Migrating the blog

3 Oct

This post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.

This is just an advance note to say that I’ll shortly be migrating this blog over to sciencepolicytalkingpost.wordpress.com

Beck is moving on to a new role as Assistant Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (an organisation with another recommended blog on all things relating to government support for science and engineering in the UK). This blog with now mostly be written by me, with occasional input from my science policy colleagues.

The bulk of the Biochemical Society’s policy work will continue as normal, so watch this space for further comment and opinion on science policy news and our work.

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Women and Leadership: Being the only man in the room

16 Sep

This post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.

Earlier this week, I attended a fascinating conference on Women and Leadership.This was held for the first time at Oxford Brookes University, comprising discussions around closing the gender gap with many distinguished speakers. These included Jacqui Smith (Britain’s first Female Home Secretary), Sara Thornton (Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police), Shami Chakrabarti (Director of Liberty) and Colonel Marian Lauder MBE of the British Army. It also included 137 female delegates, and me!

Never has my opinion been asked so many times. “You’re a man, what do you think?” With the conference ostensibly aimed at women (with no male speakers on the roster) it was interesting that the key message that came out was that to achieve equality, we need to change organisational cultures, and “change the men”. This is a phrase I heard several times, referring to the need for the ideology of the individuals at the top – almost exclusively male majorities – to be altered.

Whilst the majority of the discussion centred on the world of business, supplemented with other sessions involving high-profile speakers, parallels with science and research were apparent. In the very first session, Professor Susan Vinnicombe talked of the leaky pipeline with respect to management, law and accounting. This phrase is regularly used in relation to science, referring to female attrition in organisations as you look further through career progression. The Biochemical Society has looked at this in detail in the biosciences in its report ‘The Molecular Bioscience PhD and Women’s Retention: A Survey and Comparison with Chemistry’, produced in conjunction with the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, and the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2008. There has also been some discussion of this in Times Higher Education last week. Professor Vinnicombe highlighted that in law and accounting (as in the biosciences), female graduates outnumber males, but this does not translate to increasing numbers of women making it to board level. However, over the next two days the general consensus that emerged was that gender balance should be rectified because of the moral imperative, not the business case set out in Lord Davies’ report ‘Women on boards’.

Personally I found it interesting that the organisers chose not to invite any male speakers. One delegate who was looking at applying for Athena SWAN Charter recognition for her department told me that she had been asked to invite ‘enlightened men’ to an internal meeting on the subject. I personally hope these sentiments miss the point. But what was clear from the discussions I heard over the two days was that in order to address the gender imbalance we need to look at de-masculinising how organisations work. Here were some solutions that were proposed:

  • Rethinking the criteria which are really most desirable in leaders, the assessment processes used to choose them, and the attitudes of assessors
  • Giving in-depth thought to job design – are ‘core hours’ at work really necessary? Could full-time positions be shared (and not just secretarial positions)?
  • Actively enforcing quotas and all-women shortlists for promotion or appointment (at the conference, quotas were often rejected as ‘tokenistic’, however, on all-women shortlists opinions were more mixed)
  • Not looking in the obvious places and with the traditional criteria for impressive individuals.

Clearly these are focussed at the business sector and whether these could translate practically to the laboratory is another matter.  Regretfully there were no sessions geared towards science and I will be raising this when I give feedback. It would be very interesting to explore whether such open-mindedness would be possible in research, where it is well recognised that job security is poor for a considerable time after graduation, and that working consistently long ‘science hours’ is expected (required?). Furthermore, I am sure that scientists would make an imp0rtant contribution to the wider debate.

On the whole, I found the conference a very interesting personal experience, met some very impressive women, and picked up some interesting thoughts and ideas. However, I was disappointed at the lack of consideration for careers in science.  I wonder if I should expect a similar delegate balance at the forthcoming European Gender Summit?

Scientific Advisors in front of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee

8 Sep

This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.

Chief Scientific Advisor to the Treasury says: “You are in the dark without scientific method and data analysis”.

Yesterday, Professor Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and Dr James Richardson, the newly appointed Chief Scientific Advisor to the Treasury, gave evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. This evidence session follows the publication of the Government Office for Science Annual Review earlier this summer, in which it was claimed that “2010 lived up to its titles of ‘International Year of Biodiversity’ and ‘Year of Science’.”

