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Information please

Information please

Transparency was the often-repeated word at the session, "Under the Pressure Cooker: How Information Professionals Communicate Big Stories." The session, jointly organized by TWAS and the US National Academy of Sciences, took place at the 2011 World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar.

Information pleaseTransparency was the often-repeated word at the session, "Under the Pressure Cooker: How Information Professionals Communicate Big Stories." The session, jointly organized by TWAS and the US National Academy of Sciences, took place at the 2011 World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar.

William Kearney, director of media relations at the US National Academy of Sciences, spoke about NAS's role in the release of the InterAcademy Council (IAC) report, which calls for significant reforms in the processes and procedures at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It was published in the aftermath of the widespread criticism levelled against the IPCC for mistakenly concluding that the glaciers draping the Himalayan Mountains would disappear by 2035.

The committee that wrote the IAC report found IPCC to be an overall success, but it concluded that IPCC needed to reform its processes and procedures to ensure confidence in its findings amid intense public scrutiny. The report called for a stronger management structure, stricter adherence to IPCC peer review standards, more candid explanations of uncertainty, and a new communications strategy that emphasizes transparency.

The core aspects of the report focused on the need for changes in the administration and editorial processes that would allow IPCC publications to more clearly reflect the state of scientific knowledge concerning climate change, including the limits of the current state of knowledge. It also called for the creation of executive committee to oversee day-to-day activities and suggested that IPCC set one-term limits for its executive director.

When it comes to information, the IAC report emphasized the need for greater transparency and accessibility, and it urged IPCC to develop the capacity to more rapidly respond to media inquiries. During the preparation of the report, a series of conventional and webcast meetings and an online questionnaire provided ample opportunities for public comment and review. Kearney noted that the IAC committee itself emphasized transparency during the course of its review. For example, it held open meetings that were webcast and solicited opinions from a broad spectrum of scientists, stakeholders and the public.

The report attracted widespread media coverage. In addition to articles in NatureScience and other science journals, stories about its findings were published in The EconomistNew York Times and other prominent newspaper and magazines. There were also a large number of reports in the broadcast media, including BBC and CNN, and extensive discussions in the new social media. More importantly, the report helped spur significant reforms in the processes and procedures in the IPCC.

James Gillies, head of communications at CERN, the European particles research facility, presented an overview of the public's prevailing view of his organization, which he said were at wide variance both with what CERN actually does and how it does it.

For example, the public largely believes that CERN is a nuclear laboratory. It's not. The fact is CERN is a particle physics facility. The public largely believes that CERN does military research. The truth is that it is prohibited from doing military research. The public often accuses CERN of being closed and secretive. The reality is there are no restrictions to access to CERN publications and the organization is open to the public.

Gillies noted that CERN was seeking to change public perceptions by presenting its work in a more appealing and friendly way, and by encouraging the media and public to learn more about what it does. CERN, he said, has interesting stories to tell and it seeks to tell these stories to as large an audience as possible.

And an interesting story did indeed come to light when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) unexpectedly "broke down" on 19 September 2008, just one week after the first high-energy beams at the multi-billion euro facility were cast. The LHC would not come back online until November 2009, more than one year later.

Gillies said that the response CERN to the mishap focused on two critical issues. First, it emphasized the need to devise a strategy for fixing the facility as quickly as possible while ensuring that nothing like this would ever happen again and, second, it called for developing a communications strategy to accurately convey to the public and media the actions that CERN was taking.

Gillies observed that the keys to CERN's communication strategies were openness and transparency. With management backing, CERN provided information about the troubles at the facility in a straightforward manner that sought not to minimize the scope of the problem or the length of time it would take to resolve – although he did admit that the organization's forecasts were often too optimistic.

Gillies concluded that CERN's forthright response to the shutdown of LHC helped it to regain and build trust with the media and public. He added that the storyline about the LHC has changed in the past year. The focus has shifted from the mishap itself to how CERN has overcome adversity. He noted that he now spends a good deal of time trying to manage expectations. Many people think that CERN scientists are about to make historic discoveries in particle physics that will alter our perceptions of the universe. The reality is that dramatic breakthroughs are likely to occur only through a lengthy process of data collection and analysis.

Roseanne Diab, executive officer of the Academy of Science for South Africa, discussed the academy's media strategy for the release of its study report on the state of PhD training in South Africa.

She noted that this was the first time that her academy had pursued an aggressive plan of action for announcing a publication. She went to say that the exercise proved to be not only a success in terms of media coverage but also a learning experience that would serve the academy well in its future interactions with the media.

Diab described how the academy designed a media press kit that it thought would attract a great deal of attention. The presentation was kept short and simple, and numbers were used as a shorthand way to highlight the importance of the findings.

For example, drawing on the report's findings, the media kit observed that South Africa would need to produce more than 6,000 PhDs a year by 2018 to meet the demands being generated by the country's expanding knowledge-based economy. That represents a fivefold increase compared to the current graduation rate. The press kit also noted that South Africa has only 26 PhDs per one million population. Brazil, in contrast, has 52 PhDs per one million population. Korea has 187 and Sweden 427. It also observed that the average age of humanities is 45 and that just one-third of the teaching staff at universities has earned PhDs.

Diab stated the take-home message the academy wanted to convey was this: South Africa was graduating too few doctorates to meet the nation's needs for a highly educated and skilled workforce and that the country was falling far behind many other developing countries, including Brazil, China and India, in its efforts to create a critical mass of qualified researchers to fill positions in universities, research centres and private industry.

While the report called for a comprehensive and aggressive strategy to rapidly increase the number of PhD graduates in South Africa, the media focused on other aspects of this educational issue. Reporters, Diab observed, emphasized the hard choices the government was facing in providing adequate funding for primary, secondary and tertiary education. The media, she added, also raised questions about the job readiness of South Africa's PhD graduates.

Diab also noted that the new social media provided opportunities for the public to voice its opinions, and that here again scepticism was raised about the need to invest in university programmes, especially for advanced degrees. As one web blogger commented, "Bill Gates dropped out of university but he is now the richest man in the world."

Despite the heated response, Diab stated the report did have an impact on educational policy in South, thanks in part to the attention drawn to the publication as result of the academy's media strategy.

For example, the report's recommendations helped to justify an increase in government funding for PhD training and provided momentum for the creation of 53 new research chairs. It also helped to inform discussions leading to the human resource development strategy by South Africa's Department of Science and Technology that emphasized the need for graduate and postgraduate training.

Ehsan Masood, editor of Research Fortnight and Research Europe in the UK, offered a series of comments based on the presentations. He focused his remarks on the changing nature of media activities for research institutions and science academies, the challenges created by seeking to simultaneously serve the institution and meet the demands of journalists and public, the limited capacity and funds for communication efforts found in many institutions, and the growing impact of the new social media.

Masood noted that the increasing number of media outlets, the speed at which information – both good and bad – now travels, and the ability of critics to voice their opinions and reach a broad and receptive audience via the new social media, suggests that openness and transparency will require a willingness to take a punch without being defensive. It will also require a readiness not to shy away from public debate when the conversation becomes more heated than expected. Otherwise "transparency may, in fact, become more difficult as scientific organizations find themselves at the centre of fierce conflicts between different interest groups."