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28/07/2014

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Shorts: June 2011

Fukushima media row

A row has blown up over science in the media after Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre, criticised reporting of events at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March.

Another Chernobyl?

`Why did almost every section of our media lead daily reports with “another Chernobyl” or the coming apocalypse, when none of Britain's leading scientists or the Chief Scientific Adviser were in any way confirming that assessment?’ she wrote in a blog post on the BBC’s College of Journalism website.

A row has blown up over science in the media after Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre, criticised reporting of events at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March.

Another Chernobyl?

`Why did almost every section of our media lead daily reports with “another Chernobyl” or the coming apocalypse, when none of Britain's leading scientists or the Chief Scientific Adviser were in any way confirming that assessment?’ she wrote in a blog post on the BBC’s College of Journalism website.

She continued: `I think one reason why the more measured and cautious reactions from SMC's experts were disregarded by sections of the media was that they are nuclear experts and therefore seen to be pro-nuclear, with a vested interest in playing down the threat.’

Counterproductive resassurance

Yet in an opinion article in Nature Colin Macilwain, freelance science writer and former editor Research Research, commented that `the collective impression [of nuclear experts] has been unconvincing: defensive, selective, condescending towards public fears and, in my view, ultimately counterproductive. Their combined message seems to have been: don't worry, things are under control, and Fukushima is not Chernobyl.’

Macilwain continued: `Reassuring soundbites offered to journalists by the London-based Science Media Centre in the days immediately after the earthquake contained barely a cautionary note on how serious the situation at Fukushima was set to become.’

Fiona Fox disagrees.  She told People & Science: `I just could not differ [from Colin Macilwain] more.  I’ve spent three weeks now almost totally in the company of these experts.  I think they have been brave and committed to engaging with the public. They weren’t prepared to go beyond what they knew to be facts and start talking about potential Chernobyls. I can see that, at times, in the early days, they may have looked like they were reassuring, but if you look at what they actually said, they weren’t saying this is not a problem or a serious incident.’1

On 12 April, a month after the earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese government provisionally upgraded the incident to the maximum level of seven on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale – on a par with the Chernobyl accident.  The change followed a re-classification of the accidents at units 1, 2 and 3 of the plant as one event.  It was estimated that the total radiation emitted at Fukushima by that date was 10 per cent of the total radiation emitted at Chernobyl.

Another engagement on GM?

The Sciencewise-ERC steering group has set up a subgroup to look at what can be learnt from various public engagement exercises on GM.

`We’ve been asked [by the steering group] to think about whether it’s worth recommending more dialogue on GM,’  Jack Stilgoe, chair of the Sciencewise group, told People & Science.

The Sciencewise-ERC steering group has set up a subgroup to look at what can be learnt from various public engagement exercises on GM.

`We’ve been asked [by the steering group] to think about whether it’s worth recommending more dialogue on GM,’  Jack Stilgoe, chair of the Sciencewise group, told People & Science.

`GM is such a complicated issue that it depends what sort of dialogue you want to get involved in.  GM ten years ago was very different from GM today.  The science has moved on, regulatory discussion has moved on, industry are doing other things. But the issue is highly politicized with entrenched positions on both sides, and a history of acrimonious debate,’  he continued. There’s no fixed date for the end of the work or the form its output will take. `We might not issue a big report… [we may instead] have a workshop with policymakers,’ he told P&S.

Starting with the problem

David Baulcombe, Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge, chaired a Royal Society group that proposed that public dialogue should start with the problem of sustainably intense agriculture, rather than presuppose any particular technological solution.

`How do you protect plants against disease, for example? Or how do you grow crops, confronted with the challenges of climate change and water shortage?’ Sir David told People & Science.  `If you have a discussion in those terms… you’re weighing the pros and cons of different technologies and thinking about the impact that crop has on the environment, on the society in which it is grown… and so on. That allows the discussion to be a lot more constructive than it’s been in the past,’ he continued.

 `A lot of people who are opposed to GM, certainly when you talk to them off the record, will tell you that it is not so much GM that they’re opposed to but the involvement of big business and large multinational corporations.’

China

That also seems to be the case in China, where Richard Stone, Asia editor of Science magazine, has found similar criticism. He told P&S, `Polls show that [Chinese] people support GM crops.  Generally speaking, they aren’t too concerned about the safety of GM crops.  But they are concerned about a perceived movement by foreign companies to control GM commerce.’

The Chinese government has plans to expand science communication activities, possibly involving dialogue, in its next five-year plan: `They acknowledge that just passively putting out information and hoping it gets absorbed has generally not worked,’ said Stone.

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Dr Joanna Carpenter
Dr Joanna Carpenter is the Shorts Editor
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