Roundtable Review

Hightable with Tracey Brown: Asking for Evidence to make Sense about Science
Posted 05 July '14
Tracey Brown, Sense about Science

Tracey Brown, Sense about Science

Tracey Brown is the managing director of Sense about Science, a charitable trust that equips the public with the necessary information to make sense of science and to ask for evidence underlying scientific claims. Tracey has been with Sense about Science since its inception in 2002 and has worked on various campaigns, including the ongoing All Trials campaign, encouraging evidence based medicine as well as libel reform. The Science Council has recently named her one of the ten leading scientists in policy making in the UK. Her book In the Interests of Safety: the absurd rules that blight our lives and how you can change them, co-authored with Michael Hanlon was published by Sphere this week.

OBR’s Hephzi Tagoe had the pleasure of speaking with Tracey about her job, influencing the public’s perception of science and impacting policy.

You have been director of Sense About Science for over 10 years, what is the secret to your success? 

A large part of it is probably that I am, and we are, hard on ourselves, always asking whether we’re really making a difference. I hate complacency. It means I tend to see the mountain in front of us rather than being pleased with what we’ve climbed, which probably drives the team crazy at times, but it gives us a self-critical culture that drives us on. My job has changed enormously as we’ve taken on new challenges and the other big source of successes is having a team that thrives in a challenging environment and takes on new responsibilities really quickly.

What do you find most exciting about your job?

Externally, shaking things up, getting more of a contribution to public life from other organisations, trying to solve problems and seeing the world around us change as a result. Sometimes it’s those little things like helping someone hold a company to account for evidence, other times it’s big things such as changing national policies.

Internally, I love seeing people in our team and our wider network of thousands of researchers take on difficult things and do well. I’m constantly being put out of a job by them and having to rethink my role.

What is your typical day-to-day like as the charity’s director?

Mornings are always precarious. The best-laid plans get disrupted by what comes in overnight and by stories in the morning’s news and calls for help. I prefer to write in the morning and have meetings in the afternoon, but because we’re responsive and dealing with issues that are constantly changing I have to be flexible. I tend to do the most routine things later in the day. Because days are full and lively, there’s a danger that planning gets squeezed out, so I keep notes for things like the next board meeting or the next AllTrials campaign group, and make time to review those pretty much daily.

One of your most prominent causes is the “All Trials” Campaign. How is that going?

AllTrials is an initiative that calls for all past and present clinical trials to be registered and for their full methods and summary results reported.

We’re at a juncture where we could see it snowball quickly or dissipate because of the people who are trying to make it sound more difficult than it really is. It has been an amazing first year, with 400 organisations around the world signed up and some significant commitments from companies, research funders and regulators to get clinical trials past and present reported. We have also seen some regulatory changes in Europe. But to succeed, AllTrials needs a strong presence in every country and more urgency of action so that the clinical trials relating to the medicines we use today, often conducted many years ago, are not lost forever. We are pretty good at engaging others in our work – we have to be as we’re small and our aims are big – but coordinating and pushing that is then quite a task and one we are trying to work out right now.

And how do you decide what cause is worth fighting for?

The main question for us is whether there is anyone else who is or should be taking action. We much prefer to encourage organisations and individuals to take more responsibility for public life than to take everything on ourselves, because then the net benefit to society is much greater. But other organisations are sometimes limited in what they can do or we find ourselves the only ones able to articulate a particular perspective. For example, with the AllTrials campaign, a lot of good people have tried for years to change the culture of secrecy around clinical trials reporting. They have been frustrated by the lack of progress and when they came to us to say it needed a campaign that would engage the public we realised they were right and that we had to do it.

We also always weigh up what’s at stake, whether the difference we can make will contribute in a significant enough way to our mission to equip the public with sound science and evidence. We consult a lot and having 6,000 people on our database to give us help is invaluable, and we review things every day as a team. For anything that is going to take considerable resources or where we have different perspectives we take the discussion to our board of trustees, who are very active. We also have an advisory council whose job is to challenge the board from time to time. The people selected for that are very opinionated and may hold minority views on what we should be doing, but it’s important to hear that perspective and be challenged.

Through Sense about Science, you actively encourage the public to ask for evidence on claims? How do you go about this?

In the first place, just ask. Lots of people have been doing this and sharing the replies they’ve been sent. And we’ve been helping, along with the people on our database, to make sense of the evidence they get. Sometimes claims have been backed up by solid evidence while other times we’ve seen anecdotes, testimonials and tenuously related science put forward. Even in the campaign’s modest form, organisations have changed advertising, product claims have been withdrawn, policy makers have apologised and vulnerable patients have been helped. This has convinced others and us that this is the best route to the culture change we seek.

Later this year we will have a lot more in place to support people asking for evidence. We are creating an online tool that lets people “Ask for Evidence” in one click through our website, keep a diary and get help when they need it. We will be able to track all ‘asks’ and responses received, making the campaign activity quantifiable and shareable.

We’re also launching a major publicity campaign this autumn. You don’t have to be an expert to Ask for Evidence. If people want your vote, your custom or your readership, if they want you to believe them, then you have the right to ask why.

What are the main challenges you face in educating the public on sound science and evidence?

There are plenty and probably chief among them is the problem that some authorities avoid discussing the evidence on a particular issue – on drugs policy for example, where the mismatch between evidence and policy would have to be explained and no-one really wants to do that. Much of what we have had to do over the years has been getting people and organisations to be less afraid of the public.

Our remit is wide and demanding so the big challenge for us as an organisation is to continue to work out where our efforts are best spent. Inevitably we are going to go wrong sometimes, because doing something new means we cannot be certain of the benefits or what is possible to achieve. But we must be clear: the challenges are us and not them. I dislike it when people blame the public for the failures of their own initiatives or arguments.

What would be your advice to young graduates who are interested in a career in this area?

You can come at it from any kind of specialism, from the social sciences to chemistry, but you definitely need to have some understanding of evidence and its limitations. Some people think you get that from the natural sciences alone, but I don’t think it’s necessarily true. It can also be an advantage not to be immersed in a subject you are trying to help people make sense of. It means you start from the same place that most people do.

If you are thinking of leaving a research career then I really recommend getting some experience before you make the leap. Not surprisingly a lot of people [get cold] feet as they reach postdoc level, particularly if they have been in the same research team for a long time, but this might not mean that a shift to a public engagement role or a campaigning style job is for you.

Finally, what does the future hold for Sense about Science?

A lot more international work, encouraging others to take up our mission and no doubt, plenty of change and disruption. It’s not a cosy world and we don’t have cosy jobs. But trying to make something in the world better is a good thing to wake up to each morning.

More about Tracey Brown: Tracey is a regular public speaker and writes about scientific evidence, policy and the public for national media, periodicals and books. She was a Commissioner on the UK Drug Policy Commission from 2009 to 2012, a trustee of Centre of the Cell until December 2013, and is now a trustee of the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science, and of Jurassica.

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