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Scientists 3, Reporters 1

From the LabLit short story series

Nicholas Russell 30 January 2011

Alwyn began to feel a sense of betrayal – shouldn’t detailed technical issues be kept under wraps in the popular press?

PProfessor Alwyn Jones ran a mighty empire. His laboratories took up a whole wing of the university medical school, his many acolytes toiled day and night in search of scientific insight, world leaders in their research fields dropped in almost daily to give keynote seminars, research council and medical charity evaluation teams were constantly on site approving how their money was spent, representatives from leading pharmaceutical companies lunched him weekly, and he played squash with at least four of his leading associates running spin-out biotech companies in the neighbouring innovation park. He had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and was widely expected to receive a public honour soon; some speculated a knighthood.

Alwyn’s teams were active in several promising areas of research, but the main focus of their effort was looking for genes which might be associated with particular cancers. This was technologically complex work calling for sophisticated instruments, powerful computers, and technically and intellectually skilled people. Alwyn Jones was a man who could assemble such talent and resources. A steady stream of interesting scientific papers and exploratory patents flowed from his laboratories.

It was often more difficult to go from showing an association between a gene and a cancer to proving that the gene actually caused the cancer. But the initial step of establishing links was important for the scientific discipline of molecular genetics as a whole, of which Jones was a leading practitioner. Discovering the causes of serious diseases which worried the public and the medical profession was clearly a good and useful thing to be doing.

Alwyn made sure that anything newsworthy found its way into newspapers and onto television and radio. He had originally worked with the university press office to help generate such coverage, but so exciting was his work and so skilled a media player had he become, that he now operated independently, just letting the press office know when his work would next be publicised. He had excellent contacts with the Mastiff news group, which owned both quality and popular newspapers, as well as several satellite broadcasting channels.

Alwyn was especially pleased with an upcoming research paper from one of his research groups. Debbie Mountfield’s team were reporting their work on genes which might cause cancer in mice. They had begun by breeding a strain of hairless mice, whose naked skins should have made them susceptible to skin cancer. But, in practice, they turned out to be highly resistant to such cancer, even when exposed to the high levels of ultra-violet light. Then, by using some state-of-the-art biotechnology, they had put a range of gene variants into this hairless strain. Debbie’s group ran complex statistical tests to see whether any of these artificially introduced genes made the mice more likely to develop skin melanoma cancers when exposed to ultra-violet light. One particular gene did indeed make the mice significantly more susceptible. It was a mouse gene, and a poorly understood one at that. But there seemed no doubt that this gene was important in controlling the physiology and biochemistry of the skin when it was exposed to strong sunlight, and that the finding might hold true in humans – although proving that the human counterpart gene did the same was going to be time consuming and difficult.

Alwyn wanted to publicise the work as widely as possible to let the public know what progress he was making, as well as his his paymasters in the councils, charities and government departments, and (just as importantly) his rivals. He usually started his press campaigns with Gerald Patterson, the very senior and long-standing science editor of the Mastiff Group’s Daily Hound.

Alwyn liked Gerald: he was earnest, reliable and had a sycophantic streak. Gerald had acquired a doctorate from the same university department as Alwyn, albeit several years earlier and in a not particularly interesting topic. But it proved a common bond and Alwyn was assiduous in inviting Gerald to discuss things over lunch, to spend some time in the labs and to talk with the people actually doing the work. Some of his researchers told Alwyn that they found Gerald’s visits time-wasting, but Alwyn always said that these interruptions were well worth it, no matter what his staff felt.

So when Alwyn was ready to announce Debbie’s latest findings, press releases were drafted and a press conference called for the day the paper would be published. Alwyn picked up the phone to the Hound and asked for Gerald. But this time his influence let him down: Gerald was not there. He had moved on to a post with an international science website. The new science editor was someone called John Henry (Harry) Hall, a young man who had cut his journalistic teeth on trade journals in chemistry and engineering. Hall was therefore off Alwyn’s radar because he only looked at the medical trade press.

Alwyn did not like unforeseen change. On the phone Hall seemed somewhat clipped and distant. Nevertheless Alwyn persuaded him to come to lunch and see the labs, and receive advance notice of the latest Alwyn Jones-led achievement.

“Welcome to our palace of varieties,” Alwyn said, proffering his trademark bearish handshake to the journalist. Harry’s return grip was disappointingly anaemic. Nevertheless, Alwyn pressed on: “I’m very pleased to meet Hall of the Hound, or should that perhaps be Harry Hardnose?”

