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

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