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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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Improving public understanding of science and engineering

Elle JohnstonEloise Johnston is a VoYS member, who recently graduated with a postgraduate diploma in public and urban policy from the University of Glasgow and also has a Masters of International Relations from Macquarie University in Sydney.


How to improve public understanding of science and engineering through mainstream and social media

The unstoppable march of science and engineering has progressively held a stronger influence in society. But despite Government efforts to improve public understanding, the communication bridges between the scientific community and the public continue to be rickety. Whilst most rely on mainstream and social media to hear about scientific breakthroughs, evidence is often unreliable or unclear, largely due to the undefined role that scientists have in the media.

In an interview with Lord Taverne, founder of Sense About Science, he explained to me that many scientists often avoid engaging with the media because they fear research will be misrepresented or because they are unable to communicate their research to a lay audience. This has meant that the importance of peer review, the disjuncture between the timeframes of academic research and policy decisions, or why so-called “wicked” problems like obesity are so difficult to resolve, remain misunderstood.

Accordingly, I believe that scientists and engineers need to take a proactive role standing up for evidence-based and reliable science reporting in mainstream and social media. Like the evolution of patient-centred care in the medical profession has highlighted the need for effective communication of complex medical decisions at a level appropriate for each patient, the reliability and clarity of science and engineering reporting in the media must become expected. This could be achieved through four initiatives:

  1. Be compulsory for science students to take media communication modules at university and be examined on their ability to relate to the public.
  2. Grants awarded to various organisations that proactively and effectively communicate their work to the public across media channels.
  3. Similar to the Financial Conduct Authority, a major independent organisation launched devoted to holding the media accountable for all science-related claims.
  4. Universities encourage science and engineering students to enter careers in politics and media through new graduate programmes.

Royal Society of EdinburghThe possible impact may be that the public could make informed decisions through reliable and understandable evidence; widened public consultation would mean enhanced democratic input from diverse public groups; and individuals would have an improved ability to analyse government policies. As a report by the Royal Society of Edinburgh argued: “Science is concerned to understand the working of nature, it is for society to determine how that understanding should be used"1. Society must first, however, understand how to use it.



1. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, (2012), Briefing Paper (12-02): The Role of Scientific Evidence and Advice in Public Policy: a briefing for members of the Scottish Parliament. Available from:, accessed 28 May 2015.

VoYS pinboard

  • Top tip 1: Ask for Evidence. If you’re being sold a product or asked to believe a claim then you deserve to know whether it’s based on evidence – or imagination.

  • Top tip 2: Detox. It’s a marketing myth – our body does it without pricey potions and detox diets.

  • Top tip 3: Superfood. There is no such thing, just foods that are high in some nutrients.

  • Top tip 4: Cleansing. You shouldn’t be trying to cleanse anything other than your skin or hair.

  • Top tip 5: If it sounds too good to be true… it probably is.

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