When science hits the headlines

Fukushima makes the front page. Photo: Flickr/wenwtuxqsbtbuqwntoyjfcfhfhbsrey

On the 11th March, a devastating earthquake hit north-east Japan, causing a tsunami and resulting in a huge loss of life. It also affected nuclear power plants in the region, including the one in Fukushima. As sketchy details about possible nuclear hazards found their way into the international media, the media spotlight turned away from the humanitarian crisis and focused on the events at the Fukushima plant. Scientific information was vital both in the reporting of this story and advising British Nationals in the area.

Anna Perman and Lizzie Crouch interviewed Imperial College researchers who spoke to the media, journalists who reported the story, and the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor to investigate the unique challenges of communicating this risk to the public. Full transcripts of the interviews will be posted at their blogs, but here they reflect on the outcomes of their investigation.

Interviewees:

  • Professor Gerry Thomas is chair in Molecular Pathology in the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College. Her research is on the medical effects of the Chernobyl disaster, and has appeared on radio and television broadcasts to talk about the potential dangers of radiation.
  • Professor Robin Grimes is the Director of the Imperial College Rolls Royce University Technology Centre in Nuclear Engineering. He was a member of the SAGE committee which provided scientific advice for UK citizens in Japan, and was featured in TV and radio coverage of the disaster.
  • Mark Henderson is science editor for The Times
  • Robin McKie is science and technology editor for The Observer
  • Sir John Beddington is the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor. Sir John was responsible for convening the ‘Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ (SAGE), which drew on expert knowledge to provide advice to UK citizens caught up in the crisis.

Anna Perman and Lizzie Crouch are both studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London.

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6 comments

  1. Nice – tho shit from PUS to P attitudes is pretty key in the development of the way those surveys are produced. Critique it all you like, but I’m sure the sarcastic tone used at that point is quite warranted. If you haven’t read this paper, I can recommend it.

    I’d also say that shift to dialogue and openness is in many respects consequence of BSE (see Alan Irwin in this book), though I do think you are right to note cultures around social media in terms of uptake of such an approach, and perhaps greater public pressure to finally move towards it (as opposed to simply saying they should be open all the time).

    p.s. the links to your blogs need fixing.

  2. I wish that were sarcasm, unfortunately we just genuinely got mixed up about the actual wording of the report. maybe that says more about how much that language actually means than sarcasm would!

    I think you’re right about bse. Technology is important but people need an impetus, like the bse controversy, to take advantage of it. But social media gives an immediacy and directness to the scientist/public dialogue that is good for both sides.

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