Harry gave Alwyn a faint, cool smile, acknowledging the second reference to a boorish cartoon journalist featured in a satirical strip in the Guardian newspaper, but missing the older, oblique allusion to Evelyn Waugh’s fictional foreign correspondent in his satire on journalism, Scoop, the unfortunate Boot of the Daily Beast. Young science editors not trained in mainstream journalism didn’t necessarily read Scoop anymore. Alwyn worked hard at being expansive over lunch, throughout the lab visit, and in talking through the press release and the scientific paper on which it was based. This was the approach he always used with strangers, and it usually worked. But when Harry finally left, Alwyn wasn’t convinced he had won him round.

On the whole, Alwyn’s efforts with publicity for the mouse melanoma work were gratifyingly successful. They were covered in all the quality papers, and a couple of the popular ones as well; A Mastiff satellite channel aired a four minute filmed report, and there were several mentions on BBC television and radio news bulletins, and on commercial television news as well. All the journalists described the core achievement correctly and in some cases, even covered the background science and technology. The gist of all the reports was that a well-known scientist and his team had made progress in a very important area of medical science. Alwyn and Debbie were written up as minor geniuses selflessly pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. It was just the sort of coverage Alwyn, his university, and his sponsors wanted.

Alwyn turned with particular interest to the Hound. His lunch with Harry had been several days before the press release went out to anyone else, and well before the embargo date set at the end of the press conference. This was a courtesy he had always extended to Gerald in the past, so he had done the same for Harry, expecting that the extra time would lead to a detailed and nuanced positive report.

At first glance he was pleased. Harry’s basic news report was at the bottom of the front page, a more prominent position than in any other paper, and it gave essentially the same positive story. But he soon saw why it had made the front page: there were references to a longer feature article inside, and to an editorial – Harry must have persuaded his editor to devote more than the usual space to the Alwyn story. With great anticipation, Alwyn turned the pages until he found what he was looking for.

Harry’s feature article was a long one running under a rambling headline: ‘Another science breakthrough, but is the new work on skin cancer all that it seems? Harry Hall asks whether this is the right kind of science’.

Alwyn felt his heart rate increase. On the primary point about the medical value of the progress, Harry pointed out that the work had only been done with mice using mouse genes, and that there was as yet no evidence that the human version would have the same effects. He agreed that the research was scientifically interesting and innovative, but said that Alwyn’s discussion of treatment for human melanoma cancer was pure speculation.

Just as unwelcome was Harry’s critique of the detailed interpretation of the results. Harry had used the extra time available for his story to do some ringing round. Alwyn detected Sir Michael Peach’s fingerprints all over Harry’s text. The be-knighted Peach and Jones were rivals with a longstanding loathing for each other. Peach had clearly offered Harry quite a lot of the venomous criticism that he usually kept for scientific conferences, and the more specialised trade and professional press. Given Peach’s well-known difference of opinion over the technical validity of Alwyn’s standard approach, his generally more conservative interpretations of results were perfectly reasonable. While Alwyn considered Peach’s objections to be inconvenient and unnecessarily pessimistic, they could not be dismissed as wrong or unreasonable.

This wouldn’t have happened on Gerald’s watch. Gerald had always accepted Alwyn’s interpretations, and never sought out technical disagreements with other labs. Alwyn was uncomfortably aware that any reporter who chose to do so could always find some technical disagreement among specialists. Alwyn began to feel a sense of betrayal – shouldn’t detailed technical issues be kept under wraps in the popular press? Surely the lay public wasn’t qualified to handle such nuanced arguments.

But as he read on, Alwyn’s uneasiness grew. In the second, longer part of the article Harry questioned the justification for the emphasis on searching for cancer genes, and the amount of funding going into it. He argued that its current prominence was a consequence of scientific fashion, and asked whether the undue weight given to searching for genes was appropriate. Why was so much cancer research was done with molecular genetics rather than on preventing, or interfering with, the known environmental causes of human skin cancer, especially excessive exposure to strong sunlight by sunbathers and people working out of doors? In that area, Harry noted, most of the running was being made by cosmetic companies that manufactured and sold sunscreen products.

