Does Science Media Centre Promote Corporate Views of Science?

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The Science Media Centre (SMC) is a nonprofit PR agency started in the UK that gets its largest block of funding from industry groups. Current and past funders include Bayer, DuPont, Monsanto, Coca-Cola and food and chemical industry trade groups, as well as media groups, government agencies, foundations and universities. The SMC model is spreading around the world and has been influential in shaping media coverage of science, sometimes in ways that downplay the risks of controversial products or technologies.

This fact sheet describes SMC history, philosophy, funding model, tactics and reports from critics who have said SMC offers pro-industry science views, a charge SMC denies.

Update: See July 24 story in FAIR, “Reuters vs. Un Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?” Analysis of Kate Kelland’s coverage of IARC and close ties to Science Media Centre.

Key facts

The SMC was set up in the UK in 2002 “after media frenzies over MMR, GM crops and animal research” to help the news media better represent mainstream science, according to the SMC fact sheet.

According to the group’s 2002 founding report, SMC was created to address:

  • a growing “crisis of confidence ” in society’s views of science in the wake of media controversies over mad cow disease, GMOs and the MMR vaccine;
  • a collapse of respect for authority and expertise;
  • a risk-averse society and alarmist media coverage; and
  • the “apparently superior media strategies” used by environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to get their case across.

Independent SMCs that share the same charter as the original now operate in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Japan, and SMCs are being planned in Brussels and the United States.

The SMC model has been influential in shaping media coverage about science. A media analysis of UK newspapers in 2011 and 2012 found that a majority of reporters who used SMC services did not seek additional perspectives for their stories. The group sometimes wields political influence. In 2007, SMC stopped a proposed ban on human/animal hybrid embryos with its media campaign that shifted coverage away from ethical concerns to the benefits of the embryos as a research tool, according to an article in Nature.

Several academics and researchers have criticized SMC for pushing corporate views of science, and for playing down the environmental and human health risks of controversial products and technologies. Reports have documented SMC’s tendency to push pro-industry messaging and exclude opposing perspectives on topics such as fracking, cell phone safety, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and GMOs.

SMC says it is “committed to reflecting the weight of scientific evidence and opinion, and one of our main aims is that the news media should better represent mainstream science.”

SMC Director Fiona Fox said her group is not biased in favor of industry: “We listen carefully to any criticism of the SMC from the scientific community or news journalists working for UK media but we do not receive criticism of pro industry bias from these stakeholders. We reject the charge of pro industry bias and our work reflects the evidence and views of the 3000 eminent scientific researchers on our database. As an independent press office focusing on some of the most controversial science stories we fully expect criticism from groups outside mainstream science.”

Quotes about the Science Media Centre

“Science Media Centers … have become influential, but controversial players in the world of journalism. While some reporters find them helpful, others believe they are biased toward government and industry scientists.” Columbia Journalism Review

“Depending on whom you ask, (SMC Director) Fiona Fox is either saving science journalism or destroying it,” Ewen Callway, Nature

“A decreasing pool of time-pressed UK science journalists no longer go into the field and dig for stories. They go to pre-arranged briefings at the SMC … The quality of science reporting and the integrity of information available to the public have both suffered, distorting the ability of the public to make decisions about risk.” Connie St. Louis, Senior Lecturer and Director of MA in Science Journalism, City University London

“The problem is not that they promote science, as they say they do, but that they promote pro-corporate science.” David Miller, Professor of Sociology, University of Bath, United Kingdom

“For those not blinded by the SMC’s dazzling aura, it appears that its covert purpose is to ensure that journalists and the media report scientific and medical matters only in a way that conforms to government and industry’s ‘policy’ on the issues in question.” Malcolm Hopper, Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, University of Sunderland, UK

“It is apparent that the agenda of SIRC, SMC and allied organisations is to support the UK government’s economic policy to promote Biotec and telecommunications technology.” Don Maisch, PhD