Professor Beddington highlighted how positive he felt about the progress that was being made, particularly praising the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) for its Foresight program and particularly the Future of Food and Farming project, which has been internationally recognised. Foresight is now looking at international migration in relation to environmental factors, and will report on this in the autumn, as well as the future of computer trading in financial markets.

On what had changed since he took on the position in 2008, Professor Beddington noted that the installation of Chief Scientific Advisors in every government department (although there are currently vacancies at BIS, the Department for Transport and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport) now included the Treasury, with Dr Richardson’s appointment this summer. Professor Beddington said that when he came into the post enquiries often had to go unanswered because of a lack of capacity, and there was a sense that science and engineering had lost its way in government.

On the subject of the closure of the Forensic Science Service (FSS), an area of particular concern for the Biochemical Society, Professor Beddington referred to the fact that we are still waiting for the Government’s latest response. However, he said he would look into doing some substantial subsequent analysis on the loss of scientists from the industry, and might be able to report on this in May or June. He expressed concern over making decisions – such as closing the FSS – on financial grounds with limited consultation, but was reluctant to comment on the implications of the closure before the Home Office responds on whether capability would be maintained. He also indicated that he would look into the figures of how many scientists had left the UK in total since the comprehensive spending review settlement.

There was praise for the Home Office from Professor Beddington on the way Professor Bernard Silverman, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Home Office, reports directly to the permanent secretary and controls large portions of the budget. Furthermore, he reported on the incorporation of the Principles of scientific advice to government in the ministerial code by the coalition, and said that he and the other science advisors felt reassured by this. These were developed following the furore that accompanied Professor David Nutt’s sacking as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009.

Dr Richardson, making his first appearance before the Committee, made positive comments about the progress that had been made. He asserted that it made sense for the Chief Scientific Advisor to be a Treasury economist, as the aim of the position is to link economics with the broader scientific community, and that economics is the predominate science in the Treasury. What was particularly encouraging was his comment that the need for science and engineering expertise is ubiquitous in government. “You are in the dark without scientific method and data analysis”, he said, as this is the primary way of providing evidence. He further remarked that knowledge of aspects of science leads to better decision making directly, citing an example as the relationship between climate change and the world economy.

Acknowledging the huge impact the Treasury has on science, both Professor Beddington and Dr Richardson were very positive about the new position, with the Treasury now vitally linked in with the rest of the science advisory network, with the wider advisory community feeding into Dr Richardson’s economic expertise. Dr Richardson said that the Treasury continues to generate policy-informing research through relationships with non-governmental bodies such as the Economic and Social Research Council, but that he had already made cases for where primary research by the Treasury could solve problems.

How will the landscape change with a Treasury Chief Scientific Advisor? Dr Richardson said that his role would focus less on individual projects, but more on promoting better standards of method, evidence and analysis in the Treasury. As he confidently put it, there are probably no situations where this wouldn’t be beneficial: “There may be things to which science is irrelevant but I struggle to see what they are.”

You can watch the full meeting (1h 40m) here.

Science placements and social mobility

31 Aug

This post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.

On Friday 19 August I went to a meeting at the Science Council with the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF), an organisation which helps school children (approximately 650 this year) from low-income backgrounds get into high quality universities and jobs. Their work relies on both a network of mentors (who email support and advice through the decision periods around AS and A-level) and also organisations being willing to take in these students for a week of work experience before their A-level year. In law, banking and accountancy, we were told that securing these placements was easy. But in science and engineering, it’s a very different matter.

This is a cause for concern. David Johnston, the SMF’s Chief Executive, told us that when they try to place pupils with a genuine career interest in science or engineering, they cannot persuade enough organisations to provide placements for all of them.  The age of the students and issues related to health and safety are cited as key reasons. As a result, the remaining students are placed with consultancy companies like Accenture, organisations in the financial sector or London law firms (although the scheme also runs in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and Leeds).  Many of these companies are very eager to offer these pupils shadowing places, and provide them with a structured and beneficial experience.  The danger here is that these high-achieving pupils – all of whom are predicted ABB at A-level – could be put off staying in science both by this process and by company loyalty, when they have to potential to be a major contributor to the UK’s future intellectual capital through a career in STEM. At 17, this experience could have a huge impact on their future choices.

