The Science Media Centre (SMC) in London is a unit that aims to facilitate the interactions between scientists, journalists and the media. During the last 10 years or so, they have invited me several times to present my research to journalists, and Fiona Fox who heads the SMC became a trusted friend and ally. Her letter reproduced below (with her permission, of course) is deeply touching for me; if it were the only reaction to my new book that I ever received, it would have been worth the effort writing the memoire.
I have just finished your book and wanted to write to say how much I loved it. It was fascinating in every way and a compelling read.
However I also found the full story of the end of the unit profoundly depressing. I was a fan of the unit’s work from the SMC’s rather narrow perspective of science in the media. Given the percentage of the population who use some form of alternative medicine I was very, very keen to ensure that the SMC helped to bring the best scientific evidence to bear on the media debates. However as you highlight in the book finding academics who are doing top quality clinical research in this field is not easy – all roads led us to your unit. Since the unit has closed the amount we have been able to do proactively on this issue has declined dramatically which I fear is a loss to the wider public and to the public understanding of medical science.
However until reading your book I had not understood the whole story about the closure of the unit and now feel that the scientific community should have fought much harder to save it. If it had just run out of steam and funds that would be fine – but your claim that it was closed down in part because of the influence of people who do not want to see critical research carried out in this field really is bad news for us all. All of us who care about the importance of bringing the best evidence to bear on contested areas of science should reflect on why we lost one of the best units in this field.
I also wanted to say how important it is that you spoke to a trusted science editor about your concerns about the Smallwood report. It feels to me like people were looking very narrowly at rules governing the media release of a report without considering the wider ethics of what you did. Had you remained quiet about your concern at the time the mass media would almost certainly have been full of headlines championing the need for alternative medicine on the NHS and may well have reported inaccurate facts from this ostensibly authoritative report. Worse still it looks likely the authors may even have used your involvement as a badge of credibility to enhance the media coverage. Your commitment to accurate reporting of alternative medicine has been second only to your research record and challenging myths and inaccuracies does indeed often involve taking courage and embracing the media interest when it most matters.
I will certainly be buying the book for my friends inside and outside science. While it is ostensibly about one man’s research career, it is for me about something much more profound..it’s about courage it takes to stand up for the very best science in areas that are contested in wider society. There is not enough of that courage in science but there is a huge amount of it in the pages of this book. I hope you can remember that the work of the unit will live on for many, many years to come, better informing the debate and proving the evidence base for those who want to follow in your footsteps.