“The role of the SMC appears to be putting a relatively narrow view of, in most cases positive, opinions of the safety of fracking.” Paul Mobbs, Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations

“The scientific establishment, always politically naive, appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network.” George Monbiot, Guardian

SMC Funding

SMC’s largest share of funding, roughly 30%, comes from corporations and trade groups. Funders as of August 2016 included a wide range of chemical, biotechnology, nuclear, food, medical, telecommunications and cosmetic industry interests. Agrichemical industry funders included Bayer, DuPont, BASF, CropLife International, BioIndustry Association and the Chemical Industries Association. Previous funders have included Monsanto, ExxonMobile, Shell, Coca Cola and Kraft. SMC also receives funding from several media, government and academic groups.

SMC says it caps donations from any one company or institution to 5% of annual income in an effort to “protect from undue influence” – exceptions are made for larger donations from the Wellcome Trust and the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

SMC History: “Britain’s first Ministry of Truth”

By the late 1990s, the relationship between science and media was at a breaking point, explains the SMC promotional video. “Around the time of BSE, MMR, GM crops, there was a real sense of this gulf between scientists and the media, especially when these big controversial stories were breaking,” Fox said in the video.

SMC was created “to help renew public trust in science by working to promote more balanced, accurate and rational coverage of the controversial science stories that now regularly hit the headlines,” according to its consultation report.

SMC foundational documents include:

  • February 2000 House of Lords committee report on Science and Society – describes a “crisis of trust” in society’s relationship with science, and recommended an initiative on the interface between science and the media.
  • September 2000 “Code of Practice / Guidelines on Science and Health Communication,” prepared by the Royal Society and Social Issues Research Center (SIRC) – recommends guidelines for journalists and scientists to counter “the negative impact of what are viewed as unjustified ‘scare stories’ and those which offer false hopes to the seriously ill.”
  • 2002 SMC Consultation Report – describes the interview process with stakeholders from government, industry and media who informed the approaches SMC would use to “take up the gauntlet thrown down by the Lords to meet the ‘great challenge’ of adapting science to frontline news.”

The SMC effort was immediately controversial. Author Tom Wakeford predicted in 2001 that SMC would become “Britain’s first Ministry of Truth of which George Orwell’s fictional rulers would be proud.” He wrote in the Guardian, “Senior figures in the Government, Royal Society and Royal Institution have decided that their much-prized Knowledge Economy necessitates the curtailment of free speech.” Wakeford quoted two politicians involved in the SMC effort:

“As (Lord Melvyn) Bragg warned, ‘if ignorance stirred to hysteria by sensationalism were to get in the driving seat, thousands of highly skilled and remarkable opportunities for self-fulfilment, wealth creation and knowledge formation would be lost.’ Advocate of GM crops, Lord (Dick) Taverne, argues that the media’s ‘sloppiness’ on issues of GM was now ‘undermining the health of our democracy.’

Before you can say ‘freedom of the press,’ a new Code of Practice has already been endorsed by Lord Wakeham’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC). The Code recommends that journalists consult with approved experts, a secret directory of which is to be provided to ‘registered journalists with bona fide credentials.'”

SMC’s first project – an effort to discredit a BBC fictional film that portrayed genetically engineered crops in an unfavorable light – elicited a series of critical articles in the Guardian (a Guardian editor co-authored the film). The articles described SMC as a “science lobby group backed by major pharmaceutical and chemical companies” that was operating “a sort of Mandelsonian rapid rebuttal unit” and employing “some of the clumsiest spin techniques of New Labour in trying to discredit (the film) in advance.”

Dick Taverne and Sense About Science

Sense About Science –  a lobby effort to reshape perceptions of science – launched in the UK in 2002 alongside SMC under the leadership of Lord Dick Taverne and others with ties to SMC. Lord Taverne was an SMC Advisory Board member and he co-created the SIRC Code of Practice guidelines.