These pupils are exactly the kind of talented individuals that STEM organisations should be looking to encourage and recruit in the future. It’s concerning that STEM organisations could be missing out on some of our top students in the future, as a result of the industry finding it difficult to support this scheme. The scheme has shown to be good for the pupil, industry more broadly and potentially beneficial for the employer too. In previous years, over 80% of respondents to the employer evaluation form said the student(s) they hosted were of the calibre they would look to employ after university. Arguably, this scheme could be seen as simply ‘doing the right thing’, but considered more broadly it also fits in with current government policy paradigms as set out in the Social Mobility Strategy and Education White Paper.

So is this criticism of the industry fair?  Is a week too short for STEM organisation to effectively engage? Can the health and safety barriers be overcome? Are concerns around the age of SMF students a genuine barrier to science and engineering companies? Do these barriers alone explain why banks and law and accountancy firms have been so much more willing to help the SMF?  And if so, how can they be removed? Let us know what you think.

To find out more about the SMF visit http://www.socialmobility.org.uk/. If you’d like to become a mentor, or think your organisation could help offer internships next year and in the future, please get in touch with David Johnston, Chief Executive of the SMF on 020 7953 4007.

Adapting to a digital age

18 Aug

This post is based on a presentation given by Kaitlin Thaney to Policy Lunchbox on Wednesday 3 August 2011.  It was written by Katya-yani Vyas, an MSc Science Communication student at Imperial College London who is currently undertaking an internship at the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

The Web has revolutionised the way we think about science, from search to working with data and how we interact/collaborate. But for all of the advances made, we’re not nearly as far along as we could be. Digital Science, a new technology company out of Macmillan Publishers (parent company to Nature )was launched in December 2010 provide tools and technology to make research and research administration more efficient – from productivity tools for researchers to tools for funders and advances in text mining technologies.

Last week, the Biochemical Society and British Ecological Society hosted a ‘Policy Lunchbox’ event with Digital Science’s Kaitlin Thaney, exploring the future of digital research. Kaitlin gave an informative and interesting talk on why ‘digital science’ is necessary, the complicated relationship between research and technology, and the main areas to consider in this space. In a digital age, science is well-placed to capitalise on new technology; but unfortunately, as Kaitlin said, gaps still exist.

By combining software development, product design and research and using different avenues of expertise, ranging from academia to established business, Digital Science is enhancing collaboration in a novel and progressive way. The company spun out of Nature Publishing Group as Macmillan’s first non-content oriented business in December 2010, a software company at its core developing tools and technology to make research more efficient. They operate off a hybrid model, developing tools in house as well as investing in other start-ups and tool providers who are already pushing the ball forward and serving as more of an incubator for their businesses and products.

So, how is this being achieved? The approach is very clearly tailored towards researchers, providing the tools that can streamline the search process but also making sure that reliance on machines is taken into account as well as the decision-makers and funders that influence research and incentives. Trawling through the huge amount of information is time-consuming, filtering and refining equally so. Digital Science is about putting together a software infrastructure that compliments the scientific process – the goal to enable better science and research management, so that more efficient research can be done with smarter use of technology.

Kaitlin was very clear that this is not about ‘reinventing the wheel’ but rather often collaborating with developers and facilitating innovation, as well as building complimentary tools. Digital Science’s existing partnership network reflects this. The example of SureChem – a cheminformatics company that Digital Science bought in 2010, and the basis of the Digital Science’s text mining division, illustrates this – utilising new ideas and tools to minimise uncertainty in searching for chemical compounds in patent literature. Pointing out that searching for a particular chemical compound can often be exasperating; Kaitlin demonstrated how results are often ambiguous and therefore not conducive to efficient research. SureChem allows users to browse through patent literature by drawing particular chemical structures – the way that chemists think – as well as the often long and convoluted chemical names, making it much easier for a scientist to identify exactly what they need in a way that patent databases and Google searches cannot. It helps streamline the process.

