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Three reasons not to kill the messenger

Press officers in research councils, arms-length bodies and universities are rushed off their feet today ensuring that the voices of their vice chancellors, scientists and CEOs are heard above the din around the CSR.

We now hear the great news that the government has spared research from the worst of the axe, but will those who have valiantly spoken on behalf of the whole of science be so lucky?

The alarm bells rang for me when one government-funded research body suggested some months ago they may have to cancel a press briefing at the Science Media Centre. This was after emails sent by BIS appeared to impose wide-ranging restrictions on promotional and marketing activities until after the CSR. As with pre-election purdah, the rules were possibly over-interpreted by cautious managers. But separately, one press officer told me: “Our staff and communications budgets have been frozen at exactly the time when it was important for us to be more visible.”

To those eyeing up the budgets of the media relations departments I would say the following:

First, it has taken decades for the scientific community to embrace the fact that being funded by the public purse makes them accountable to the public for what they do in their labs. Such has been the impact of that engagement that in David Willetts’ first speech as science minister he claimed that the scientific way of thinking is fast becoming the language that binds us together in an otherwise diverse society. One need only look at the long-term impacts of disastrous debates over GM crops and MMR to see the high price that academics and clinicians pay when they fail to engage effectively with public concerns.

Cuts to the PR departments of universities and research councils may be welcomed by some who would like nothing better than to retreat to their ivory towers, but such a move would be a major setback to the public’s support for and understanding of science.

My second point was made better by Laura Gallagher, Research Media Relations Manager at Imperial College London:

“University researchers are helping us to understand the world in which we live and their work improves our quality of life, whether that’s through creating a better treatment for a disease, developing a technological innovation, or finding a way of generating cleaner energy. We need professional communicators to tell the story of this work in an accurate and accessible way, generating excitement about what researchers are achieving, inspiring the next generation of scientists and contributing to a scientifically literate society.”

And third, in the kind of hard-headed argument we know the Treasury likes, there is evidence that publicity for cutting edge science pays dividends. University press officers who have assessed the impact of their work can demonstrate that media coverage has led to private sector investment from global companies, as well as opportunities to create new spin-out ventures. It also attracts new students, results in new collaborations with national and international researchers and leads to invitations to give keynote addresses at scientific meetings.

Does anyone really think that the UK would continue to attract the kind of researchers of the calibre of the Russia-born physicists who allowed us to claim credit for this year’s physics Nobel if the UK’s universities did not publicise their academic achievements around the world? And has anyone ever thought through how the MRC and universities recruit people to take part in their cutting edge clinical trials?