Oct 192010

Mr S. tuberosum

Science and technology are integral to how we buy, prepare, store and eat food, yet this often only becomes clear at times of controversy rather than as in ongoing day-to-day activities. The Food Standards Agency’s Chief Scientist, Andrew Wadge runs a semi-regular blog ‘Hungry for Science’ in which he discusses some of the science involved in the work of the FSA. It’s a valuable if somewhat dry effort that doesn’t seem to attract the attention it deserves, and in which he seems to take the time to respond to comments in a considered fashion. Earlier this month, the blog featured a ‘guest post’ from the FSA’s head of communications Terrence Collis on “the pitfalls of communicating science to the general public”, titled “We say potato, you say Solanum tuberosum”:

“We pride ourselves on being a science-based organisation and on putting the consumer first, so the big question we deal with on a daily basis is: how do you maintain scientific accuracy while making the science easy for people to understand?

Effective communication is about thinking how messages are received rather than how they are sent out.  And that isn’t just about avoiding words that people need a specialist dictionary to translate, it’s also about communicating in a way that will engage and interest people – what’s the point in us talking about ‘levels of a genotoxic carcinogen above the TDI’ if people are just going to pick up their Daily Tabloid and read about how we are all going to die? Why can’t we talk about unsafe levels of a harmful chemical instead? It might not have all the detail, but it tells people most of what they need to know.

Yes, I know some think that simplifying the language we use is dumbing down our advice, but our challenge is communicating with everyone in the UK, and doing so against the daily barrage of (often tabloidese) information. To be heard and heeded, too, our advice needs to be succinct and easy to understand but also accurate.

So, over to you, how do we get the balance right?”

It’s not entirely clear who the ‘we’ and ‘you’ referred to in the title are, but Collis uses the post to reflect on the communication of food science to the public. He raises some interesting questions in relation to the public understanding of food science and about the role of the media in the creation and maintenance of food related anxieties. He closes by asking how the FSA can get the balance right, so it’s only fair to provide some thoughts.

The role and responsibilities of the media in the communication of science have been the subjects of decades of debate and discussion. Scientists consistently (and frequently justifiably) complain of being misrepresented or dumbed down (recently led by Ben Goldacre), while journalists retort that scientists misunderstand the purpose of reporting.  Collis’s questions wade into some thorny issues beyond the scope of a brief (although rapidly expanding) blog post [1]. A significant recent interventions has been the publication by BIS  (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) of its “Science and the Media: Securing the Future” report.

In starting to find a way forward, it’s probably worth thinking about the role of the FSA and why it might want to communicate science in the first place. The confusion here arises in the first sentence. Is the FSA primarily a scientific, a consumer protection or a science communication body? Can it successfully be all three or are they actually one and the same? For Collis it would appear that there are significant differences between these roles. The first, that of a ‘science-based organisation’ involves dealing with long words such as S. tuberosum rather than potatoes and carcinogens rather than run of the mill chemicals. The second, consumer facing role, involves tearing people away from their tabloids long enough to pass on important and reasonable information. The third means bridging these two worlds, but the initial framing of the question suggests its intractability – how can you maintain accuracy if you lose the technical jargon?

Collis seems to be suggesting that the best route for communicating food science is that the FSA ‘dumbs down’ its information in-house, rather than waiting for it to be distorted by tabloid journalists. To some extent, this is already common practice in the form of press releases, which in turn can lead to an uncritical homogeneity in the reporting of science as time-pressed journalists simply recycle the data and quotes pressed upon them (as Jane Gregory points out at STS Observatory). Rather than improving the quality of scientific communication, this risks reducing the journalist and their knowledge of their target readership to a conduit from press offices, who are not themselves immune  to the application of spin, to front page.  Whereas Collis focusses on where ‘dumbing down’ occurs, a key recommendation of the BIS report was for training for journalists, press officers and scientists themselves, something that the FSA itself might well undertake.

An alternative, less resource intensive  approach may be for the FSA to aim at facilitating quality reporting by providing readily accessible and detailed background information for both reporters and members of the public. This might be a role in which the FSA is not scared of using the term ‘carcinogen’ and that provides interested and engaged consumers with access to original research papers and situates these in relation to food safety.  A comparison could be made with the reporting of health news. Food and health science are regular staples of journalism, and are not always reported on by specialist science journalists. The NHS consequently faces a similar problem to that of the FSA as described by Collis. It’s approach to this has been the production of a ‘Behind the Headlines’ section on the NHS Choices website that seeks to add some detail to health-related newspaper reports.  Obviously, this approach does not preclude poor reporting, and might ultimately  be less effective than promoting closer understanding between scientists and journalists, but nevertheless recognises that people concerned by media reporting may well search behind the news.

Either way, some nuance also needs to be brought to the homogeneous vision of the public set out in Collis’s piece. Effective communication is indeed about thinking about how messages are received rather than sent, but this is about more than language. Engaging and interesting people isn’t only about finding the right language, but about making the information relevant to people’s everyday lives and, just as importantly, about listening to what people feel they need to know. Collis suggests that the FSA’s challenge is ‘communicating with everyone in the UK’, but this is frequently isn’t true, as the FSA’s own campaigns often recognise. For example, the 2009 Listeria campaign that formed part of Food Safety Week closely targeted one specific ‘public’, that of the over-60s, with its advice about reading labels and checking fridges.

There is also a more important point in here about the FSA. The FSA’s purview does not only include questions of consumer protection but also of animal welfare and agricultural technology that go beyond technical scientific concerns and cannot solely be addressed as such. While the FSA must undoubtedly make best possible use of the available scientific information, it also should not lose sight of the fact that many questions related to science, and to the science of food in particular, are not only questions of effective communication. The FSA’s science communication strategy should actively attempt to incorporate and engage with the views of the public as citizens as well as consumers, rather than aim at burying them in information – dumbed down or not.


1. Further thinking on the relationship between science and the media could start with recent discussions around Martin Robbins’ caricature of science journalism in The Guardian, and follow-up. A further piece by David Berreby at Mind Matters explores the difference between scientific and journalistic accounts, while Matthew Nesbit’s and Alice Bell’s blogs on science communication are good starting points. In more detail, an excellent selection of essays from scientists and communicators is available from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences]

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