This is a starting point for dealing with published information online – the products of what is frequently a long and arduous research route. This process, laboratory work and analysis, relies on much more than formal reports and patents. From excel spreadsheets to lab mice, the amount of information circulating with a laboratory is staggering and the notion of organising it is intimidating. Kaitlin describes how another of Digital Science’s commercial partners, BioData, is working towards providing a centralised system that can manage all the vital data and information in a laboratory. Providing a routine organised structure at laboratory level is recognition that maximising efficiency means better coordination from the start.

These are the processes and the products; measuring their impact and evaluating performance comes next and is particularly topical in our current economic climate. Kaitlin suggests that the latter – the information needed for research administrators and funders – calls for a different sort of data capture. From citation counts and metrics that hinge on journal impact factors to h-index and Eigenfactors, the systems are convoluted and imperfect but ultimately necessary. Digital science is working toward improving the data both within the company and through collaboration with Symplectic who have launched a product called ‘Elements’ to aid researchers in assessing the research output of their institutions. It is a difficult task especially as its background is the subject of much controversy but providing a more comprehensive picture is a promising approach. Their goal is to help clear up some of the ambiguity that currently exists when it comes to research output, from enabling administrators to have better information at their fingertips on what research is taking place at their institutions, to fulfilling research assessment needs and with any luck – influencing the incentives discussion.

The digital age has created new opportunities for the way we do scientific research – from how we manage our labs and analyse data, to how we link information and make funding decisions. Digital Science is working to better bridge the existing gaps between science and technology, exploiting the opportunities with state of the art software tools.

For more on Digital Science, visit http://digital-science.com. Kaitlin’s talk is also available online at http://www.slideshare.net/kaythaney/policy-lunchbox-digital-science.  You can also follow Kaitlin on Twitter.

Debating the future of the Forensic Science Service

24 May

This post was written by Michelle Brook, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.

In December 2010 the Government announced it would be closing the Forensic Science Service (FSS). On the 19 January 2011,  the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee launched an inquiry into this issue, followed a month later, on 16 February by a Home Office Review into  “Research and Development in Forensic Science”

Discussion around the issues of closure of the FSS is still ongoing and on 17 May, Jonathan Reynolds MP (Lab/Co-op) secured a debate in Westminster Hall on the closure of the FSS. The debate was attended by three members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee – Andrew Miller Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston and Committee Chair, Gavin Barwell, Conservative MP for Croydon Central and Stephen Metcalfe, Conservative MP for South Basildon and East Thurrock.

At present the FSS is one of a number of providers of forensics services in the country – with private companies having a 35% share of the market, as well as a large amount of work being carried out in police laboratories.

Current Government thinking:

During the debate, Damien Green, Immigration Minister laid out the Government’s current thinking:

  • “The Government wants the UK’s forensic science industry to operate as a genuine market, with private sector providers competing to provide innovative services at the lowest cost.”
  •  “A competitive market can help drive down prices and improve turnaround times, meaning that serious crimes can be cleared up more quickly and efficiently. Ultimately, I am sure that that is what we all want.”

Reasons for closure

The main reasons for the decision are problems with the market, which has led to financial challenges for the FSS:

  •  “The situation that led to the Government’s announcement to manage the closure of the FSS last December is clear: the challenging forensics market put the FSS in serious financial difficulty…” Damien Green
  •  “the FSS had monthly operating losses of about £2 million and faced the prospect of further shrinkage in demand for forensic services.” Damien Green

Damien Green stated that “Without the prospect of further financial help, the FSS board would have been forced to place the company into administration in early 2011”.

