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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ’em

Owen Gaffney advocates an alliance

There is an obvious and relatively easy way for the research community to improve communication and take more control of the media: become part it. The big organisations – the Royal Society, the research councils, the Wellcome Trust and others – could develop an independent news site. The idea would be to build a brand based on trust, accuracy, reliability, independence and impartiality.

Planet Earth

A few years back I had an idea that the research council I worked for, the Natural Environment Research Council, had enough material to run its own online news site.

In October 2008, we launched Planet Earth. It’s updated daily and looks and feels like the BBC or Guardian news sites. We publish news, podcasts, features, special reports, comment and blogs.

While we were setting up, the question people asked me the most was ‘Do you really have enough news?’ My answer was that we have a £400 million a year budget. If we don’t have enough news, we’re doing something wrong. We publish over 3000 papers a year, many in Science and Nature; we have dozens of facilities and centres – the British Antarctic Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, National Oceanography Centre, and more. More importantly, we are the biggest funder of climate research in the UK, a subject the media struggle to get right. 

Even so, we were asked to do no publicity for six months until we could demonstrate it was viable. And there was no budget.

Headlines worldwide

In the first few days it was touch and go whether or not we could successfully keep a low profile. Our first blog – Beyond the Abyss - turned into nail-biting stuff. Scientists blogging from the Pacific were dropping cameras into the deepest trenches on the planet. Six days in, the team caught swarms of fish on camera, the first video footage of the deepest living fishes. The film smashed previous depth records.

The story generated headlines worldwide. Chinese state news ran the minute-long film unedited and displaying the Natural Environment Research Council logo and Planet Earth URL. Following this we ran blogs from the Afar Depression in Ethiopia and other exotic locations. Google news accepted the site a few weeks after launch. And this is an important step. Aggregated news looks set to dominate the news market in the next decade.

Planet Earth now gets tens of thousands of hits and regularly breaks national and international stories. The number of stories generated makes the council’s £400 million budget looks like a bargain.

Editorial independence

Unlike the press, it doesn’t need to resort to hysteria and hyperbole for audience share. It doesn’t need to convince a cynical news editor not to hype research. And there are no shareholders, media moguls, or advertisers to please.

The research councils are as impartial and independent as the BBC. The UK’s independent research community is not afraid of criticising governments as long as there is peer-reviewed and published evidence to back up claims.  

Last year Research Councils UK published the Public Attitudes to Science Survey. One third of all people polled had used the internet to search for a science-related topic in the previous 12 months. Independent scientists were trusted above all others, and environmental scientists came top of the independent scientists.

Planet Earth could be the start of something much bigger: an editorially independent news site from the research community that changes the emphasis from influencing the media to becoming part of the media.

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Owen Gaffney
Owen Gaffney was formerly head of publications at the Natural Environment Research Council. In May 2009 he became director of communications at International Geosphere Biosphere Programme, Stockholm.
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