Science - December 2, 2010

Media hype surprises researchers

The media pounce on a controversial Wageningen study of the effects of Wi-Fi. The University regrets the way this has turned into an unwanted hype.

Trees exposed for three months to electromagnetic radiation from Wi-Fi equipment may be adversely affected by this. Researchers at the Laboratory of Plant Cell Biology issued this report over a week ago to numerous media in the Netherlands and abroad, with brown leaves to hand to illustrate their story.
The suggestion was created that radiation from wireless Internet was a danger to living organisms. A conclusion with far-reaching consequences, and fellow researchers were not slow to express their doubts. 'I can't imagine that they have built a solid case', was one of the reactions. TNO, which was involved in the research along the sidelines, concluded that the account as it appeared in the news was a 'poor, extreme' version. 'We are pretty annoyed about that.'
Sensitive subject
What actually happened? The researchers in question are now keeping mum and refer us to a press release. What is certain is that it was not them that published the news but the municipality of Alphen aan den Rijn, which commissioned the study. It published a report in the Tuin en Landschap journal, after which the media pounced on the subject en masse. An unfortunate turn of affairs, says Simon Vink, the spokesman for Wageningen UR. In a reaction, he says that it is customary for the results of a study to be published in a scientific journal first before being publicized further. That gives a certain guarantee of quality and allows scientific debate on a subject to be initiated. 'That has not happened now and that is a pity, including for the researcher in question', he says. 'The risk is that you will now get a public debate about what are still not much more than the notes of this particular researcher.' Vink thinks we would now do best to wait until the results are published and possibly confirmed by follow-up research. 'Indeed, that is the approach university researchers always prefer. Especially when it's a sensitive subject like this', says Vink.

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