Have we really had enough of experts?

7th January 2020

Have we really had enough of experts?

by Rob Dawson

In an interview with Faisal Islam of Sky News on June 3, 2016, Michael Gove said that the British people have had enough of experts. I remember it well because I had not long left working as Head of News at one of the Research Councils and it felt like the end of an era, in more ways than one. One of the objectives in my job description had been to help maintain public trust in British science through accurate news and digital coverage of the work we funded. The idea being that public trust in science meant public support, and public support created an environment that encourages investment in our academic institutions. I saw the results first-hand.

I remember a time when the Science Minister was presented with a dust-like spec containing Shakespeare’s works – digital information encoded in DNA. He had seen news reports of the new technology and wanted to know more after lots of positive engagement from the public online. Instead of heralding a ‘major breakthrough’, the news articles talked about the full
picture, including current costs being prohibitive and the need for long-term investment in research. The government later announced funding for bioinformatics.

Knowing the direct impact that academic research and public opinion can have on policies that affect us all, hearing a government minister then say that the public found experts somewhat passé filled me with dread. Was he correct?

Fast-forward to the 2019 election and, whatever your political leanings, there is plenty of misinformation and ‘fakenewsery’ to choose from. I’m not naïve enough to think politicians always used to tell the truth, but I do believe that holding them to account for lies, inaccuracies or misunderstandings has never been more important, and only experts can do this.

Disinformation can get into our homes in more ways than ever before. Full Fact, a team of independent fact checkers who fight bad information, found misleading ‘facts’ produced by parties from across the political spectrum in many Facebook ads and other media during the election.

This misinformation is already affecting society, and future predictions aren’t great either. As part of a major new report, the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (RSTMH) found that 92% of medical professionals they asked agree that misinformation and
anti-science pose a dangerous threat to the future of healthcare.

So how can we make sure predictions like these don’t come true?

This might sound like a gloomy post so far to start the New Year, but in fact it is a rallying cry. I’d like us all to feel we are contributing to trust in science by making sure our work delivers, not only for our organisations but for public good too. Ensuring people have access to accurate information isn’t going to answer all of the world’s problems, but it does help to enable people to make informed choices.

It was great to see the Academy of Medical Sciences encouraging academics to speak up and provide evidence and facts during the election period. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the role comms professionals play in access to facts. Every time we fail to put an expert up for interview or shy away from a controversial science topic, we risk the story being told by someone else, lacking balanced views or including inaccuracies. Whether it’s an unnecessarily wary press officer trying to fathom purdah* or a missed opportunity to comment on an area of expertise, a potential gap is created for misinformation.

So, as well as focusing on press releases, blog posts and features this year, make sure your experts are equipped and happy to step forward to comment… we need them now more than ever.

* Every election period, Stempra is asked by comms professionals if scientists can speak to the media about research which maybe vaguely linked to policies. This is always due to misunderstanding pre-election restrictions. The answer, so far, has always yes. Speak loudly. The restrictions are for government departments and people with government positions about announcements that could influence elections, not independent scientists.

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