The Harding Prize for Trustworthy Communication

...for communication that helps

Sense about Scence Logo
Sense about Science champions the public interest in sound science and ensures evidence is recognised in public life.
`Winton Centre Logo
The Winton Centre believes that everyone has a right to balanced evidence on issues important to them, presented in a transparent way, to inform but not persuade.
Science Media Centre Logo
The Science Media Centre ensures the public have access to the best scientific evidence and expertise through the news media.

The Harding Prize for Trustworthy Communication is a new award, for public communication of information that genuinely helps people decide what to do, or helps them judge a decision made by others. It is administered by the Winton Centre for Risk & Evidence Communication, in association with the Science Media Centre and Sense about Science.

Winners of the 2021 Harding Prize for Useful and Trustworthy Communication announced!

The inaugural Harding Prize for Useful and Trustworthy Communication has been jointly won by the ONS Covid Infection Survey and the Cochrane Review of Hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19.

We launched the Harding Prize this year to celebrate individuals or teams who had communicated information in a trustworthy and useful way - that genuinely helped people decide what to do, or help them judge a decision made by others, in association with Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre, and is generously supported by Sir David Harding. We wanted to draw attention to the unsung task of 'informing and not persuading' and celebrate those who were doing it well.

Not everyone communicates in a trustworthy way; some may select the data that supports their argument while pretending to be an unbiased source, or misrepresent what the evidence is saying. The most dubious claims may be called out by fact checkers, but reliable, trustworthy communication of evidence is rarely celebrated.

We wanted the Harding Prize to encourage people to present evidence in a balanced, non-manipulative way, open to talking about pros and cons, and about uncertainties. These sorts of communications are designed to help the audience make up their own mind on a subject – not to lead them to the conclusions that the communicator wants them to draw.

This year’s nominations, as you might expect, mainly concerned Covid-19 (although not exclusively), and it’ll be interesting to see what comes up next year. There were many fine examples of trustworthy communication, both from organisations and individuals using articles and social media to help inform the public at this challenging time.

Judging panel

We were delighted to have such an illustrious judging panel, comprising:

  • Helen Boaden (Chair): previously Director of BBC News.
  • Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam: Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England
  • Baroness Onora O’Neill: philosopher and presenter of 2002 Reith Lectures on ‘A Question of Trust’
  • Fraser Nelson: Editor, Spectator
  • Helen Jamison: previously Deputy Director of the Science Media Centre.

The judges made the following comments about the joint winners:

Covid Infection Survey from the UK's Office of National Statistics:

The Survey became the bedrock of all accurate communication on changing infection rates and variables in the UK during the Covid Pandemic. The Survey was innovative, impartial and clear and it shaped decision making at national, regional and local levels. Its lack of commentary - which probably made it rather dry for some audiences - augmented its credibility with policy makers and those like journalists, talking directly to the public.

It is no exaggeration to say that the survey became the gold standard of infection information and was the envy of scientific communities around the world. It also became a trusted source of reliable information for numerous members of the British public.

Cochrane Review of hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19:

As with all its projects, the Cochrane review worked to internationally agreed methodology and prioritised high quality (randomised) evidence. This particular review was a summary of the evidence for the use of hydroxychloroquine in treating Covid-19. Using clear language, it communicated straightforwardly and with balance that that there was no benefit to hydroxychloroquine which outweighed the side effects and that trials of it should be stopped. That decision was then made.

This subject may seem minor in the UK where treatment by hydroxychloroquine was never a big part of medical discussion. However, many millions of people around the world, especially in the USA and Brazil, were encouraged by their leaders to take this treatment seriously.

The panel felt that just as the ONS survey was the bedrock of accurate information about Covid-19 infection rates in the UK, the Cochrane approach delivered rigorous, trustworthy and balanced reviews of scientific papers communicated with clarity and directness. Such reviews enabled policy makers, journalists and the public to discuss and make decisions based on the best evidence.

Helen Boaden, Chair of the judging panel, commented:

“It's never been more important for the public and policy makers to have access to the best possible evidence before they make significant decisions for themselves or others.

Both our winners set the gold standard for clearly communicating accurate, trustworthy, transparent data without frills or spin. The panel is delighted to jointly award them the inaugural Harding Prize.”

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, Chair of the Winton Centre, said:

“The panel considered many fine examples, and we are delighted with the examples that they chose. We had intended to have a booby, ‘weasel words’ prize for untrustworthy communication dressed up as an unbiased source. There were many possible candidates, particularly in social media and in scientific pre-prints that had not gone through any peer review. But we finally decided that it would be inappropriate to highlight, and indeed publicise, such poor practice, and instead chose to focus on the positive efforts people have made. The Royal Society’s recent report makes clear that online misinformation is best tackled, not through censorship, but by encouraging a diverse media, independent fact-checking, careful monitoring, and education.”

Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science, said:

“Statistics are the currency of public life. They are how we can describe the world and debate what is getting worse or better, and never more so than during the pandemic. We are so pleased to support the Harding prize in celebrating the individuals who have sought to equip people with the means to be part of those debates."

Fiona Fox, Chief Executive of the Science Media Centre, said:

“These are fantastic winners. The brilliant thing about the ONS survey is that it was communicated independently from the government communications machine so that the media and the public got to see the numbers every week free from government messaging. And in the middle of an ‘infodemic’ where 1000s of scientific papers of variable quality were circulating, Cochrane’s high quality review summarising where the best evidence lay on a much-hyped treatment undoubtedly saved lives”

The 2022 Harding Prize

The 2022 Harding Prize will be launched at the end of the year. During the year keep a look out for communications that you think are useful and trustworthy and support people being able to make their own decisions.

What kind of decisions?

Maybe the communication will help with a significant decision in daily life: about a medical treatment, a school, a financial product or a charity to donate to.

Maybe it will help people make a decision on behalf of others: perhaps if they’re policymakers, head teachers, or business leaders.

Maybe it will help people make a decision about what to think: on the pros and cons of a big, topical issue - like lockdown, say.

Or maybe it will help people assess the basis for a decision, such as the reasons for the prioritisation of vaccines or a tax policy.

What subjects and formats?

Those above are just examples. The range of eligible subjects, audiences and media is wide, and could include almost anything involving a significant decision.

‘Communication' might mean a news article, a Twitter thread, a website, a leaflet, a report, original research in a journal, a podcast, TV, a speech... As long as it can be taken in within ten minutes (e.g. not a book), and you can provide it to us in full for judging.

Communications must be in English but can originate from any country, worldwide.

Entries must have been placed in the public domain during the twelve months before the closing date.

The prize

The Harding Prize for the best entry is worth £3,141.59

How will ‘good’ be judged?

To aid decision-making, good communication should, above all, be trustworthy.

It should primarily serve the interests of the audience, not the communicator.

It will present evidence in a balanced and clear way, which means it should include uncertainties.

Information should be appropriate for its audience in content, length, depth and format.

And it should be clear about what it’s trying to achieve: for example, does it mainly inform, or does it try to persuade?

Note that we’re unlikely to consider advertising or political campaigning.