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.
`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.’
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.
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.’
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.
STEMNET (the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network) is currently calling for companies to get involved in The Big Bang Regional Fairs to take place around the country over the summer, including on 22 June at the Science Museum. More than 3,000 young people are expected to enjoy STEM demonstrations. Contact STEMNET on firstname.lastname@example.org . http://www.thebigbangfair.co.uk/ 
Deficit model thinking remains prevalent among bench scientists and engineers, science/health regulators and medical/health personnel, according to a new study published in Science Communication. John Besley and Andrea Tanner of the University of South Carolina gauged the views of around 150 science communication trainers.
Evaluations of two public dialogues have found that a mix of methods is largely successful and that it could be helpful to provide support such as additional reading materials for expert scientists who, `were concerned about introducing bias into groups.’ The dialogues were on synthetic biology and animals containing human material. See http://tinyurl.com/692672z  and www.acmedsci.ac.uk/index.php?pid=240 
The joint Commons/Lords committee of Parliament scrutinizing the government’s draft Defamation Bill until 19 July has invited written submissions to assist it. Views on questions available online  can be submitted by email, preferably by end of May but certainly before 10 June to email@example.com 
An objectifying gaze, in which a woman’s body is visually inspected, reduces her maths proficiency, according to research published in Psychology of Women Quarterly. This may be because the gaze `conveys that women’s looks are valued over their other qualities,’ write the authors, led by Sarah Gervais of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
This year’s summer science exhibition Science Live at the Royal Society will be held from 5-10 July at Carlton House Terrace in London. It’s open to all for free. Visitors can test their skills at spotting danger in baggage x-rays and more. See http://royalsociety.org/summer-science/2011/  and http://twitter.com/summerscience 
`Robotics researchers are investing considerable time and effort in engaging publics,’ according to Clare Wilkinson, Karen Bultitude and Emily Dawson of the Science Communication Unit, UWE, Bristol. However, they also warn in Science Communication that, `while the language of engagement has been embraced’, the level of engagement varies.
An online `hidden science map’ has been created by the Science Council, to inspire the next generation of scientists. Anyone working in science or a science-related job is encouraged to enter their details on a map to show that science is done by all sorts of people all over the UK. See www.hiddensciencemap.org/about