'Science Now' or Science Wow?

Under The Microscope; Science On Radio
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My Saturday afternoons have a rhythm all of their own. As in many other households, the morning has been exhausted in the killing fields of the supermarket and, as I try to interface laundry, shopping, plant- watering and all the chores that have been, during the week, sacrificed to my lab activities, I tune in to Radio 4, to the joy of Science Now. Why is the broadcast such balm? For a start, you never know what is actually coming up, but you can be sure that there will be reports on the latest hot findings that are not quite hot enough to make it into the non-scientific media, along with in-depth interviews with the personalities behind the discoveries. And the upbeat-yet-serious style of the regular presenters, whom I had fancifully come to regard as kind of unilateral friends, puts me in just the right mood for squaring up to oceans of dirty washing. And I am not alone in savouring this scientific smorgasbord. Science Now, and indeed its sibling Medicine Now, are frequently talking points, not just with my scientific colleagues, but with my more arty chums as well.

So in the traditional parlance of complaint, why oh why is it being scrapped? What is the BBC doing? Well, what they are doing, apparently, is replacing Science Now and Medicine Now from April of next year, with a new package of science and health programmes including a science series to be aired from Monday to Thursday at 9pm. On the face of it I suppose this move might be construed as an advance as more listening hours will now be devoted to science. But then at 9pm on a weekday, like much of the nation, I am catching up with the BBC1 main news. To be fair, there will be repeats of many of these broadcasts during the daytime on weekdays, but many of us cannot easily tune in during working hours.

Another problem is that the potpourri magazine-format of Science Now is to be reworked. Three days a week programmes will be "themed", presumably covering a more focused range of material than before. My fear - let's hope I'm wrong - of having a narrower and more selected format, might be that we are in danger of being served up an audio version of many of the type of science programmes now creeping on to the small screen. The emphasis there seems to be more on the sensationalist "Wow!" factor, predicated on an agenda geared more literally to entertaining an audience than to getting across topical and key issues. Of course, the first priority is not for a professional scientist like me to dip into the smorgasbord, but rather for those baffled and frightened by BSE, cloning and global warming to understand more what science and scientists are all about: but that is precisely what Science Now is so good at. Topical and often highly technical issues are aired in a way that most people can grasp, but at the same time with no concession to the substance of the actual material.

The public needs science in all its media guises: the in-depth review of a single subject that characterises Horizon or Equinox, as well as the magazine programme. And we need a programme that does not pull any punches but is as clear to its brief as any other programme on a specific aspect of contemporary life. We are promised that much of the new output will be designed to be at the cutting edge of scientific advance. Obviously, only time will tell.

We are living in fascinating times, when the conveying of science to the public has never been so needed nor appreciated. Whatever comes in its place, Science Now is a Good Thing, and I will regret its passing. Moreover, two gripes will remain whatever happens: first and foremost that the arts-science see-saw is clearly still weighted at Broadcasting House: the arts feature in routine reports several times per hour for the first few hours of every weekday on Radio 3; and second, along with many erstwhile fans of presenter Peter Evans, I shall have to re-think my Saturday schedule.