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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 May 2006, 04:56 GMT 05:56 UK
Caution urged over science errors
MMR reports led to widespread concern about the vaccine
Mistakes in science research have distorted the public perception of such scientific issues as the MMR vaccine and GM crops, senior UK scientists say.

A Royal Society report calls for scientists to weigh up carefully the likely impact of their statements before talking about research results.

The society said errors were not confined to misreporting by the media.

It said experts should consider public interest, not just whether the research would be interesting to the public.

Professor Sir Patrick Bateson, who chaired the working group that produced the report, said: "We are very concerned that scientists should learn to produce good lay summaries of what they're doing.

"We're also concerned about people sometimes producing work which is damaging," he told BBC Five Live.

"There's a famous case of the triple vaccine - the MMR - which led to a report in the press that then led to lots of people not having their children vaccinated."

MMR concerns

In the case of the MMR vaccine, the catalyst for the media reports had been a study published in the respected medical journal The Lancet.

The fuss over GM crops in Britain began after a professor at a respected institute said his experiments showed that biotech potatoes had stunted the growth of lab rats - his statement was made before other scientists had had a chance to check his work.

The fallout was exacerbated when the British Medical Association said that it, too, had worries about GM foods; but this statement of concern was retracted after the organisation discovered famine-struck nations were turning away much needed food aid because of the advice.

The Royal Society report cautions scientists and journalists when publicising research presented at conferences.

This material may be preliminary, it says, and the public interest would not be served if the research was later "shown to be wrong after being checked by peer review".

The Royal Society working group also noted that some misleading media reports had occurred because scientists had not checked press releases for accuracy.

Lord Rees, the president of the Royal Society, said: "Recent episodes such as the high-profile discrediting of papers on cloning are likely to bring the quality and reliability of all research under greater scrutiny.

"Even when a result is firm, it is important to convey its impact fairly - neither over-hyping potential spin-offs nor exaggerating potential risks."

BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh said the Royal Society's report would raise concerns in some quarters that the advice it was giving to researchers could lead to a form of self-censorship and ultimately stifle scientific debate.

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