this post, I did not expect to find my work being picked up much more broadly and reaching places where I would never have found it had it not been for Ian Hopkinson’s post. He pasted diagrams  from Braukaiser into his writing. For those of you, like me, who aren’t familiar with Braukaiser it is a site dedicated to German brewing and specifically how German beers are made. And there, on the site, are references to several of my starch papers and schematic diagrams derived from them such as the one Ian had used.

Now make the comparison: the particular paper Tom, Ian and I co-authored in Macromolecules (and the separate issue of how best to publish interdisciplinary science I’ll leave for another day) has 71 citations on the Web of Science, the Braukaiser site has had (according to its meter) more than 70,000 hits, although clearly not all would have gone so far as to look at the details of the starch granule hidden at its centre. I could never have written two pages describing the tortuous pathway from Cheesy Wotsits to German beer via a couple of synchrotrons to describe potential impact. But, perhaps more worryingly for the current agenda, even in hindsight I would find it hard to write a decent description of the impact of the fundamental science I did which just happens to percolate many different areas, let alone set a monetary worth on the knock-on consequences. I am perfectly willing to try to write such ‘Pathways to Impact’ statements, but this episode has just reminded me of the frequent impossibility of doing it fruitfully.

Posted in Biological Physics, Communicating Science, Research, Science Funding | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Bad – and maybe some Good – Science

Posted by Athene Donald on August 26, 2010

This week’s THE has an article about mainstream science reporting (Trial by Error) and the quality, or lack thereof, has been the subject of many recent discussions on many blogs and in the mainstream press.  It also ties into issues about Scientific Literacy , in other words what we can expect the average member of the public to understand.  However the issue about science reporting is slightly different from simple literacy, in that the former is both about what the journalist is able to grasp (and therefore to report accurately), and about what the drivers for their reporting may be; these drivers are not solely about accuracy but rather forcibly tied into selling newspapers.  For some newspapers the two may mesh (as Mark Henderson of the Times says in the THE article, “There are some newspapers that are very concerned about getting things right as far as possible while still presenting accessible reporting for a general audience – which is entirely possible to do – and there are other media outlets that may take a different approach as to how they attempt to sell themselves.” ), but not for all. The Times is a much more responsible organisation on this front than some other newspapers one could name, for which the two drivers may be poles apart.

I am a late convert to the idea that scientists cannot simply avoid talking to the media because they are worried their science may be misrepresented (see my recent comments on Hilary Sutcliffe’s blog), having previously been personally burnt by bad experiences. But I now realise that this isn’t a good enough excuse not to try to engage.  And I also accept the arguments in the THE article that the unremittingly negative tone of Ben Goldacre’s writing is by now backfiring, however instructive his deconstruction of much of the Bad Science he reports may be.  However, one of the challenges is to find ways of celebrating good science in ways that aren’t immediately spun as the sort of hype that we see so often as ‘scientists find X cures cancer ‘.  Perhaps my recent experiences have been fortunate in that I am now interviewed as a female scientist, not a scientist. This seems to allow me to talk about the broader context of  my science , and to be allowed to specify I am doing underpinning science rather than discovering the Answer to Everything.  Or maybe I really learnt something from media training!  Nevertheless it has given me an opportunity to explain why I enjoy science as well as why the science I do may be useful.  Opportunities  to demonstrate that scientists are people, and not dangerous nerds who can’t be trusted , is to be seized in my view.

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