French Plan For Improving Science Communication Stirs Up Controversy

“At A Time When French Society Is Crossed By Currents Of Irrationality And Doubts About Progress And Knowledge,


France will launch an initiative to bring scientists and journalists closer together and boost public access to reliable information, according to a provision in a 10-year science plan that moved one step closer to parliamentary approval this week. The Government has chosen to resolutely reverse the trend,” the science ministry stated in the draft bill preamble. Although many applaud the idea of reducing misinformation through deeper ties between science and the media, some observers are worried about the potential vulnerability of the initiative to political or corporate influence, and its threat to journalistic independence.

The French Association for Scientific Information (ASIF) welcomes the idea of “making new and reliable resources available to the public and journalists,” climate physicist Francois-Marie Bréon writes in an email on behalf of the association, which aims to fight the misuse of scientific results towards economic or ideological ends. But, Bréon says, a concern is that any government initiative could have the perverse effect of provoking people who already lack trust in official information. By its mere existence, a new government center could “reinforce obscurantist or conspiratorial discourse” rather than stifling it, he says.

On paper, the French initiative would seem to emulate science media centers (SMCs) in the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and elsewhere. The new activities promoted by the French government would “allow rapid contact between journalists and researchers, promote citizens’ access to reliable scientific information, and increase the contribution of scientific insights into public debates on major current topics,” the draft bill states.

That is the mission of the U.K. SMC, which since 2002 has hosted briefings between scientists and journalists and provided scientists’ comments on controversial subjects that can be quoted in media stories. The U.K. center draws its funding from a range of donors including universities, industry, charities, scientific societies, and government (AAAS, the publisher of Science, is a former funder). To maintain independence, it has a multi-funder model in which donations from individual institutions are capped at 5% of the organization’s annual income.

Earlier in the week, the draft bill explicitly called for the creation of a new entity like the U.K. center. However, Fiona Fox, its founding director, says that she has yet to hear from France about its plans. Germany, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada – and soon Malaysia and Eastern Africa – have all modeled their centers after the U.K. SMC. To belong to this global network, she adds, the centers must agree to abide by a charter that calls for transparency and a multi-funder model. Fox applauds France’s interest and says that the U.K. SMC was also set up following a call from U.K. policymakers (20 years ago this week). But she is concerned that the French entity would remain dependent on the government. “If there is an organization in France setting up and calling itself a ‘science media center’ and they’re not in touch with us and they’re not subscribing to [the charter’s] principles, then we wouldn’t be happy about that,” she says.

Yet even the U.K. SMC and its cousins face their share of criticism. A widespread concern is that SMCs encourage lazy journalism by spoon-feeding quotes and comments to reporters. If based on the U.K. model, “we are rather hostile to this project,” says Yves Sciama, president of the French Association of Science Journalists. Another concern, he says, is a loss of journalistic independence if SMC funders set the tone and agenda of what the media covers.

The proposal for a French SMC came under fire on 22 September, when French newspaper Le Monde revealed the government’s plan, which until then had gone unnoticed among the more than 300 provisions in the draft bill. The story questioned whether the new center was intended to be “an instrument of influence and supervision of scientific information.” Perhaps as a result, the explicit mention of a French SMC was removed from the draft bill that was approved on 23 September by the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament. The bill now refers to “a ‘science and media’ series of actions or network” rather than an SMC, and calls for the involvement of universities and audiovisual professionals to disseminate the scientific culture and results. The bill says the National Research Agency would fund at least part of these science communication efforts. The bill now will undergo debate in the parliamentary Senate, where further changes could be made, but it is expected to become law in the coming weeks.

Virginie Tournay, an innovation sociologist at SciencePo Paris and member of ASIF’s sponsoring committee, has long advocated for the creation of a “trusted third party” to fight misinformation on socially sensitive topics like biotechnology. But she does not know how the government came to include the provision for the new science and media initiative. Her proposal to coordinate science communication efforts is closer to the latest language in the bill than an SMC. But whatever initiative is put in place to reduce the gap between scientific consensus and public opinion, it “can only work in partnership with science journalists,” she says. “It would be a mistake to launch something that they consider to be a form of control or interference with their professional freedom.”

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