Comment

A FEW weeks ago I was fortunate enough to speak to an unusual type of conference, for an academic - a gathering primarily of television science producers from all over the world.

Amazingly, I was allowed to give the "scientists' story" to a group of people who clearly had a very different agenda from the one prevailing in the ivory towers.

Here, the ultimate gold standard was viewing figures. Quite understandably, the equation was simple. Science programmes, unlike public lectures, or indeed books, are stratospherically expensive to produce: they can only be justified if they attract a large audience, hence, by the producer's own admission, a concentration on the "wow" factor of exciting journalism is a priority.

From the scientists' stance, of course, I was already clear about the problem that we face if we wish to engage with the media, more particularly television.

Our prime worry is that we are trivialising our subject - the essential details are being sacrificed in favour of whizzing and banging, and an additional "yuk" factor.

Moreover, one of our problems is that because we are highly trained in one particular area it is hard for scientists to stray beyond their subject, due to our reluctance to admit to the possibility that we might not know all the facts.

What we need is reassurance that one doesn't need to present the definitive treatise on a particular area for the general public, in fact quite often it is a distraction: far better to present a simple overview which gives someone the background, if not all the latest detail.

Another issue is, of course, poor presentation skills - no one has trained us to be actors.

We have not learnt voice projection techniques nor how to stare into a camera eye and, as someone said, it is no mean feat to walk and talk towards a camera - especially if it is some hundred yards away concealed in a gawping crowd.

All of these conflicts of agenda wouldn't be that important if it wasn't so vital to communicate science to the general public. Television is a perfect medium for showing conflicts of views, allowing audience interaction, as well as exciting people with a true, in-depth coverage of topical subjects.

How can we reconcile the understandable issue of retaining large audiences with the need to get beyond the sensationalism, the lowest common denominators for selling science?

It is all very well for us academics to sneer at the "yuk" and "wow" but unless we actually help to explain the issues and spend time in discussions and meetings with television people then it is hardly surprising that they will do what they do best just as we do.

Once a year to its credit one national newspaper hosts a party at the Royal Society where scientists and the media come together.

This gathering is always a huge success, with several hundred people from the two cultures all getting to know each other. Why can't more newspapers sponsor more of this kind of thing?

Alternatively, couldn't the television companies find it within their budget to hold small receptions locally in universities so that they can meet the scientists easily and on their own ground.

Always one is fearful of people and things which are unfamiliar. It would be a marvellous way to encourage media-science networking so that the television companies and indeed the press could widen the pool of scientists from which they fish, and in turn for the scientists to realise that the media really are earnest in their endeavours.

Would the scientists come? I would like to think they would. Certainly in Oxford there is the old adage that "Dons will do anything for a free drink".

I would like to think that we were not that narrow minded, nor have our noses pressed on the coal face of our research, to such an extent that we couldn't spend an hour to explore a way ahead for bringing serious science to the public in an accessible way.

It would be marvellous to get rid of the silly snobbery of "pop science" and the sneers of one's colleagues that any scientist engaged with the media is wasting time, selling out and no longer "a serious scientist".

Instead, let's find a way of letting our paymasters, the public, in on the excitement of science. Only then will we ever achieve the vital goal for the next century of a truly scientifically literate society, and of science research that shifts paradigms and describes the big picture.

The writer is Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oxford and the director of the Royal Institution

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux ...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before