Summer School

At October's World Conference of Science Journalists held in San Francisco, Pallab Ghosh reported on the coverage of gene editing:

I sometimes joke that I’ve been a science journalist so long that I covered the extinction of the dinosaurs!

Although it’s not been quite that long – I have seen a thing or two in my time and so I’d like to offer a brief historical perspective as well as some observations on how gene editing is being reported in the UK.

So on that first

This is the website of the UK’s bestselling tabloid newspaper – The Sun.

GENE GENIE Embryos edited to remove killer mutation like the one that nearly killed Fabrice Muamba in world first — and it could save MILLIONS

Fabrice Muamba is a young English ex-soccer player who suffered a cardiac arrest during a televised match between Bolton and Tottenham Hotspur. He recovered despite his heart having stopped for 78 minutes. 

It’s from August 4 and you can see it reports on the work of Dr Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University and colleagues on the removal of a gene from an early stage human embryo associated with a rare heart condition.

It brings the potential of gene editing home to a general non-scientific audience in terms they appreciate. It was the front page of the paper.

And a month later The Sun reported on the knocking out of the Oct4 Gene by a team at the Francis Crick Institute in London.

It says “scientists say it could signal the end to inherited diseases”.

Not long ago The Sun might have been one of those tabloids warning of designer babies, how scientists were playing god and reporting condemnation by pro-life groups. 

But not now, there seems to have been a turnaround, Much of the coverage is “on message” – and dissenting voices haven’t really featured that much.

This may be due in part to greater openness by UK researchers and also greater organisation by university and research council press officers often coordinated by the UK’s Science Media Centre based in London. 

Having the Sun on side is huge. In the past this Murdoch owned paper claimed it could decide the outcome of British Elections. The Sun backing controversial scientific research marks an important turnaround for the UK research community.

The UK Science Media Centre came to being because of headlines like this 20 years ago.

There was public alarm in the late 90s about the safety of the triple jab Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine and also hysteria over GM crops. Many children ended up not being vaccinated because of headlines like these and GM crops And ended up being banned by supermarkets– even though the science said there was no risk at all to human health.

And not just that – there were mass protests against the use of animals for scientific experimentation.

Scientific voices were drowned out. But as the scientific community began to organise, as PR teams were beefed up the tone of news reports began to change.

Look at this report about gene therapy from the Daily Mail in 2000 when the government controversially altered regulations to allow scientists to use human embryonic material to research into finding cures for diseases. Stem cell research.

The Mail – which was at the forefront of the anti MMR and anti GMO campaigns said in this comment piece 

“The benefits of stem cell research outweigh ethical concerns. Researchers think it will be possible to grow brain tissue to combat degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and "spare part" organs like hearts and kidneys for transplant”.

And in 2001 a Mail news report on the promising area of gene therapy research said that “Scientists may be able to use gene therapy to tackle some types of cancer in humans”

Though 16 years on and according to the Cancer Research UK website gene therapy is still in the early stages of research.

But back then there were such high hopes for the technology. In a feature on gene therapy from around that time in the Mail’s Sunday Review asked.

“Could we be on the verge of the greatest medical advance ever seen, even greater than the defeat of smallpox or cholera - the defeat of time itself?”

Lovely writing – but answer of course turned out to be “No”.

And a little later there was a concerted effort by biotechnology firms and academics to ensure that Synthetic Biology did not go the way of GM technology in Britain and the rest of Europe. The positives were played up.

Here in 2007 the Daily Telegraph reports

“A scientist is poised to create the world's first man-made species, a synthetic microbe that could lead to an endless supply of biofuel”.

So think you know where I am going with this. 

Where is the endless supply of biofuel? Where are the spare part organs? Where is the great gene therapies that would defeat time itself?

It is good that scientists have a platform to get their views across in the UK. And that scientific misinformation isn’t putting the health of children at risk by having newspaper reports that the MMR vaccines cause autism and crones disease.

But what are we left with, another type of misinformation?

It can’t be right that many health and science journalists have become little more than mouth-pieces for a powerful and incredibly well funded lobbies.

Those stories and thousands more like them have helped to win public acceptance for controversial technologies and with that comes huge research grants, tax breaks and finances for industrial R&D.

And so everyone is happy. We get stories. The editors get a happy uplifting item, the public have a warm glow in their heart, researchers get grants and companies get financing to create more hi-tech jobs– what’s not to like?

Of course all this counts for nothing if it is based on a lie. 

Research money, tax-payers’ money is not necessarily going to the best science and the best researchers. It may well be going to the areas that Big Science research Institutes, companies and Funders have decided it should go. 

And that’s taking money away from other, equally important areas of research – but fields that are less fashionable – because the most influential scientists want the money for themselves.

And I am not blaming them. The fault is ours. 

Since when did science and health journalists decide it was our jobs to do Big Science’s PR?

When did we stop seeing that the press officers and research institutes that give us these stories have an agenda?

Now don’t get me wrong – I think press officers are great –I think research institutes and companies are great.

But we are not doing them any favours if we aren’t doing our jobs properly.

Science and society is best served if we ask critical questions. And we need to up our game.

That is what the World Federation of Science Journalists was set up to foster.

And at the Association of British Science Writers we have set up a Task Force – to produce a strategic review of the organisation so it can help our members to up our game – and to find funders to support that aim. Funders who realise that it’s in their best interest and that of society’s if we have a community of well trained science journalists – reporting fairly and critically on scientific research.

We are looking for best practice and eager for advice. We are contacting current and potential sponsors as well as other science journalism organisations. And we are happy to share our review once it is completed next March.

Finally, And I wonder whether in 20 years’ time – at the 20th World Conference of Science Journalism – we’ll all be here – rejuvenated – talking about how gene editing has led to the end of “all inherited diseases”? Or even one?