A 2016 story in The Intercept by Liza Gross described Sense About Science and its leaders as “self-appointed guardians of ‘sound science’” who “tip the scales toward industry.”

Gross described Taverne’s tobacco industry ties and past public relations efforts:

According to internal documents released in litigation by cigarette manufacturers, Taverne’s consulting company, PRIMA Europe, helped British American Tobacco improve relations with its investors and beat European regulations on cigarettes in the 1990s. Taverne himself worked on the investors project: In an undated memo, PRIMA assured the tobacco company that “the work would be done personally by Dick Taverne,” because he was well placed to interview industry opinion leaders and “would seek to ensure that industry’s needs are foremost in people’s minds.” During the same decade, Taverne sat on the board of the British branch of the powerhouse public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, which claimed Philip Morris as a client. The idea for a “sound science” group, made up of a network of scientists who would speak out against regulations that industrial spokespeople lacked the credibility to challenge, was a pitch Burson-Marsteller made to Philip Morris in a 1994 memorandum.

As its first projects, Sense About Science organized a letter from 114 scientists lobbying the British government to “contradict false claims” about GMOs, and conducted a survey highlighting the problem of vandalism against GMO crops.

Sense About Science USA opened in 2014 under the leadership of longtime chemical industry ally Trevor Butterworth, and partners with the Gates-funded Cornell Alliance for Science, a GMO promotion group.

Revolutionary Communist Roots

The founding and current directors of Science Media Centre and Sense About Science – SMC Director Fiona Fox and SAS Director Tracey Brown – and others involved with those groups, were reportedly connected through the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Trotskyist splinter party organized in the late 1970s under the leadership of sociologist Frank Ferudi, according to writers George Monbiot, Jonathan Matthews, Zac Goldsmith and Don Maisch.

Ferudi’s splinter group RCP morphed into Living Marxism, LM magazine, Spiked Magazine and the Institute of Ideas, which embraced capitalism, individualism and promoted an idealized vision of technology and disdain for environmentalists, according to Monbiot. (Ferudi responds in this piece.)

A Guardian article about an LM event in 1999 described the network as “a reaction against the Left” (in Furedi’s words) with a worldview that left-wing thinking “is not a political factor” and there is “no alternative to the market.”

“One of strangest aspects of modern politics is the dominance of former left-wingers who have swung to the right,” Monbiot wrote in a 2003 article describing the ties between Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre, the people involved with those efforts and links to the LM network:

“Is all this a coincidence? I don’t think so. But it’s not easy to understand why it is happening. Are we looking at a group which wants power for its own sake, or one following a political design, of which this is an intermediate step? What I can say is that the scientific establishment, always politically naive, appears unwittingly to have permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network. Far from rebuilding public trust in science and medicine, this group’s repugnant philosophy could finally destroy it.”

Tactics

The SMC in the UK says it has a database with 2700 experts and more than 1200 press officers, and mailing lists with more than 300 journalists representing every major UK news outlet.

SMC uses three main tactics to influence science coverage, according to its promotional video:

  1. Rapid response to breaking news with opinion quotes from experts: When a science story breaks, “within minutes there are SMC emails in inboxes of every single national reporter offering experts,” said Fox.
  2. Getting to reporters first with new research. SMC “has privileged access to about 10-15 scientific journals in advance of the embargo lifting” so they can prepare advance comments from third-party experts signaling whether new studies merit attention and how they should be framed.
  3. Organizing about 100 press briefings a year that “proactively set the agenda by bringing new science or evidence to journalists” on a wide range of controversial topics such as nuclear waste, biotechnology and emerging diseases.

Examples of influence and bias

Several researchers and academics have reported what they say is SMC’s pro-industry bias on certain controversial topics, and the extent to which journalists rely on SMC expert views to frame science stories.

