Killing Science Hype With Easier Access to Experts

Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/NDeHN

Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/NDeHN

It just got a lot easier for reporters to access some of the world’s top genetics and bio researchers.

The Genetic Expert News Service (GENeS) launched in April with the goal of making science reporting more accurate…through access.

GENeS combs the academic literature looking for ‘sexy’ genetics and biotech research – specifically, papers that have a strong science news angle. They also search for research that could easily be politicized and/or misinterpreted.

Genetic-Expert-News-ServiceOnce a story is selected, GENeS taps into a growing network of scientists and engineers the team hopes will be willing to comment on the research. Quotes are compiled, sent to targeted media and posted to the GENeS website. This helps reporters identify qualified expert sources, which can be tough to do – especially for general assignment reporters who don’t ordinarily work the science beat. The third party validation provided by the experts can help reporters assess the significance (or insignificance) of a story before it’s written and published.

GENeS adheres to a strict set of operating principles, outlining what the organization will – and will not – do in its effort to improve the accuracy of how science is reported and interpreted.

It’s funded by the Genetic Literacy Project and the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, an outreach initiative of the World Food Center at the University of California, Davis. (More information here.)

I had the pleasure of speaking with the Director of GENeS, Robin Bisson. He shared his goals, discussed how GENeS benefits researchers and spoke of his hopes for reducing hype in science reporting.

Q1.  How do you define GENeS? What are your goals and how will you know when you’ve been successful?

A: GENeS is a science communication initiative, which aims to make the best expertise in genetics, biotechnology and related topics available to the media, policymakers and the public. We work to the timescales of the news media, sourcing and promoting the expertise and views of the science community on current and emerging topics. Our goal is to have the best evidence to underlie public discussion of issues raised by scientific developments, particularly through the news media.

Success is highly dependent on context, but examples of success would include: getting robust scientific information to the public during times of crisis or intense media attention (such as the Ebola scare); displacing he said/she said reporting on polarized issues like the risks associated with genetically engineered crops with accurate reporting of established science; and slowing/stopping the over interpretation of early-stage research while bringing attention to studies that provoke genuine excitement in the scientific community.

Q2.  How wide are you casting the net as you look for independent experts to join your network? Are you working directly with universities?

A: We are absolutely working with researchers affiliated with universities and research institutions – we would struggle to do otherwise! We try and get the best independent experts for whichever topic we are working on, who could come from any research institution. By independent experts, we mean researchers who don’t have a vested interest in getting any specific scientific issue painted in a specific light. We also have a robust conflict of interest policy for scientists who we work with.

Q3.   It seems that this could be a great opportunity for university communicators to get additional exposure for their experts. Is that part of what GENeS offers? 

A: Absolutely. We value having strong relationships with PIOs and science writers at research institutions who can help us access experts. Often communications staff can be the best people for identifying the right expert for a particular story and can pick out the big issues on the horizon.

Q4.   How do you think your project may help solve the science hype problem?

A: There will always be a conflict between the cautious, step-by-step scientific method and the appetite of the news media for a strong top line, particularly in the reporting of new studies. I hope that the expertise GENeS will publish on fresh research will help to provide scientific nuance and context, tempering the temptation to over-interpret but also opening up new leads.

Q5.   How is GENeS similar to / different than the Science Media Centre in the UK?

A: GENeS basic model follows the blueprint of Science Media Centers in the UK and other countries in terms of getting scientific expertise to reporters at the time they need it. However, by focusing on a specific area we hope to be able to go deeper into subjects than is possible when covering all science. Indeed, we are still in our very early stages and in adapting to the contours of the North American media landscape so the services GENeS provides may well develop and change over time. Watch this space!


Here’s how GENeS works:

On May 18th, the journal Nature Chemical Biology published a paper with a title that would mean little to most of us. It meant something to GENeS, though. The team recognized it was about making ‘home brewed’ morphine from genetically engineered yeast. It was a story they knew media would jump on when it was published, so they gathered comments from their network of experts. (To be completely accurate, they got the paper under embargo and got some of the legwork done ahead of time. They then pushed their expert information to the inboxes of key journalists under embargo.)

GENeS posted its resource page:

GENeS Resource Page

Click to Enlarge

Later that day, a story about the research was posted to NBCNews.com.

NBC News

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Within the story, there were a number of expert quotes.

NBC News Quotes

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Two of which were sourced from the GENeS materials.

GENeS Quotes

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This example shows how the organization’s approach to proactive science engagement can impact the result of a story being turned around quickly for a major news organization.

There’s also a reactive side to GENeS.

After sending expert comments out via email they often get calls from journalists who want to clarify something or get in touch with a contact. Sometimes the reporters don’t use the quotes originally provided by GENeS, instead, the organization helps them navigate complex research. This story by Gina Kolata of the New York Times about ‘precision breeding’ of plants is an example of a GENeS ‘assist.’

If you’re a journalist, scientist, PIO, policymaker or work for any organization engaging in genetics and biotechnology issues – you can reach GENeS at info@geneticexperts.org

I think there’s a promising future for services like this. Check it out.


Resources:

Genetic Experts News Service website

GENeS Resource Page: Yeast engineered for making morphine one step closer, raising concerns over ‘home-brew’ opiates

NBCNews.com Story: Home-Brew: Scientists Tweak Yeast to Grow Morphine

Nature Chemical Biology (2015) doi:10.1038/nchembio.1816 An enzyme-coupled biosensor enables (S)-reticuline production in yeast from glucose

A Proposal to Modify Plants Gives G.M.O. Debate New Life by Gina Kolata, New York Times

7 thoughts on “Killing Science Hype With Easier Access to Experts

  1. Working with GENeS has been a pleasure so far. Robin and Arvind have tough jobs, where they’re trying to moderate hype and introduce nuance, and do so within major journals’ publication and embargo schedules. Good luck.

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  2. I think this is a generally good approach. I worked with Arvind on this particular story, and I plan to do so again, because I think we do need to dispel hype from stories like this one. The NBC quote is quite good, in this case. But I worry a little about putting pressure on experts to provide definite answers to hard questions within a journalistic time frame. They are being asked for comment on a paper they are reading for the first time, and asked to give expert opinion the same day. How does that give time for anyone to think through all of the issues at play on a complex issue like this? There are many very respected savants out there like Church and Voigt who might be willing and able to venture an intelligent guess as to the “big picture”. But science does not operate on a 24-hour news cycle.

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    • Kevin,

      Thank you for the comment and for working with me on the story. SynBERC was a critical part of getting access to experts who could address the scientific and the regulatory aspects on the study. I’m also very happy to know that you would consider working with us in the future.

      I’m with you in that giving an expert opinion at a moments notice is very difficult, especially on complex issues. Which is why when we are working on embargoed stories, we try and give scientists 24-48 hours to read the paper and give us an informed comment which would be beneficial to reporters who are trying to understand the story. For obvious reasons this is not possible on breaking news stories or when we get the press release a day ahead of the embargo.

      It would certainly be desirable for researchers to have longer to consider all the issues in play, but we feel that in most cases what we do is an improvement over an expert receiving a phone call from a reporter asking them to comment on a study they have had 30 minutes to look over.

      Additionally, we are very keen for reporters to follow up directly with experts after receiving comments from GENeS, and when this happens the reporter hopefully already has a handle on the scientific nuances and the expert already has had time to digest the study.

      You are absolutely right in that science does not operate on a 24-hour news cycle. However, mainstream news about science often does and we feel it is important for experts to feed into that.

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