Review challenges BBC on science coverage

The BBC does a good job of covering science in its radio, television and web programming, according to a review commissioned by the BBC trust. However, the UK broadcaster should not be too quick to congratulate itself – the review also notes there are some areas in which the BBC could be doing a lot better.

In 2010 the BBC Trust – the  body which determines the course of the publically funded BBC – commissioned Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London and the  Science Communication Group at Imperial College London to review the BBC’s coverage of science.

The final report from the review, released today, congratulated the BBC for good coverage generally, but noted some areas that could be improved upon. Specifically, the reviewers found that a narrow range of external sources were used in reporting on science issues, there appeared to be a lack of contact and collaboration between divisions of the corporation and accuracy may be eschewed for the impression of editorial impartiality in coverage of scientific debate.

You can read the full report here.

Our colleagues at the UK Science Media Centre collected reaction from key figures in the science sector. For more information please contact the SMC NZ (; 04 499 5476)

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

“The former newsreader, Peter Sissons, claims in his autobiography that the BBC Trust report was commissioned in January 2010 as a response to blog campaigns by self-proclaimed ‘sceptics’ against the Corporation’s coverage of climate change. But one major response to this important report should be for the BBC to make stronger efforts to uphold the public interest by challenging the inaccurate and misleading claims of bloggers, campaigners and politicians who reject and deny the findings of mainstream science for ideological reasons.

“The BBC is required by law not to sacrifice accuracy for impartiality in the coverage of controversial scientific issues such as climate change. Yet, it is well known that there are particular BBC presenters and editors who allow self-proclaimed climate change ‘sceptics’ to mislead the public with unsubstantiated and inaccurate statements. For instance, the BBC TV programme ‘The Daily Politics’ recently allowed one ‘sceptic’ to assert, unchallenged, that “pensioners will literally die” as result of the UK’s climate change policies, and another to wrongly imply that the rise of nearly 40 per cent in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide might be due to natural causes.

“While the BBC has many excellent reporters, it is time for editors and presenters to stop giving an easy ride to those who mislead the public over scientific issues such as climate change.”

Dr Gail Cardew, Director of Science and Education at the Royal Institution said:

“The Royal Institution welcomes Prof Steve Jones’ recommendations in the BBC Trust review of science to address the issue of balance versus objectivity in communicating science. Like the BBC, the Ri hopes to stimulate lively debate around contentious issues whilst portraying an accurate view of the scientific consensus. The Ri will be exploring this report further at an event in conjunction with the BBC and ABSW in September.”

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, said:

“The BBC has played a significant part in creating the current surge of interest in science.  The way in which it covers science is generally of a very high quality.  It is, however, important that the need to separate opinion from evidence in coverage of some topics has been recognised.  It is important to have debate but marginal opinion, prominently expressed but not well based on evidence, can mislead the audience.  The BBC usually respects this but the challenge is to get it right all of the time.”

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust said:

“BBC coverage of science is usually of a high standard and has the potential to become world-leading if the BBC, as it promises, implements fully the recommendations of the excellent report by Professor Steve Jones.  His report highlights the issue that, from time to time, a drive for ‘impartiality at any cost’ by the BBC can lead to a highly misleading presentation of science in situations where the evidence points overwhelmingly in one direction rather than another. It is encouraging that the BBC Executive and BBC Trust accept this criticism and will work with programme makers to improve their understanding of this issue.”