Lacking diverse perspectives

Journalism professor Connie St. Louis of City University, London, evaluated SMC’s impact on science reporting in 12 national newspapers in 2011 and 2012, and found:

  • 60% of articles covering SMC press briefings did not use an independent source
  • 54% of “expert reactions” reactions offered by SMC to breaking news during the time period covered were in the news
    • Of these stories, 23% did not use an independent source
    • Of those that did, only 32% of the external sources offered an opposing view to that offered by the expert in the SMC reaction.

“There are more journalists than there should be that are only using experts from the SMC and not consulting independent sources,” St. Louis concluded.

Experts aren’t always scientists

David Miller, professor of sociology from the University of Bath, UK, analyzed SMC content on the website and via Freedom of Information Act requests, and reported:

  • Some 20 of the 100 most quoted SMC experts were not scientists, as defined by having a PhD and working at a research institution or a top learned society, but were lobbyists for and CEOs of industry groups.
  • Funding sources were not always completely or timely disclosed online.
  • There was no evidence of SMC favoring a particular funder, but it did favor particular corporate sectors and topics it covered “reflect the priorities of their funders.”

“If you say you quote scientists and end up using lobbyists and NGOs, the question is: how do you choose which lobbyists or NGOs to have? Why don’t you have lobbyists who oppose genetic testing or members of Greenpeace expressing their view rather than bioindustry’s position? That really reveals the kind of biases that are in operation,” Miller said.

Strategic triumph on human/animal hybrid embryos

In 2006, when the UK government considered banning scientists from creating human-animal hybrid embryos, the SMC coordinated efforts to shift the focus of media coverage away from ethical concerns and toward the importance of hybrid embryos as a research tool, according to an article in Nature.

The SMC campaign “was a strategic triumph in media relations” and was “largely responsible for turning the tide of coverage on human–animal hybrid embryos,” according to Andy Williams, a media researcher at the University of Cardiff, UK, who conducted an analysis on behalf of SMC and campaign allies.

Williams found:

  • More than 60% of the sources in stories written by science and health reporters — the ones targeted by the SMC — supported the research, and only one-quarter of sources opposed to it.
  • By contrast, journalists who had not been targeted by the SMC spoke to fewer supportive scientists and more opponents.

“Williams now worries that the SMC efforts led reporters to give too much deference to scientists, and that it stifled debate,” the Nature article reported. An interview with Williams in SciDevNet reports:

“A lot of the language used to describe [SMC media briefings] stresses that they were a chance for the scientists to explain the science in their own words, but — crucially — in a neutral and value-free way,” he said.  But this ignores the fact that these were tightly managed events pushing persuasive narratives, he added, and that they were set up to secure maximum media impact for the scientists involved. Specialist science journalists were fed “information subsidies” by the SMC and were far more likely than other journalists to quote pro-hybridisation sources, Williams said.

Industry views on fracking

According to a February 2015 media analysis conducted by Paul Mobbs of Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations, SMC offered numerous expert commentaries on fracking between 2012-2015, but the handful of scientists who dominated the commentary were from institutes with funding relationships with the fossil fuel industry or industry-sponsored research projects.

“The role of the SMC appears to be putting a relatively narrow view of, in most cases positive, opinions of the safety of fracking. These opinions are based upon the professional position of those involved, and are not supported with references to evidence to confirm their validity. In turn, these views have often been quoted in the media without question.”

“In the case of shale gas, the SMC is not providing a balanced view of the available evidence, and uncertainties, on the impacts of unconventional oil and gas. It is providing quotes from academics who mostly represent a ‘UK establishment’ viewpoint, which ignores the whole body of evidence available on this issue from the USA, Australia and Canada.”

Discrediting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome 

A 2013 paper by Malcolm Hooper, Emeritus Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, University of Sunderland, UK, reported evidence that SMC promoted the views of certain psychiatrists while ignoring other evidence that contradicted the psychiatrists’ theory, in an effort to discredit people with ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

“For those not blinded by the SMC’s dazzling aura, it appears that its covert purpose is to ensure that journalists and the media report scientific and medical matters only in a way that conforms to government and industry’s ‘policy’ on the issues in question.”

