Science's love of publicity

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The Independent Culture
NOT EVERY day is a scientist "effectively sacked", to use Dr Arpad Pusztai's own words. To many of his fellow scientists, it will seem yet more proof that meddling with the press (or in this case a television programme, World in Action) is a recipe for the worst disasters. Yet relations between professional scientists and the media are not openly antagonistic. Instead, they are shot through with ambivalence. The professionals now look to the media to tell their own stories favourably, and in a way that will help secure research funds.

Dr Pusztai's case is unusual. Widely known for his knowledge of the plant proteins called lectins, he was working at the Rowett Research Station in Scotland and involved in an experiment that was clearly a preparation for a more rigorous test of the safety of genetically-modified potatoes. The lectins come into the tale because they are natural insecticides: plants making them are expected to be resistant to attack. Eventually, the people at the laboratory would have fed genetically modified potatoes to rats to see whether they were harmed. Lacking real modified potatoes, they had used the ordinary version dosed with pure lectins from various plants (not potatoes).

Yesterday's newspapers were full of Pusztai's thumbnail account of the experiment. Yet the distinction between real modified potatoes and the spiked diet fed to the rats was never explained. If it had been, the irrelevance of the experiment to the safety of genetically-modified potatoes would have been plain. Sceptical readers asking "What was the dose of lectin?" could not have learned the answer. Yet Dr Pusztai seemed pleased with the outcome of the TV appearance, being quoted as saying that `the jack- bean lectin gene will never get a licence".

It is not clear whether his error (in the eyes of the managers of the Rowett) was bureaucratic (not clearing what he wanted to say in advance) or scientific (drawing practical conclusions from the results of a preliminary experiment). But there is no suggestion that either he or his research programme would have prospered because of his appearance. Would that were more often the case!

Even before the present cut-throat competition for research funds, the ambivalence of the most earnest laboratory workers, about publicity has been clear. I first learned this when I started working as a journalist (on what was then The Manchester Guardian). Embarked on writing an experiment at Harwell in which radioactive iodine was being fed to a goat called Doris, I telephoned the man in charge, whose surname was Williams. Most reluctantly, he parted with the essential information, which was that the objective was to learn something of the transfer of dietary iodine to the thyroid gland (a matter of great importance in understanding the high incidence of thyroid cancer among the people of Byeloruss as a consequence of Chernobyl).

Williams and I ended our conversation barely on speaking terms, so plainly had he made his point about the malevolent capacity of journalists to get things wrong. But then he called back, to say that he was anxious that I had taken down his initials correctly. He explained that there was another Williams working in much the same field, and that he had not got to be confused with the other fellow.

Now, much more egregious instances of scientists seeking publicity are commonplace. Perhaps the most striking recent illustration is the great hoop-la attending the announcement by a group of Nasa scientists that they had found "evidence" of life in a meteorite reaching the Earth from Mars. There was a proper scientific paper in an American journal, but also a press conference orchestrated by Nasa itself.

Although the members of the team responsible hedged everything they said with the proper qualifications, the impression left in the minds of the world's newspaper readers is that there was, indeed, life on Mars at some stage in the distant past. That cannot have been inconvenient for Nasa, which is looking for a strong wind in the sails of its high (and expensive) ambitions for the exploration of Mars.

It is especially disappointing that many individual scientists now seem eager to follow the same path. Often, their universities will arrange the press conference. If the news of their latest discovery should find its way onto the front page of the New York Times (US scientists are more competitive than most other countries'), that is counted as worthwhile as the discovery itself.

That working scientists are concerned that they should be given credit for what they discover is understandable. In the last resort, the report of a scientist's work in the record is all that posterity will know about his contribution. But that does not require current publicity, but rather the judgement of those able to read the scientific record and to reflect on it.

So why do serious scientists seek publicity, even if awkwardly (like Dr Williams and his goat)? The standard excuse is that publicity helps to win research grants and is good for morale in the laboratory. There is no evidence for the first claim; most grant-making bodies are inclined to scepticism. And the boost to laboratory morale may be short-lived, as when other scientists start chipping away at over-blown claims. Remember Dolly, the Roslin Institute's first cloned sheep, and the later assertion that her cloning could not be authenticated?

There is a great need for the research profession to take a cooler view of publicity for its discoveries. There is good evidence that researchers deliberately set out to scoop their competitors, even taking advantage of information gleaned during the refereeing process. Such activities are corrosive of the civility of the scientific enterprise, which prides itself on the notion that it is a common enterprise. Newspapers need to police themselves as rigorously as researchers do.