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The hidden side of clinical trials

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Evidence matters to the public

Join us on 1st November at Parliament to make the case

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Plant Science Panel

Insecticides, biofuels, GMOs …

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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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September 2011

Asking for Evidence at the British Science Festival and beyond...

I started at Sense About Science on Monday 12th September as the new Events and Campaigns Officer, and it’s been a baptism of fire.  Síle Lane and I went to Bradford on Tuesday  to launch the Ask for Evidence campaign and run some events. I helped run the press briefing  Síle delivered – she encouraged them to ask for the evidence behind claims, introduced them to all the wonderful campaign supporters, and reminded them of our past evidence hunting adventures.

Then we ran a session called ‘“Scientists say…” – But how do they know?’ with a really lively audience, and had fantastic contributions from the panel. Síle chaired the session while I took calls from press and supporters, and photographed the session. The audience quizzed the panel on how to ask for evidence, ensure quality peer review, and why doing this is important.

Chatting afterwards with people from the session’s audience,  we heard some great stories about evidence hunting, and on the cusp of the launch of the campaign met many new supporters.

Síle and I felt like hot property throughout the day, being pulled from place to place to talk about the campaign. Síle squeezed in an interview for the Guardian Science Podcast, then spoke in a dynamic and passionate debate for the motion that ‘ this house believes the same level of evidence should be applied to CAM as to conventional medicine’ – and won! Meanwhile, Professor Hardaker and I were excited to be asked to be part of the Festival’s xchange podcast (day 3), talking about why evidence matters and the nature of science and evidence. It was a fun end to an exciting day, and an excellent way to spend the eve of the launch of Ask for Evidence.

Back in the office as part of an amazing first week I was involved in drumming up support for ‘Ask for Evidence’, writing a ‘For the Record’ piece, and getting to know an amazing team of passionate and energetic people. I think is a perfect introduction to campaigning for critical thinking about scientific evidence, and celebrating this progress with a series of events.

Standing up for science in South Africa

I’ve just got back from a trip to South Africa. For a while now, we’ve been getting requests to run workshops there, as researchers really want to set up a VoYS network. I spent a few days working with them and sharing my experiences.

In South Africa 24% of 15 year olds are illiterate, life expectancy is just 52 years and 1 in 5 people aged 15 – 49 yrs old is HIV positive. When Thandi Mgwebi, National Research Foundation, outlined these challenges in her talk at the Witwatersrand Post doc symposium in Johannesburg, I was really taken a back. I’d also never realised just how few researchers there are in South Africa – there are just 13 post-docs at the University of Witwatersrand.

Wits post-docs

Talking to members of the scientific community in Pretoria, it was clear that with so few people in research, there is a lot of pressure on them to make a difference and engage with the public. They also stressed to me how they need to be careful not to march in all-knowing and discredit traditional healing practices that are not evidence based, without considering how the community would react. Scientists are carrying out research on many of the traditional plant-based remedies in South Africa, to try and bridge this gap between medicine and myth.

I helped run a workshop for early career researchers at Wits and they got to hear from scientists and journalists with a wealth of media experience. What struck me was how similar their messages were to those that are raised at our UK workshops. But there were obviously also some South African specific examples – HIV specialist Professor Glenda Gray described difficult dealings with an AIDS denialist journalist and the importance of getting vital health information to the public.

I was taken by the researchers’ enthusiasm and determinism to stand up for science and set up a VoYS network in South Africa.  I’ll be keeping an eye on how they get on. Maybe next time, they can come to the UK to tell us what they’ve been up to?