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Biodiversity at risk or eco-propaganda?

The first Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment summary for policy makers was released on the day prince Archie was born and the Met Gala took place. While nothing can quite compete for press attention with the birth of a royal baby and celebrities in fancy dress, the IPBES global assessment received plenty of press attention. Since late April, IPBES has featured in over 23 thousand articles. I have not read them all! Examples of press media coverage can be found here and here .

The Global Assessment is the collective work of hundreds of scientists, runs 1,500 pages long, and reviews about 15,000 scientific papers. For full disclaimer, the BioTIME database (which I co-lead) contributed an indicator to the report, although I was not involved in the report itself and have not read it, as it is not yet public.

The summary for policy makers is a carefully crafted document that is remarkably successful in summarising, in about 40 pages, a complex scientific literature about the hundreds of metrics that exist to quantify both biological diversity across land and sea, across different types of organisms and ecosystems, and also the benefits that humans derive from nature. As is typical of consensus reports, the summary reads as a document where every sentence has been scrutinised and can be traced back to the scientific literature. The summary is also remarkably balanced and clear as to the uncertainty regarding each statement. Inevitably, the press media focuses only on the most sensational of the evidence presented, and for this report the number that caught everyone’s attention was that of 1 million species at risk of extinction.

The summary is accurate in the distinction between being at risk and going extinct, and remarkably the press is (mostly) accurate in the wording as well. The way the one million species number is estimated is also transparent, and Andy Purvis (an author on the report) has since explained the calculations involved. We estimate there are 8.7 million species on the planet (although only about 1.7 million have been described so far). Of these, the IUCN has assessed about 98 thousand for extinction risk, and classified 12 thousand as vulnerable, 9 thousand as endangered and 6 thousand as critically endangered. In total, about 25% of the species assessed are in one of these three categories, but these are not evenly distributed among different types of organisms with amphibians and mammals having far higher proportions than insects. Given the high proportion of insects in the number of species on the planet, and the low proportion of insects assessed, multiplying the overall proportion of vulnerable species by the 8.7 million species estimated to exist would be an overestimate. Instead, the report uses weighed proportions for different organisms to arrive at the 1 million species number.

There are some examples of articles questioning the balance of the report and portraying it as an environmental propaganda attack on economic growth. As is typical of articles poor on arguments, they are laced with ad hominen attacks, and include long rebutted estimates, rather than the many indicators included on the summary report recently released. A particularly curious example is written by Toby Young for the Spectator. This article, titled “The UN’s extinction warning doesn’t add up”, proceeds to (largely accurately) describe how the numbers are actually obtained. There are many elements of truth in this article. For example, the full report is not available yet (and personally I am looking forward the opportunity to dig in to the report). One can debate whether or not to include all three threatened categories in the calculations, and as a biodiversity scientist, I get paid to debate that and other details in the ways in which we estimate how biodiversity is changing on the planet. Debate is part of the Scientific method, and biodiversity science is healthy in that respect. However, to focus on such details is extremely unfair on the depth and balance of the summary report as a whole. To put it simply, the claim that the numbers don’t add up is just empty rhetoric, and disproven even by the article itself.


Science communication and policy making

The Young Academy of Scotland (YAS) is today launching an exciting new project that will bring politicians and academics together. Five YAS members will shadow their respective MSPs at Holyrood and in their constituency. The politicians will then visit the academics at their institutions. Through this approach each member of the pair will gain an understanding on how the other part works and what challenges they face. You can follow all the action on social media with this hashtag #YASMSPPairing. The scheme is inspired by the well-established and highly successful annual pairing initiative organised at Westminster by The Royal Society, in which I was lucky to participate during 2017. (See picture with paired MP, Stephen Gethins.)

The single most important thing that I took away from this experience is the complexity around evidence-based policy making and how well this aligns with the core mission of our blog. Here at Research the Headlines, we focus on how research is reported in the media. The main issues we tend to cover are exaggeration and sensationalism, together with over-simplification and selectivity. These are some of the ingredients used to build stories aimed at attracting readers. While it is great to make science exciting and accessible, quite often accuracy is lost and there are dangers of gross misinterpretations. The typical example is reporting relative risk in terms of absolute risk, which results in the magnification of otherwise negligible effects. See, for example, the misinterpretation of autism risk associated with c-section. Sensational headlines can have huge impact on public opinion with unexpected and occasionally catastrophic consequences. A case in point: the emergency we are facing due to lowered vaccination rates, fueled by media spin around the link between vaccines and autism.

Although the primary reason I joined this blog is my commitment to the promotion of accurate science reporting, it was not until I took part to the Westminster pairing scheme that I fully grasped the role that science communication can play in policy making. Up until then, I imagined that the key step would be providing the necessary evidence to the policy makers: they would be the ones who needed to be convinced by accessible, effectively presented facts. But things are not so simple. Politicians are elected upon their manifesto and when elected they need to respect their mandate. So, even if facts reach and convince them they may not take action, if their electorate remains unconvinced. Brexit, perhaps, provides a prime example – impact assessments do not predict positive outcomes associated with any type of Brexit for the economy, public sectors, businesses, research and international stand of the UK. And yet, Brexit must happen in order to respect the preference of electorate. Expert and informed opinion has clearly been dismissed. One question we could ask is whether facts could have been communicated in different ways at the time of the debate?

