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Canada’s science media centre opens doors

Researchers and policymakers hope it will help journalists better cover science and researchers better understand reporters' motivations

BY PEGGY BERKOWITZ | OCT 19 2009

A huge debate erupted 10 years ago in the United Kingdom about genetically modified foods. “Frankenstein Foods Kill,” shrieked the front-page of a London tabloid, accompanied by an image of then prime minister Tony Blair as Frankenstein. Crop scientists in the U.K. weren’t prepared for the hostile media onslaught; they found it bewildering and opted out. In the end, the U.K. said no to genetically modified crops.

Seven years later, in 2006, another science horror story made the front page of the same tabloid, decrying the use of human embryos for stem-cell research and warning of the coming “FrankenBunny.” This time the result was different. Stem cell scientists were prepared and were experienced in speaking to reporters. The media for its part had been briefed by scientists about stem-cell research, and reporters knew where to go for answers. In 2008, the House of Lords voted to allow this kind of stem-cell research to continue.

The big difference – according to Fiona Fox, who related this tale to a roomful of scientists, policymakers and journalists in Ottawa – was a new kid on the block, the U.K. Science Media Centre, established soon after the 1999 incident. Ms. Fox, who is its founding director, said the centre was set up “to give scientists a place to talk to the public … with every controversy viewed as an opportunity to embrace this.” Now, when a crisis hits, the centre calls on acknowledged experts in the field who have agreed in advance to respond to reporters at any time of day or night.

The U.K.’s positive experience was one of the factors that prompted a small group of Canadian researchers, reporters and science policymakers two years ago to get together to explore the feasibility of a setting up a similar organization in Canada. The October luncheon in Ottawa where Ms. Fox spoke was the official launch of the Science Media Centre of Canada.

“We have reached a crucial stage toward the goal” of the centre, said Suzanne Corbeil, vice-president, external relations and communications, with the Canada Foundation for Innovation and chair of the nascent centre’s steering committee. “That goal is accurate and rational coverage of science issues in the Canadian mass media.”

The steering committee envisions a mostly virtual and completely bilingual centre that will help reporters find experts and get briefings on topical concerns in health, technology, the environment, medicine, engineering and the physical, life and social sciences. The centre would also help researchers better understand what motivates reporters, would highlight Canadian research and would provide a central registry of scientific meetings that journalists could cover “in their own backyards.” These were among the suggestions made by stakeholders in a feasibility study last year.

The Science Media Centre aims to open next summer. It has more than 30 charter members (who donated $5,000 to the centre’s founding) including the University of New Brunswick, McMaster University and Université du Québec à Montréal, as well as corporate funders, and is seeking more funding by Dec. 31, 2009. Its business plan is available at the website sciencemediacentre.ca.

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