Three options were considered and outlined by Damian Green:

  1.  Uncontrolled administration – which “would have seriously damaged the forensics capability available to the criminal justice system, and we were not prepared to take that risk”
  2. “Further restructuring – which “would have had less impact on the criminal justice system than losing the FSS overnight, it would not have solved the key underlying problem of reduced levels of customer demand….”
  3. And a “managed wind-down”

 “I strongly believe that the managed wind-down of the FSS is the right choice, both financially and for the criminal justice system…  We consulted key partners across the system before making this decision, and their collective view is that a managed closure is in the best interests of the system as a whole.” Damien Green

Restructuring

 “Money has been put into restructuring, and it has not worked. As he said, the previous Government set up a GovCo in an attempt to solve the problem, but sadly, that has not worked.” Damien Green

 “In recent months, the FSS has closed down three laboratory sites and shed 750 staff as part of a drive to make itself more competitive. It is believed to be on track to make the required level of savings, yet the Government themselves admit that the £2 million figure they repeatedly use to justify their plans takes no account of the significant savings made by the restructuring programme.” Jonathan Reynolds

Key concerns:

1. Can we be sure that the market will replace the services carried out by the FSS?

The FSS provides a wide range of services:

  •  “No private provider is currently able to offer the same breadth of forensic services and expertise as the FSS, whose holistic approach is a clear benefit to our judicial system. By offering such a comprehensive range of services, it is in an unrivalled position to determine what is required from a crime scene and to provide the data.” Jonathan Reynolds 
  • “The FSS is the only UKorganisation with forensic experience of terrorist attacks. Without it, who would have the capability and capacity to provide the vital evidence that our judicial system requires?” Jonathan Reynolds
  • “The Government have claimed that there is no reason to think that the private sector would be unable to meet the demand for forensic services; but where … is the evidence? As uncertainty continues to surround the provision of forensic science services in the UK, significant numbers of scientists are taking up jobs overseas or choosing to move on to other careers, and the coverage offered by the current private forensic science providers is broad in neither scope nor geography.” Jonathan Reynolds
  • “The managed wind-down of the FSS will allow time for the restructuring of the timetable for tendering new contracts, for the re-tendering of existing FSS contracts and for other forensic suppliers to develop their capacity to meet any additional requirements.” Damien Green
  • “ The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), in particular, is clear that the forensic markets can cope with the managed wind-down of the FSS An orderly wind-down, which is what we are managing, will allow adequate time for the current forensics framework to be restructured… and for other suppliers to increase their capability.” Damien Green

2. Is a market-model the best model for forensic science?

  • “The unit’s success relies, however, on the flexibility to devote the time necessary to each investigation. Staff at the unit fear that many of their successes might not have been possible within the financial constraints of a more commercial market. They also fear that private providers are unlikely to offer the guaranteed on-call service that is required. I am sure that private companies will bid for the work of the FSS, but the risk is that they will cherry-pick the quickest, least labour-intensive and most profitable parts, which could have a serious impact on the quality of justice” Jonathan Reynolds

3. How will in-house police work impact on the market?

Police taking forensic science work in house has lead to a decrease in the market available. Gavin Barwell asked if the Government had considered restricting the police’s ability to provide in-house forensic services, going on to say:

  •  “many private sector suppliers have expressed concerns about their ability to invest in the future in a declining market if police provision continues to increase.”

The issue of impartiality was raised:

  •  “If the police choose to increase their in-house provision of forensic services, they will also have to address the issue of impartiality. We are well aware of the importance of justice being seen to be done as well as being done, but where the police are both the forensic science provider and customer, questions are bound to be asked. Of course, among the incidents that are likely to cause concern are those involving police officers themselves.” Jonathan Reynolds

4. Is it possible the FSS is bringing private sector fees down?

Jonathan Reynolds said that the FSS is providing competition to the private sector, and stated that in the absence of this competition “there is a chance that the marketplace could consolidate or prices could rise”

  • “Many of the people in that specialist area have been trained by the FSS. As I understand it, private sector providers’ prices do not take into account the increased cost base of training their own people to be as skilled as they need to be to cover all the specialisms currently being covered.” Jonathan Reynolds

Ongoing issues:

1. What is the future of the existing FSS archives?

The FSS hold substantial archives which are useful for solving cold cases. They hold a vast amount of material, including “more than 1.5 million case files and a vast number of retained materials, including DNA, fibres and recovered debris”.

