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September 28, 2010

Welcome to spin city

The bonfire of the quangos is a backward step for freedom of information.

Glancing down the list of quangos on the at-risk register I remembered the outcry in the US a few years back when John Bolton, newly appointed US ambassador to the UN said: "The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost ten stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference." In Francis Maude’s 12-page list of 180+ public bodies there are so many ‘unknown unknowns’ you have to wonder whether society will trundle on just as well without them.

Or that’s what I thought until around page-seven. Here were names of bodies I have worked with: like the Human Genetics Commission, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, The Food Standards Agency (which will survive but with bits like nutrition chopped off), the Health Protection Agency, the Human Tissue Authority.

Let me first say that my concerns about losing these bodies is perhaps different from those expressed by their champions. Claims that the HFEA  and HTA have won over scientists and clinicians do not match my experience. Most researchers I meet believe they are heavily over- regulated and most IVF clinicians argue they should be trusted to make decisions with their patients on a case-by-case basis.


The fog of misinformation

My concern about the quango bonfire is to do with its impact on science communication. Put simply I think science press officers in arms-length bodies are better placed to independently communicate complex science to the mass media than their counterparts in government – especially at times of crisis. Journalists like dealing with the FSA’s media team because each press officer specialises in a different subject; they get involved with the meetings where policy is developed and have ready access to their scientists. Within weeks of a former SMC colleague moving to head up media relations at the HTA she was briefing science reporters on incredibly complex regulations on storing stem cells and altruistic kidney donation. A previous head of media at the HFEA used to set himself up in the press rooms of international fertility conferences to answer any questions from UK journalists.

This is not in any way to demean government press officers who are often excellent – but the ones I know would be the first to admit that their role in communicating science is compromised by having to please ministers, other departments and the political agenda. Science and health press releases have to be passed by notoriously fearful civil servants whose job is to anticipate the political filter the story will be seen through and amend as appropriate.  

And while I have never quite got my head round the arcane processes of government media relations I have heard about the dreaded “grid” where all departmental media activities have to be logged and seems designed to ensure that political imperatives dictate the timing and nature of departmental press work. 

At the SMC we once got an insight into this world after agreeing to run a press briefing for a quasi-independent initiative inside government. We were told we may have to postpone the press launch of a report into mental wellbeing  because Number 10 was concerned that the short section on debt and mental health could result in difficult questions to Gordon Brown at Prime Minister’s Question Time. Luckily the SMC is independent and we went ahead, but had the press launch taken place inside government the UK public may never have known about this valuable report. 

Nowhere was the conflicted nature of government media relations more apparent that in the case of the sacking of David Nutt, the previous government’s drugs adviser. The Home Office press officers assigned to look after the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs were also working for the Home Secretary and were left in doubt as to where their PR skills were to be directed in the media war that raged between the two.

Of course bringing responsibility for these issues back into government or into bigger existing regulators like the Care Quality Commission does not have to mean the disappearance of specialist communicators but someone would need to believe it was worth protecting. The question for decision makers should surely be whether a single regulator will be able to give enough time to examining and communicating  the issues that society most worries about, such as retained organs, designer babies, human-animal hybrid embryos and so on.

And even if we were reassured that specialist science press officers would be preserved we are still left with the thorny issue of “trust”. For better or ill public opinion polls repeatedly tell us that the public trust independent scientists more than the government to tell the truth. I need hardly tell you that this is even more true for journalists.

Indeed, some of these arms length bodies were an acknowledgement of that fact. The FSA was set up after the BSE crisis to restore public confidence in the way government handled food safety issues, and the HTA was created after medics at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool took more than 2000 organs from dead children for research without appropriate consent.

 Of course we should not be naïve about the amount of government influence already exerted over these arms-length bodies and many employees were brutally reminded last Friday that theirs is a fragile kind of independence. I know many press officers in these agencies who have had to fight to publish scientific advice or policy statements that might make life difficult for their “parent” departments in Whitehall. But I generally know about these examples precisely because these press officers win those fights. In my experience it is press officers and communications people in arms-length agencies who are the fiercest guardians of openness and independence from government.

That said: my communications/transparency defence stands up less well for some of the organisations on the threatened list. While I am told it did wonderful work, journalists are unlikely to mourn the loss of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization whose members were not allowed to brief the media, signed confidentiality agreements and  routinely handed their reports to the Department of Health to publish.

No quango has a god-given right to exist and the bonfire does not have to be all bad news for science if handled sensibly. Some in science have conceded that merging the functions of bodies like the HTA and HFEA into a bigger single regulator could simplify regulation for researchers without a loss of expertise, and asking the respected independent Academy of Medical Sciences to look into how best to do some of this is a shrewd move.

But the huge and on-going impact of media frenzies over BSE, MMR and GM crops ten years ago should remind this government of the high price we pay for poor science communication. No matter where the responsibilities of these arms-length bodies end up there will still be a need for public trust. The best way I know to deliver that is through great science communication by press officers who know their subject and are free from political constraints.

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Comments

So if I understand your argument correctly it goes something like; making redundant all the people that work for these quangos is OK (as their advisory/regulatory functions amounts to interference) except for the role that the communications teams play in each of these organisations? Perhaps such broad reductionism serves to illustrate why many of these organisations should continue.

It's a pity Fiona Fox questions the transparency of the JCVI. A quick look at their website reveals far greater levels of transparency and communication than her passage above implies.
http://www.dh.gov.uk/ab/JCVI/DH_094786

This piece also seems to argue for a continuation of the gatekeeper approach where access to information and scientists by the media is controlled by a small number of people. While these people may be free from the political constraints Fox highlights they surely come with their own selection of biases, prejudices and agendas. It seems Fox is very much wedded to an old media attitude where information is disseminated by herding journalists into a room and reading from a pre-prepared statement before taking questions. In the age of the internet there is no reason why the huge numbers of scientists and journalists familiar with online communication use non-traditional methods of engaging with journalists free from the interference of third parties deciding who gets to talk with who and what questions they can ask.

However, Fox is quite right to be concerned that many of the activities of these quango's are going to be dealt with 'in house' by the government. This will undoubtedly politicise any scientific decision as ministers now have the ability to pick and choose the experts they want to listen to as well as having direct responsibility for the publication of any report.

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