The first thing I’d point out here relates to ‘public interest. In my experience, the general public cares about medical science if the issue at hand is very concrete, and very close to being used. They want advancement now and are less interested in health developments set to take off in in 30 years.
Perceptions differ of course depending on background. In richer, developed countries, they will be interested in emerging technologies even from other regions, if it is clear that these technologies will be available in their home country in the future, and that they could be beneficial. This public is likely to be over 50 years old, and to read, listen, watch and learn about medical developments that may affect their own health – particularly if they relate to the prevalent medical issues affecting this demographic – like cardiovascular disease, cancers, degenerative illnesses, vision and diabetes. Clearly there are exceptions that can pique the interest of a younger demographic –for example on very specific subjects like sexual and reproductive health, organ transplants (post-accidents), or spectacular childhood diseases.
In developing countries, the general public is more likely to engage if they see an immediate reward and understand the benefits it will bring them immediately, to their children or themselves. New vaccines are a good example, that are more readily available or easier to administer.
But the public interest and the science media don’t always see eye to eye.
Specialized magazines like Nature or Science, aimed at researchers, alongside quality daily newspapers like NYTimes, Le Monde, or El Pais, and specialized blogs or websites will be interested in writing or talking about emerging technologies, very early in their development process, often before these stories would be perceived as relevant by the ‘general public’. Let’s take the example of ‘synthetic biology’. Specialist groups have been hearing, talking and writing about it for more than 15 years, but the general public – mainly still informed by radio and TV – still won’t have heard of the terminology. It’s a huge area of development however, with potentially far-reaching benefits, so the perceived public interest isn’t always the best measure of what makes the right story for science journalists.
In my view science communication can be much improved by establishing processes where capable communicators from Academia are front and centre. People tend to have confidence in Nobel prizewinners, serious professors in universities etc, but these groups need to recognize that at some point, they should not only be talking to their peers or to ‘serious’ press but to all media, in the public interest. They need to realize and accept that their discoveries, patents or announcements need ethical analysis, so they can understand early what kind of obstacles may arise as these technologies develop. Also, increasingly these days people seek out answers, so there is a need for excellent quality information to be available on websites for interested people, who don’t always wait for answers to be put in front of them.
In terms of Industry, there can be lack of trust from the public. Legitimate developments can be viewed cynically unless the firm at its helm has either very strong credibility, earned via longevity, or is a fresh start-up that clearly explains its aims. Otherwise, there can always be a suspicion that this new technology offers promise only for the firm and not the general public. In some cases more advanced collaboration between the public and private sectors would help, so these technologies can be fully explained and their usefulness assessed. Conflicts of interest can be rooted out early. In France, recently for example, with e-cigarettes, the question is: is it safer to smoke them? If so should they be recommended on health grounds, and by the manufacturer, or by public health authorities? Or even perhaps a bit of both? Likewise with Baclofen, a pill that claims to dramatically reduce (or remove) the craving for alcohol.
The media (and the internet) will always find any deception or conflict of interest, and it will be revealed eventually. The backlash from not setting things out clearly from the start can be enormous and the confusion very harmful.
by Dominique Leglu, Editor in Chief, Sciences et Avenir (French monthly magazine)
Dominique Leglu is participating in: Media, Academia and Industry; conflict, collaboration and the public interest in medical science advances at 11:00 on Tuesday 25 June in the Small Hall (4th floor). You can hear from other GE panelists at www.ge.com/world-conference-science-journalists