Harry had dug up data from public and charitable funding agencies for medical research reporting the balance of funding among different types of research. The mismatch (as Harry saw it) between the over-funding of molecular genetics compared with environmental or behavioural strategies was dramatic. Molecular genetics was large and growing, while other research areas were small and shrinking. As the feature carried on, Alwyn saw that Harry had even commissioned an intern to do some undercover work at a cosmetics company, who had found some evidence that academics were offered substantial inducements to speak out in support of company products, and to put their names to some of the flaky scientific articles that the company published to support their claims for product effectiveness. Harry then connected the two sections of his polemic together to suggest that the public sector scientific establishment should undertake research into preventive and behavioural approaches to skin protection to a greater extent and to better effect. Too much work in this area came from self-interested commercial cosmetic houses. He argued that it would be better if public resources were diverted into this area, perhaps by transferring some of the excessive funds pouring into molecular genetics.

The Hound’s editorial reiterated much of what Harry had said and called on the government to intervene and steer more public and charitable funds towards a wider range of approaches to dealing with skin and other cancers. Alwyn wondered bitterly if Harry felt a special sense of virtue at unsheathing the sword of journalistic truth and lopping chunks off organisations given to what he saw as distortion caused by their self-interested behaviour.

To Alwyn’s discomfort, Harry’s attacks attracted interest for a while. Other papers repeated his arguments, and at least two documentaries, one on radio and one for television, were commissioned to look at science in the cosmetic industry. The radio programme was broadcast, but the television programme was delayed and then abandoned before a single frame of film was shot. Interest in Harry’s critique declined as the various offended parties and their allies (Alwyn Jones himself, the cancer research establishment, the cosmetic industry, and assorted pro-science bloggers) came to the rescue.

The cancer establishment and the cosmetic industry very seldom had an opportunity to make common cause, but an attack which criticised them both (albeit for different reasons) called up a united front to face off challenges to their work as anything other than virtuous and socially beneficial. Molecular biology revisionists showed (to their own satisfaction) that their discipline was both cost-effective and not at all narrow in its approach, and that therefore the extra funding going its way was justified. Pro-consumer activists argued, on a different front, that cosmetic companies provided customers with what they wanted, and that valid science did exist which supported the presence of pharmacologically useful UV blocking compounds in their products.


Once the backlash emerged, Harry’s editor was less keen for him to spend time and money chasing phantoms that few others seemed to think were significant. He said there were times, places and contexts (Harry, my old son) where critical investigative journalism was needed, but the sedate backwater of science coverage was not one of them. The editor began to miss Gerald’s worthy, positive and uncontentious science coverage and to ask himself why he had hired this somewhat obnoxious young Turk. Too many people in science and industry did not seem to like him. If they refused to co-operate then Harry’s job as a science journalist could simply not be done.

Two years later Alwyn’s team announced more successful steps on the long road to treatment of human skin cancer (at least that was how they presented it). These steps were largely technical, to do with expressing human genes in the hairless mice. Positive, explanatory reporting led to general public approval, and it was accepted that human treatment was on the horizon for tomorrow. It was true that tomorrow might never come, but while there was life there was hope and so forth, and the press said the work was worth doing in the near certainty that something valuable would turn up from it.

The interpretations and speculations made by Alwyn’s team were as open to question as before, with the chance that the new work would lead to rapid human benefit as remote as ever. But the Hound did not raise these points. Harry’s own article followed the mode of bland explanation and reasonable enthusiasm adopted by science reporters elsewhere. Harry had seen that it might not be such a good idea to stand out too much from the crowd. He did not raise his ongoing doubts about the quality of the science, or in its direction and emphasis as it followed the existing pattern of funding. He saw that it was safer (or at least easier) to do what was generally accepted in science writing; listen to scientists, relay accurately their data and explanations, and celebrate what they had done. No-one seemed interested in a properly critical approach.

Harry did not stay long in science journalism. He moved to health, then environment, before skipping away altogether to take up permanent residence on the sports desk. In the meantime Gerald’s spell at the website had not worked out and Harry’s leaving allowed him to be re-appointed to the Hound. So from that point until he retired from the lab with his knighthood, Alwyn could rely on Gerald to explain clearly and in a positive vacuum what his teams were doing. Gerald never raised questions about the validity, quality, or direction of Alwyn’s work. Gerald felt that the good science journalist should keep the social contract between science and society alive by bringing a constant stream of good news about progress to a public eager to hear more about it. After all, undermining or questioning parts of science was liable to generate public distrust in science as a whole, and that sort of science-denying position was not on. Surely even Harry Hall could see that?

But maybe Harry couldn’t, and rather than try to keep a lonely and unpopular vigil, he devoted his undoubted talents to sophisticated coverage of the beautiful game instead.