  • “The application of advanced forensic techniques to archive material by FSS scientists has helped to secure convictions for more than 220 historical crimes. That work would not be possible without the archives, but we do not know what will happen to them when the FSS is closed.” Jonathan Reynolds
  •  “The forensic transition board has set up an archiving project board with members from the Home Office, the FSS, ACPO and key partners across the criminal justice system to recommend options for the handling and retention of FSS records so that historical data remain available to the criminal justice system. As part of that, we will seek to ensure that the necessary expertise remains to work on the data and mine them in the future.” Damien Green

2. How will the current standards of the FSS be monitored and ensured in the private sector?

There are worries that if FSS is closed there will be decreasing standards of forensics work:

  • “At present, members of the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes, such as the FSS, must be accredited. However, with the exception of those dealing with DNA there are no statutory requirements for forensic science companies or in-house police departments to comply with any published standards” Jonathan Reynolds

3. Will the removal of the FSS have an impact upon justice in the UK?

  • “Any changes to the FSS must have the integrity of our judicial system at their core. There are still too many questions about the scope and quality of the provision that will be available following the closure of the FSS.” Jonathan Reynolds
  • “We are well aware of the importance of justice being seen to be done as well as being done, but where the police are both the forensic science provider and customer, questions are bound to be asked. Of course, among the incidents that are likely to cause concern are those involving police officers themselves.” Jonathan Reynolds
  • “The evidential value and integrity of forensic exhibits is tested under the intense scrutiny of the courts—from the point of collection, through analysis to interpretation and reporting. Each step in the process must be able to withstand such critical review, not least because the first body that the police must convince in any prosecution is the CPS. That is now an independent function.” Damien Green

4. What is the future of Forensic Science R&D?

  • “Historically, such research has been undertaken by a wide range of organisations, including the private sector, Government-owned laboratories and academia.” Damien Green
  • “Our decision took into account the need to manage the impact on forensic science research and development in the UK. Unfortunately, the FSS’s financial position had already limited the capacity for research and development for which it had become renowned.” Damien Green

Unanswered Questions

–         What gaps are there at present in the range of services offered by the FSS and private companies? How can we be sure the private companies will provide these in the absence of the FSS?

–          If the forensic market has decreased due to increased in-house police forensic work, how can we be sure this process won’t continue, further shrinking the forensics market?

–         How will it be ensured that the work of private companies and police forensics work will be to the  same standards as the FSS?

–         How can we be sure the existing FSS archives will be accessible to all companies involved in the forensics market?  And what will be incentive for working on cold cases?

–         What are the statistics on the amount and focus of R&D carried out by the private sector, the FSS and academic labs?

–         What will the future be of research into forensic science – will there be an incentive for private companies to invest in innovative research?

–         If the FSS has undergone substantial restructuring, should the Government provide greater opportunity to see if this process could make the FSS viable in the present market?

–         If forensics firms are driven by a desire to decrease costs, might that not have some impact upon accuracy of the results?

In conclusion

Damien Green:  “In the end, I think that what all our constituents will most care about is that the system continues in an efficient fashion.”

Should efficiency be the main criterion by which forensic science is appraised and driven  in the UK? And if there are other criteria involved, is abolishing the FSS the best way to meet them?

Badgers and bovine TB in the newspapers: it’s not black and white

19 May

Yesterday I attended the last London PUS Seminar of this academic year where Dr Angela Cassidy from the University of East Anglia gave a talk on ‘Badgers and Bovine TB (bTB): a messy science/policy controversy in the UK’.

The issue of badgers and bovine TB is longstanding.  After 20 years of variable policy and unresolved controversy over the culling of wild badgers, the mid-90s saw the commissioning of the largest field experiment ever carried out in the UK– the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT).  It was hoped that this vast study would provide the definitive answers on the issue. 

However, at the conclusion 10 years later in 2008, the scientific group which convened to run the RBCT concluded that culling “could not meaningfully contribute” to the management of the bTB.  The inconclusive results of the study were contested (and continue to be) by many, including the Government’s own Chief Scientific Advisor at the time, Sir David King.

Dr Cassidy’s talk covered her quantitative analysis of the badger/bTB issue in the British national press from 1995-2010 – in particular the observation that badger/bTB has been covered as an agricultural, political and environmental problem, but rarely as an explicitly scientific issue.  LexisNexis was used as the primary data source (slight unreliability acknowledged) to collect articles which were then analysed for who were seen to be key actors, where was the coverage taking place, and when were stories being reported?

Who?