The Extinction Rebellion movement by climate activists has demonstrated alternative, creative strategies that may be able to offer more effective ways of communication. Scientists have been predicting the climate emergency for decades but very few measures have been implemented as a consequence of their reports and standard channels of communication. The activists are certainly raising the profile of the climate emergency and, despite the disruption they are creating, public support of the cause appears to be growing maybe more inspired by their commitment then the scientific data.

Our new YAS pairing scheme will give members to opportunity to learn about the intricacy of policy making, and understand better how to contribute to the process. There is no easy fix, but certainly  science communication beyond the academic sphere is a key step. Prof Andy Gardner, who is leading this initiative, has reinforced this commitment: “The motivation for this pairing scheme is that scientists have previously had opportunities to shadow parliamentarians at Westminster but not at the Scottish Parliament. We’re resolving this imbalance and, indeed, we’re going further, extending the opportunity not just to scientists but also to the whole of the academy. Our ultimate goal is to facilitate evidence-based policy making by building mutual understanding and lasting professional relationships between the academic and political worlds.”

Now more than ever it is important to establish trust, respect and positive channels of communication between experts and broader audiences. It is also important to remember that communications work better when information travels both ways. Scientists and experts should not limit their role within educational activities, but learn to have listening ears ready to capture questions, priorities and ideas from their audiences.

Ultimately, science move forward through evidence, while politics advances by consensus. Real progress might happen by building consensus around evidence. We are excited to see YAS creating a platform to pave the way to dialogue. We wish successful partnership to all participants.

Talking Headlines with Debbie Kennett

Debbie is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London. She writes about DNA testing for Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine and Family Tree Magazine, and has written two books for the History Press: DNA and Social Networking and The Surnames Handbook. She promotes the responsible use of DNA testing as a tool for genealogical research. To this end she has helped to create educational resources for the genetic genealogy community, notably by co-founding the ISOGG Wiki. Her blog Cruwys News features articles on DNA, family history and surname research. She has been interviewed about genetic ancestry testing for BBC Radio 4, appearing on You and Yours and The Business of Genetic Ancestry. She is often asked to comment on DNA stories for the UK and US press and has been cited in numerous publications including The Times, The Observer, The Atlantic, Bloomberg News and The Washington Post. Debbie can be found on Twitter commenting and tweeting about anything to do with DNA.

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Looking back at Research the Headlines in 2018

2018 was another trying year for evidence-based journalism. Research the Headlines was set up in 2013 to examine how research is portrayed in the media, and to give the public helpful advice and tools when trying to get to the heart of a news story.

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Talking Headlines: Simon Fisher

Simon is director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, and Professor of Language and Genetics at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, both in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He is interested in tracing the functional links between genes, brains and human traits like speech, language and reading. Simon’s research aims for a multi-disciplinary viewpoint, trying to integrate data from genomics, psychology, neuroscience, developmental biology and evolutionary anthropology. He is keen on communicating science in an accessible but accurate way, on Twitter (@ProfSimonFisher) and beyond. He has given talks at international conferences across a diverse range of fields, and spoken to school, student and public audiences, including at the Rome Science Festival and New Scientist Live. Simon is an elected fellow of the Royal Society of Biology, awards include the Francis Crick Lecture and Medal, and the Eric Kandel Young Neuroscientists Prize.

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Research the Fringe 2018

Dear readers, as it’s August again we would like to welcome you to another roundup of research related shows on at the various festivals hosted in Edinburgh in the next few weeks. These include the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, its more prestigious elder, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and the Edinburgh International TV Festival. As we have done in previous years we would like to provide suggestions for research-related shows and events for any Research the Headlines readers who may be visiting Edinburgh this month.

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Brain blog showcase: Do we really lose it if we don’t use it?

All this week we’ve been showcasing the work of students who have been “researching the headlines” as part of their undergraduate studies. Their task was to describe an original research report exploring how lifestyle affects brain health in a manner accessible to non-experts, as well as evaluating the media coverage of the research. If you’re interested in using this approach in your own teaching, you can contact Alan Gow ( for more information and materials.

For our final “brain blog”, we have…

Do we really lose it if we don’t use it?

by Chloe Meek

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Brain blog showcase: Say “I do” to a healthier mind

All this week we’re showcasing the work of students who have been “researching the headlines” as part of their undergraduate studies. Their task was to describe an original research report exploring how lifestyle affects brain health in a manner accessible to non-experts, as well as evaluating the media coverage of the research. If you’re interested in using this approach in your own teaching, you can contact Alan Gow ( for more information and materials.

Next up in the “brain blog” showcase, we have…

Say “I do” to a healthier mind

by Aaron Irving

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Brain blog showcase: Does Aerobic Exercise Improve Alzheimer’s Symptoms In Older Age?

All this week we’re showcasing the work of students who have been “researching the headlines” as part of their undergraduate studies. Their task was to describe an original research report exploring how lifestyle affects brain health in a manner accessible to non-experts, as well as evaluating the media coverage of the research. If you’re interested in using this approach in your own teaching, you can contact Alan Gow ( for more information and materials.

Next up in the “brain blog” showcase, we have…

Does Aerobic Exercise Improve Alzheimer’s Symptoms In Older Age?

by Kae Cynn Wong

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Brain blog showcase: Students “research the headlines”

At Research the Headlines we explore how research is discussed in the media. We try to add additional details to existing coverage, or help our readers get a clearer understanding of how new research might make its way from “lab to headline”. Through different activities, we also help others develop the skills needed to become more critical consumers of both research and media reporting; for example, via our How to “Research the Headlines” series and our “Rewrite the Headlines” workshops and competition for primary school children.

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