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Press release

Life sciences and the media: a troublesome couple bound to get along

 

Brussels, 11 July 2002

Key words : Biotechnology, communication, Society, Public Understanding, Public Opinion

 


The relationship between science and the media is not always easy. Scientists complain that the press oversimplifies complex issues and sometimes writes about scientific matters with distrust and fear. Journalists point their finger to re-searchers' alleged lack of communication skills and will. To help bridge this gap, on July 9, 2002, the Commission organised, under the auspices of the European Life Sciences Group (EGLS), a meeting between scientists and media profession-als. Participants from 13 different countries looked into ways to establish closer links and identified more effective practices to improve media coverage of scien-tific progress in a clear and balanced manner. They proposed, inter alia, to assess the feasibility of creating a EU-wide network of science communicators, and a programme of on-stage internships in order to encourage journalists to work in labs with appropriate tutoring. According to EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin "this is the first time we have brought journalists and scientists together at European level to discuss how we can all better communicate on science. This is a priority and a need in the knowledge-based society. European citizens need to be informed of scientific progress, particularly in the fast moving field of life sci-ences, to foster debate on the development of new products and technologies".

The European Group on the Life Sciences (EGLS) is a think tank of academic experts, ap-pointed in 2000 by European Commissioner for Research Philippe Busquin to advise him on matters concerning life sciences and related policy matters, in particular those touching upon communication and awareness-raising. EGLS also addresses science coverage by the general media. Such coverage in the EU varies in quality and quantity. Perception of science by the public varies across EU countries, depending on different cultures.

To improve the communication flow, the Commission held a meeting on "Life Sciences commu-nication in the media" which took place on July 9. The meeting underlined the constraints, needs, concerns, and the interests of the scientific journalists working in different European cul-tural contexts.

Scientists, who are becoming more aware of the need to inform the public, discussed their diffi-culties and outlined the lack of appropriate interlocutors. They mentioned the tendency for sci-entific developments to make the headlines only if associated either with a 'breakthrough' or with a controversy. Misunderstandings, suspicion and hostility surrounding innovative products based on recombinant DNA technology is one example - affecting, for instance, GM foods and crops, although there are notable exceptions - as documented by the Eurobarometer surveys - for thedevelopment of new medical drugs and treatments.

Some 40 journalists, communication experts and scientists, together with representatives of the Commission (including Commissioner Busquin), participated in the meeting and recommended:

  • launching detailed studies on science communication in Europe;
  • increasing awareness of respective needs and constraints through, for instance, training or temporary secondment of media representatives in labs and research centres;
  • engaging researchers to produce feature articles for the broader public;
  • networking and co-operation of press and information relays;
  • granting career awards and rewards to good communicators in life sciences;
  • sharing resources and experience amongst bio-science specialised media;
  • organising joint communication events on key life sciences issues across Europe.
  • fostering a more proactive role in the communication process by the research institutions which should also guarantee a proper scientific behaviour of their research staff with re-gard to communication.

These contributions will help the European Group on Life Sciences to better focus their specific advice to turn new biological knowledge into benefits for EU citizens. In particular, follow-up ac-tions are envisaged in the context of the 6th Framework Programme and via the Action Plans for "Life Sciences and Biotechnology" and for "Science and Society". Both stress the importance of a sound and transparent relationship between researchers, the media and the public. In this spirit, on 4 July, 2002, the Commission launched the Science Generation initiative (with a finan-cial contribution of €1.44 million) to help inform EU citizens on life sciences and foster debate on bio-sciences, with the active participation of students, parents, teachers, researchers and jour-nalists.

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Commissioner Busquin underlined the growing unbalance between the EU investments in R&D, and those of the United States and Japan. The gap between these efforts is in the order of 80 billion euros a year and it is growing rapidly, hampering the innovation potential of the European economy and its prospects for long term competitiveness and growth. If this trend is not reversed quickly, it risks compromising EU drive to meet the objectives set at the Lisbon European Council. Hence the key policy aim adopted by the Barcelona European Council, to devote 3 % of GDP to R&D. (see IP/02/290 for a more detailed analysis).

For additional information:

  • Stéphane Hogan, Press Officer, Information and Communication Unit, DG research, european commission
    Tel.: +32.2.296.2965 - Fax: +32.2.295.8220 - E-mail: Research Contact

  • Alessio Vassarotti, Scientific Officer, Quality of Life Programme, DG Research, European Com-mission
    Tel.: +32.2.295.83.09 - Fax: +32.2.299.18.60 - E-mail : alessio.vassarotti@ec.europa.eu


              

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