The analysis identified several key actors: DEFRA, NFU, Badger Trust (a tiny organisation with a now disproportionate profile), RSPCA (indicative of how this issue is seen as an animal welfare issue), Professor John Bourne (Chair of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB), Sir David King (former Government Chief Scientist), Sir John Krebs (author of 1997 Krebs Report) and Prince Charles.  The numbers of key actors illustrates another finding, the plurality of ‘expert’ advice sourced in the coverage.  Despite the number of expert sources and actors, the newspaper coverage of this issue has focused heavily on culling in comparison to other policy actions (and other issues involved i.e. cattle to cattle transmission) with all sides agreeing ‘the public’ will not tolerate culling.

The badgers themselves (although not an ‘actor’ as such) and how they are depicted plays an important role in this issue.  Dr Cassidy found that Wind in the Willows is frequently referenced in the coverage, exemplifying that much of the coverage has become polarised with ‘good badgers’ (emblematic of healthy environment – don’t cull!) on one hand and ‘bad badgers’ (seen as vermin and vectors – cull! cull! cull!) on the other.  However, these preconceptions significantly pre-date the bTB issue with Dr Cassidy showing that the idea of badgers being brave fighters and staunch defenders of family dates back to c960.

Where?

The Times (Daily and Sunday) and Telegraph (Daily and Sunday) accounted for over half of all badger/bTB coverage with both publications adopting a predominately pro-culling stance in their articles – the Telegraph more so than the Times.  The anti-culling stance was taken by the left wing press and perhaps surprisingly, the Daily Mail at first glance appearing to be adopting a balanced position.  However, a more detailed look showed the Daily Mail’s seemingly balanced coverage was caused by extreme bipolarity in their coverage.

The issue has been covered primarily as a main news feature (61%) followed by general features (19%), supplement (9%), comment (8%) and unknown (3%).  Of particular interest is who is writing these articles – columnists and commentators form the majority with 21%, generalists 17%, environmental science journalists 15%, agricultural journalists 14%, (anonymous 13%, other 8%) politics journalists 7%, science journalists 5%.  More recently (the results above span the time period 2001-2009), it does appear the science journalists are being called on when there’s an overt scientific controversy but the bulk of the coverage is now coming from the environmental science journalists.

Related note: Dr Cassidy questioned (and I tweeted) if anyone knew of any work done/being done on the differences between science and environmental science journalism?  Please do comment below/tweet at me if you have any suggestions.

When?

When analysed on a yearly basis, frequency of coverage shows a general upward trend, building to a peak in 2008.  However, when looked at more closely on a quarterly scale, the events-led nature of coverage becomes clear.  Peaks of coverage levels can be seen to coincide with the start of the RBCT, the Sir David King report and Hilary Benn’s decision not to permit a cull in 2008 – as opposed to linked to  scientific findings, Dr Cassidy has found no link between UK newspaper coverage and Web of Science citations.

The badger/bTB case study is a good example of the problems associated with uncertainty (in particular the challenge of developing policy when this happens) in science and raises the question of why the science of bTB is being contested in the public sphere – as opposed to in the scientific literature – and why this issue is and other similar issues aren’t?  Dr Cassidy observes that scientific controversies/conflicts are normally (GM, MMR obvious examples of when this is not the case – suggesting the effectiveness of the science/policy interface is a key issue) housed within academic science.

Dr Cassidy’s fascinating work throws up almost as many questions as it answers.  The badger/bTB issue is clearly culturally specific to the UK and there are exciting opportunities for comparing this issue with similar situations in other countries e.g. possums (problems associated with and attitudes towards) in New Zealand.  Her analysis is focused on the UK national press, but as she recognises, analysis of regional press is likely to illustrate further polarity on the issue.  The biggest question remains, what can we learn from Dr Cassidy’s work about how to deal with and talk about scientific uncertainty in a way which doesn’t lead to such entrenched polarity in which the fate of the badgers will be decided by politics as much as science?

To find out more about Dr Cassidy’s work:

Visit her webpage at the University of East Anglia with a list of recent publications

Visit her Academia.edu page

View her powerpoint slides (these are slightly different to the slides used yesterday but include more insight on the good badger/bad badger idea)