“An organisation which behaves in such a blatantly unscientific way can have no legitimate claim to represent science.”

Cell phone safety and telecom funders

A 2006 paper by Don Maisch, PhD, “raises serious concerns over the impartiality of the SMC model in science communication when tendering expert advice on contentious issues when vested interests are part of the SMC structure.” The Maisch paper explores SMC communications on issues involving electromagnetic radiation and cell phone safety, and offers what he calls an “uncensored history of the SMC model of science communication.”

“It is apparent that the agenda of SIRC, SMC and allied organisations is to support the UK government’s economic policy to promote Biotec and telecommunications technology. This may explain why people with no real qualifications in science communication were able to reach positions that essentially became the public face of the British scientific establishment. It also explains why the UK scientific and medical establishment, aware that a large part of scientific funding comes from industry sources, are willing partners in allowing PR organizations with a pre-determined agenda to speak for them and champion government economic policy over the public interest.”

Pro GMO

SMC has been critical of studies that raise concerns about GMOs. In 2016, scientists pushed back against SMC expert reactions that they said misrepresented their work on GMOs. The study led by Michael Antoniou, PhD, Head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group, King’s College London School of Medicine, and published in Scientific Reports, used molecular profiling to compare GMO corn to its non-GM counterpart and reported the GM and non-GM corn were “not substantially equivalent.” SMC issued an expert reactions disparaging the study, and would not allow the authors to respond or correct inaccurate information in the SMC release, according to the study authors.

“These comments [quoted in the SMC release] are inaccurate and thus spread misinformation about our paper. We have been informed that it is not the Science Media Centre’s policy to post responses, such as ours, to commentaries that they commission/post on their website,” Antoniou said. The study authors posted their response here.

Journalist Rebekah Wilce reported in PR Watch in 2014 on several examples of pro-GMO bias in SMC communications. She wrote:

SMC calls itself an independent media briefing center for scientific issues. Critics, however, question its independence from the GMO industry — despite the group’s statement that each individual corporation or other funder may only donate up to five percent of the group’s annual income — and warn that the organization is headed across the pond to the United States to provide more GMO spin here.

The SMC spearheaded the response to a 2012 study that reporting finding tumors in lab animals fed GMOs in a long-term feeding study. The study was widely disparaged in the press, was retracted by the original journal and later republished in another journal.

Media Coverage

Columbia Journalism Review three-part series, June 2013, “Science Media Centres and the Press”

  • CJR part 1: “Does the UK Model Help Journalists?”
  • CJR part 2: “How did the SMCs perform during the Fukushima nuclear crisis?”
  • CJR part 3: “Can a SMC work in the US?”

Nature, by Ewen Callaway, July 2013, “Science media: Centre of attention; Fiona Fox and her Science Media Centre are determined to improve Britain’s press. Now the model is spreading around the world”

Nature, by Colin Macilwain, “Two nations divided by a common purpose: Plans to replicate Britain’s Science Media Centre in the United States are fraught with danger”

FAIR, by Stacy Malkan, July 24, 2017, “Reuters vs. Un Cancer Agency: Are Corporate Ties Influencing Science Coverage?”

SciDevNet, by Mićo Tatalović, May 2014, “UK’s Science Media Centre lambasted for pushing corporate science” Centre lamb

PR Watch, by Rebekah Wilke, April 2014, “Science Media Centre Spins Pro-GMO Line”

On related group Sense About Science:

The Intercept, by Liza Gross, November 2016, “Seeding Doubt: How self-appointed guardians of ‘sound science’ tip the scales toward industry.”

USRTK Fact Sheet: Sense About Science-USA Director Trevor Butterworth Spins Science for Industry