Case study 4: The Science Media Centre and the ‘seeding’ of articles

Over the last few decades, particularly in relation to the struggle over issues such as tobacco or climate change, the abuse of science in the media has become an issue of academic study. As a result research has been produced which highlights the problems created by the manipulation of science through public relations [44], or the politically-inspired publication of ‘sceptical science’ [45].

There are various ways of identifying the mechanisms of “science PR”. Most famously, from papers disclosed in the legal cases against the tobacco industry in the US, an executive who summed up [46] the purpose of engaging with the public in the debate over the ‘safety’ of tobacco –

Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy… If we are successful in establishing a controversy at the public level, then there is an opportunity to put across the real facts…

Increasingly the response to public debates is not factual. Instead it seeks to obfuscate – thereby preventing the public debate from being resolved and decisive action taken to change policy.

During the 1990s there were a number of science controversies in Britain – from GM crops, to nuclear power, to animal testing. In 2000, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee reviewed the issue of ‘science and society’ [47], and decided that there was a crisis in the public’s trust of science. Out of that came the Science Media Centre [48] (SMC), established in 2002 by the Royal Institution. The SMC became independent in 2011, and is now housed at the Wellcome Trust. The SMC’s funded comes from a variety of sources [49].

The purpose of the SMC [50] is to –

To provide, for the benefit of the public and policymakers, accurate and evidence-based information about science and engineering through the media, particularly on controversial and headline news stories when most confusion and misinformation occurs.

Put simply, the role of the SMC is to ghostwrite information for use by journalists – acting as a PR agency for science. They also hold meetings where journalists can meet and hear lectures from scientists on issues currently in the media. “Fracking” has been one of their recent topics. To date they have produced [51] eight news articles, and have held four speaker events for journalists. This has generated a number of news articles across the general and specialist media – within which the copy is utilised without any reference to the role of the SMC.

Recent studies highlight the problematic impacts of ghostwriting science-based information for journalists [52]. In reality, this process is another tool in the panoply of public relations tactics used to influence political and public opinion. Unfortunately the media often accept copy from agencies without question – when in fact there are a number of important questions which should be asked about the ‘certainty’ of statements made in relation to the science of unconventional gas and oil.

The diagram over the page shows the network of organisations funding the SMC. It lists, by date, a series of articles which they published (yellow boxes), or events for journalists which they held (pink trapezoids), on the topic of “shale gas”. The ‘scientists’ who contributed are listed on the left, and the lines relate each one to the articles/events they participated in.

While there are a wide number of scientists providing comment, there are a handful who dominate the commentary. Many of those involved come from institutes which are part of NERC’s CDT for Oil and Gas. As shown in case study 1, a number of these institutes also have funding relationships with the fossil fuel industry, or industry-sponsored research projects.

Many observations can be made upon the contributions of the scientists selected. For example:

  • On 26th January 2015, Professor Zoe Shipton, University of Strathclyde, commented [53] –

Several independent studies, including that by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, have concluded that we have the technological capability to extract onshore unconventional hydrocarbons with relatively little environmental and public health impact.

In fact the RS/RAE report did not comment on public health – it concentrated on the ‘health and safety’ of workers. As discussed earlier, the report was written before the present body of evidence on the impacts of shale gas in the US and elsewhere was available.

  • On 17th April 2012 Professor Quentin Fisher, University of Leeds, commented [54] –

The conclusion reached by this independent group of experts, that hydraulic fracture operations for shale gas should be allowed to proceed both at the Preese Hall site and other potential sites in the UK, is totally backed up by evidence by a wealth of data from the USA where hydraulic fracturing of shale gas plays is routine.

This statement does not reflect the wide range of research – from academic institutes and published in peer reviewed journals – which comes to a different conclusion; that shale gas exploitation creates a number of troublesome ecological impacts. For example, as documented in the US National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine’s workshop review of health impacts [55]. Likewise, this is not a conclusion arrived at by the professional panels in the recent New York State Department of Health [56] review, nor by the Quebec Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement [57] review.

In relation to ‘fracking’, the role of the SMC appears to be putting a relatively narrow view of, in most cases positive, opinions of the safety of ‘fracking’. These opinions are based upon the professional position of those involved, and are not supported with references to evidence to confirm their validity. In turn, these views have often been quoted in the media without question.

In the case of shale gas, the SMC is not providing a balanced view of the available evidence, and uncertainties, on the impacts of unconventional oil and gas. It is providing quotes from academics who mostly represent a ‘UK establishment’ viewpoint, which ignores the whole body of evidence available on this issue from the USA, Australia and Canada.

 

 

[44]    Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, David Michaels, Oxford University Press, 2008 – https://global.oup.com/academic/product/doubt-is-their-product-9780195300673

[45]    The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism, Jacques et al., Environmental Politics, June 2008 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/climate/jacques_2008.pdf

[46]    Smoking and Health Proposal, Brown & Williamson, 1969 – http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/rgy93f00

[47]    Science and Society, Third Report of Session 1999-2000, House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, February 2000 – http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld199900/ldselect/ldsctech/38/3801.htm

[48]    Science Media Centre – http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/

[49]    Science Media Centre: ‘Funding’ – http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/about-us/funding/

[50]    Science Media Centre: ‘About Us’ – http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/about-us/

[51]    Science Media Centre: ‘Search results for (shale)’ – http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/?s=shale

[52]    The Haunting of Medical Journals: How Ghostwriting Sold “HRT”, Adriane J. Fugh-Berman, PLOS Medicine, vol.7 no.9 e1000335, September 2010 – http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000335

[53]    Expert reaction to new report on fracking by the Environmental Audit Committee, SMC, 26th January 2015 – http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/expert-reaction-to-new-report-on-fracking-by-the-environmental-audit-committee/

[54]    Expert reaction to independent report into fracking, SMC, 17th April 2012 – http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/expert-reaction-to-independent-report-into-fracking-2/

[55]    Health Impact Assessment of Shale Gas Extraction: Workshop Summary, Christine Coussens, Rose Marie Martinez, Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/iom_2014.pdf

[56]    A Public Health Review of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Gas Development, Department of Health, New York State, December 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/ny_doh_2014.pdf

[57]    Issues relating to shale gas exploration and exploitation in the St. Lawrence Lowlands, Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (Quebec), November 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/bape_2014.pdf

CONTENTS
Introduction
Case study 1: University funding and NERC’s CDT for Oil and Gas

Case study 2: Academic involvement in major shale gas studies

Case study 3: The Mackay-Stone shale gas climate impacts study

Case study 4: The Science Media Centre and the ‘seeding’ of articles

Case study 5: Guardian ‘open letter’ from academics

Case study 6: The interrelationship between the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Gas and Oil and The Task Force on Shale Gas

Conclusion
Appendix: Information sources for case study diagrams

 

This report has been commissioned by Talk Fracking

Produced February 2015 by Paul Mobbs Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations
3 Grosvenor Road, Banbury OX16 5HN – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/

© 2015 Paul Mobbs/Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations
Released under the The Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 2.0 Licence (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 UK) – England & Wales – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/fraw/by_nc_sa-uk-2.html

All Internet links listed in this report were accessed during late January/early February 2015.