Sense About Science USA partnership offers statistical consultation for journalists

June 1, 2015

Alliance for Science sat down with Trevor Butterworth, Director of Sense About Science (SAS) USA based in NYC, to learn more about this new organization and its stateside vision and plans. Trevor is a visiting fellow at Cornell University. The Alliance and Sense about Science are jointly sponsoring a workshop, Stand up for Science, as part of SAS’s Voice of Young Science program.

Hi Trevor! Can you tell us about Sense about Science USA?
Sense about Science is non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for sense about science! We believe that sound science should play a vital role in society, and that the public should ask for evidence, have access to evidence, and be equipped to understand evidence so that they can make fully informed choices as citizens. In order for that to happen, scientists have to stand up for evidence too as science doesn t just explain itself.

The organization was launched in the UK over a decade ago, partly as a response to the public scare over the MMR vaccine causing autism, and it flourished. It led a victorious campaign to change English libel law so that scientific and medical speech (and criticism) was protected; it successfully defended agricultural research from being physically destroyed by activists; and it has changed the law on data transparency in Europe on drug trials. When the opportunity came to launch in the US, we fellow travelers in evidence-based science and admirers from afar jumped. It was as if Sense About Science was ripped from the pages of a Malcolm Gladwell book on how to be a modern David in a world of Goliaths (although the metaphor is, in an important way, out of date, given that Sense About Science in the UK is led by women).

What can we expect to see from SAS this year?
We only launched six months ago, so we ve got a long way to go before we too can claim such victories, but I think we ve already begun to shake things up. Our first and all American project is in collaboration with the American Statistical Association to improve statistical literacy in the news media. We ve put together an advisory board of statisticians at universities around the US who are volunteering to help journalists think through statistical and quantitative data for their news stories. Already, we ve had lots of really great queries from news organizations all over the U.S.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities of setting up a new communication not-for-profit in an era of free news?
Although our collaboration with American Statistical Association arose from our own interests about the importance of statistics to sound science, it demonstrates a core Sense principle: we can t solve every problem, but we can be the catalyst for others to come together and solve problems. This, of course, is the thinking behind the Voice of Young Science network and the workshops we run for early career researchers: Inspire and support the people who are on the front lines of science!