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BBC's science coverage criticised

The BBC's attempt to produce balanced coverage of science is giving "free publicity to marginal opinions", according to a prominent scientist.

Geneticist Professor Steve Jones was asked by the BBC Trust to study its coverage over two separate periods in 2009 and 2010.

His findings, published in a report by the trust today, have prompted the BBC to announce it will appoint a science editor.

Professor Jones, who gave the 1991 Reith Lecture, said the BBC presented "the views of tiny and unqualified minorities as if they have the same weight as the scientific consensus".

He highlighted issues including global warming and the belief the use of the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella could lead to autism.

He said the BBC gave exposure to "ill-informed campaigns" during the furore over MMR and criticised it for giving the former chancellor and global warming sceptic Lord Lawson "space...to make statements that are not supported by the facts".

Professor Jones added: "There can be an over-confrontational tone to science news (although features suffer less from this problem). Equality of voice calls for a match of scientists not with politicians or activists, but with those qualified to take a knowledgeable, albeit perhaps divergent, view of research.

"Attempts to give a place to anyone, however unqualified, who claims interest can make for false balance: to free publicity to marginal opinions and not to impartiality, but its opposite."

Trust chairman Lord Patten welcomed the "comprehensive report".

He said: "The UK's science industry delivers significant economic value to our country. The public's interest in science continues to grow, and levels of scientific literacy are improving as a result.

"There are some issues which will inevitably attract controversy, and reflecting scientific debate while making output accessible and appealing to audiences is a difficult balancing act."

Prof Jones said the BBC's science reporting "is seen as of high quality and is much praised for its accurate and impartial approach, its breadth, and its professionalism".

Among the people he spoke to during his research was Sir David Attenborough, who described the corporation's coverage as "head, shoulders, thorax and abdomen" above other broadcasters.