“The urgency to get the scientific data out there means that information is coming out in a preliminary and raw form as soon as it is finished. When it comes from reliable groups that is fantastic—but when it does not that is potentially really dangerous,” said Fox.
“It has put a lot more responsibility on journalists—as well as press officers—to be the ones to make the judgment about the quality of research because we’ve lost the protective blanket of peer review. That can be very hard,” she said.
The tension between fast science and definitive science has created strains right along the science communications chain, with journalists wading through myriad scientific updates every day and scientists having to cope with instantaneous media reactions and questions about their work on social media—as well as countering outright lies.
Overall, Fox believes both sides have risen to the challenge, although things have been complicated by the huge political ramifications of COVID-19. This means the story gets covered in the media as much by non-science reporters as by specialists, which can cause problems.
The political journalist’s instinct is to focus on policy missteps, government U-turns and disagreements. However, this approach does not fit easily with the realities of science inquiry, where the whole point is to learn from the emerging evidence and adapt decisions accordingly.
“Science is nuanced and complicated, and the public actually get that,” Fox said. “They can cope with hearing that the vaccines are working but, at the same time, it is not OK to go out and party. I think the public have shown themselves to be really sophisticated and, at the same time, we’ve seen more scientists than ever before considering communications to be part of their job and really stepping up to the plate.”
At some point, of course, the pandemic will come to an end—and the big question is what happens then. Will the world of science communications simply revert to the old way of doing things? Will journalists, scientists and the wider public be content to wait once again for peer review and careful deliberation? Or is the genie out of the bottle?
To some extent, the pandemic has merely accelerated a trend that was already occurring, with more science being published on the internet ahead of peer review even before COVID-19 hit. Indeed, the practice has been commonplace for several years in physics, where the latest news on sub-atomic particles or deep space is routinely shared through preprints.
Medical science, however, is different. Unlike the latest discoveries about the structure of the universe, when it comes to disease research, lives are on the line. An incorrect paper in bioscience can, for example, send government health policy in the wrong direction or seriously mislead the public about the risks and benefits of certain interventions.
“We need to be discerning. It can be dangerous to human health to put out medical research prematurely, whereas the same risks don’t apply if you are talking about gravitational waves,” Fox said.
“So, as soon as this pandemic is over, I am minded to push back. Clearly, there was a need for speed on COVID but that isn’t true for many other topics. In those cases, it makes sense to spend three or four months in peer review to ensure that information is really reliable when it reaches the public,” she said.
“I think we might have a fight on our hands.”
Ben Hirschler is a Senior Advisor based in Brunswick’s London office. He spent more three decades at Reuters. For nearly 20 years, he was the news agency’s senior pharmaceuticals correspondent.