Westminster View Update: Follow the Olympic spirit in science coverage

Non-specialist programming on television all too often displays a depressing lack of scientific literacy or contempt for the contribution that science and engineering can make.


Since my debate yesterday on science and public service broadcasting (read it here) I have received quite a lot of feedback. Fellow engineers, scientists or general geeks know exactly what I was talking about. Others are less certain, but all agreed that the Olympics and Paralympics games should be an example to us when it comes to science coverage

It is often of really high quality. On BBC4 Radio we have the ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’, ‘Saving Species’ and ‘the Life Scientific’.

BBC Television has given us ‘Secret History of...’, ‘Bang Goes the Theory’, ‘Star gazing’, and ‘Frozen Planet’, while Horizon continues to offer science specials such as ‘To Infinity and Beyond’, which discussed the science of endless time and space.

Channel 4 also has a wide range of science programming from ‘The Science of Seeing Again’ with Katie Piper to ‘Brave New World’ with Stephen Hawking and one of my own favourites, ‘Dambusters: Building the Bouncing Bomb’.

But the Olympic and Paralympic opening ceremonies helped me see these programmes in a new context.

The ceremonies brought to life the importance of science and the industrial revolution in our history.

They also showed that non scientists can successfully represent scientific themes alongside others. Is that what public sector broadcasters are doing?

Unfortunately not. What the BBC and Channel 4 have done is to separate out science programming. What we have are high quality, well resourced science ghettos.

Whilst non-specialist programming all too often displays a depressing lack of scientific literacy or contempt for the contribution that science and engineering can make.

An example of the latter formed the basis of my first letter to the outgoing director general of the BBC, Mr Mark Thompson.

In the programme ‘Foreign Bodies’ a reporter said that there was a high proportion of Chinese students on engineering courses in the UK because engineering was more valuable in China.

I tried to point out to the BBC that this was not true.

Engineering is an excellent choice for students concerned with material rewards. It dominates the top 10 most well paid graduate professions, with chemical engineering graduates earning the third highest wages in the UK at £27,151.

And in terms of UK plc engineering is incredibly valuable. It is science and engineering which drive innovation, without them we will lose our place as a leading economy.

What the journalist may have meant to say is that engineering is not as valued here. That may be true among a certain section of the population.

In his famous 1959 lecture, British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow warned of the dangers of ‘Two Cultures’ - science on the one hand and the humanities on the other – and the limitations that would place on our society.

Just last year Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt used his Edinburgh Festival MacTaggert lecture to condemn the same gap. The UK was culturally divided into ‘luvvies’ or ‘boffins’, he said. Schmidt called for the arts, technology and science to be brought together, a call endorsed by popular TV scientist Brian Cox.

Instead, too often science and engineering is presented as boring, freakish, immensely difficult or all three. I have lost count of the number of times interviewers have said something like:

“So you thought about going into science but then you decided to do something creative instead?”

I sometimes imagine how broadcasters would react if a reporter spoke of Shakespeare as they do technology:

“Oh Shakespeare, that’s too difficult, have to ask the kids to help me with it.”

This attitude has quite serious consequences. The media’s approach to scientific balance seems to be culled straight from the world of politics without any understanding of the scientific method.

So even though the vast majority of scientific evidence may support climate change the BBC will put up one pro climate change and one anti climate change scientist and think that constitutes ‘balance’.

Equally their general interest programmes will be chock full of historians, artists, celebrities and journalists with no engineers or scientists.

I asked Woman’s Hour to let me know if they had interviewed as many woman engineers this year as they have woman sex workers. They told me that information was not available but an (unscientific) Google certainly suggests greater coverage of prostitution than science and engineering.

Given that only 6% of engineers in the UK are women, compared to 30% in Latvia, this contributes to an environment where half our scientific and engineering talent goes to waste.

So what can we do about it? Well more science journalists and journalists with a scientific training would help. That in turn requires access courses so that scientists and engineers can switch to journalism. And more and better scientific training for generalist journalists is clearly needed. I welcome other suggestions.

Our economic success depends on innovation. Many of the big political decisions we need to take have science at their core. For both these reasons, better science coverage is critically important.

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