Media: Mothers of invention: Funky, sexy, punchy are the new adjectives for science broadcasting. Susan Watts meets the women taking over an old male preserve

Click to follow
Science on television need not be about ugly male presenters fiddling with test tubes and equations. A quiet force for change is now making a stab at creating vibrant and accessible science broadcasting.

The most obvious change has been the influx of women. Their rise through the ranks from producers to series editors culminated this month in the appointments of Jana Bennett, editor of Horizon, as head of science and features at the BBC, and Sara Ramsden, responsible for BBC 2's recent Big Science series, as head of science at Channel 4. Both have aspirations in their new posts that include a more human approach - though not to the exclusion of hard stories.

Ms Ramsden's guiding principle - that science can be 'funky' - should come as no surprise. Her Big Science series had the tabloids drooling over David Malone, the programme's youthful presenter, and hailing his good looks as having put the sex back into science. 'You don't see other science programmes getting publicity like that,' she boasted.

At 34, Ms Ramsden believes that she is not only the youngest person to fill a main television commissioning role - she will oversee business programmes and 'talks', such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as science - but also unique in having a science training.

Big Science was a brave, some would say brash, new approach to science programme-making. Its brief, punchy delivery clearly had potential as a method of delivering science to a broad audience, but somehow the programme became more conscious of its style than its content.

Ms Ramsden acknowledges the criticisms but says that Big Science, which was commissioned from the BBC's youth department, played an important role in stirring up traditional notions of science broadcasting. 'We really are at a crossroads for science on television, and it was partly Big Science that set the way. It was a sign that the hierarchy was trying to innovate, and it was significant that it didn't come out of the science unit.'

Ms Bennett, who has more than 12 years' experience at the BBC, including stints on the current affairs programmes Newsnight and Panorama, agrees with Ms Ramsden that science coverage on television has had a tendency to be 'bland, essay-ish and lecturey'.

This week, as television and radio air their contributions to the National Week of Science, Engineering and Technology, the audiences are receiving their first taste of what the future is likely to hold.

Science has taken over BBC 2's Late Show slot for four nights with a series of debates filmed in Bristol's hands-on museum, the Exploratory. These are bringing scientists and their critics together in a forum that gives participants on-line computerised access to BBC archive material to bolster their arguments.

And on Friday Tomorrow's World and Radio 1 are teaming up to conduct 'Megalab', billed as the world's largest mass-participation scientific experiment. This aims to test the merits of different media in helping their audiences to spot when someone is being economical with the truth. Sir Robin Day will provide the lies.

In the meantime, a 'Science of Sound' roadshow of recording experiments is touring the nation's shopping precincts and a telephone helpline has been set up to handle the public's queries and theories about science on television.

The week's events have attracted strong corporate commitment. 'John Birt (director-general of the BBC) is increasingly interested in science, and Michael Jackson (controller of BBC2) has also shown himself to be keen,' Ms Bennett says.

'There will be more programmes on science, more hard engineering and technology, and more political angles, too. There is a recognition that there has been an imbalance between the BBC's arts and science coverage.'

New programmes from Ms Bennett's department will include a series on politics and medicine called Struck Off and another on care in the community and the psychiatric profession. She is also planning a series on sports science, with a strong human-interest element. She wants to see the consumer approach of Tomorrow's World taken up in more of the programmes her department makes.

Accessibility and social relevance are important to Ms Bennett, but not at the expense of good, strong science stories. 'It is still the great discoveries of science that really excite people. We have to be confident enough to tackle the really big ideas, such as the series we are doing on Stephen Hawking. The goal is that people won't have to read his book (A Brief History of Time), but can just watch the television series.'

Other planned programmes will look at the pharmaceutical industry's promotion of ulcer drugs, and the story of Auschwitz discovered in the KGB's archives.

At a reception last week to celebrate her appointment, Ms Bennett told friends and colleagues of a 'new feeling of receptivity and commitment' to science in the BBC. 'There is a lot of territory to play for and a lot of freedom to think big,' she said. 'We are driving into areas that science broadcasting hasn't tackled before. In many ways, the areas we deal in - science, technology and medicine - are more important than what's happening in political areas or in arts and music.'

Deborah Cohen, head of the BBC Radio Science Unit, says that this new commitment extends to radio as well as television. Radio 4 is starting a new science series after Easter, which will run all year round at 8.15pm on Wednesdays, with a Sunday repeat. Her unit is contributing 18 youth-oriented, popular science programmes called Big Bang.

Ms Cohen is aiming for a more accessible feel to BBC radio science, altering the content of stalwarts such as Science Now and Medicine Now to give them a lighter touch - including interviews with patients as well as doctors, and debates on topical issues such as 'mad cow' disease.

This week her unit has been providing science ideas and guests for Radio 1, including short items such as the lives of the great scientists told in one minute. She is confident that her unit's increased output will last longer than the National Week of Science.

Susan Spindler, recently appointed to the new post of deputy head of science and features, will cover for Ms Bennett, who is soon to take six months' maternity leave. Ms Spindler, the series editor of QED, who was responsible for the Hospital Watch series on medical students, sees the rise of women in science broadcasting, at a time when science is crying out for more women, as a happy coincidence. 'We are talking about two separate industries - science and programme-making. Television has not always been a very hospitable environment for women, but that is changing and we are among the first to benefit.'

She detects a 'voracious appetite' for science on television, and audience figures support her view. Horizon, a sleek Daimler of a science documentary series, boasts the highest ratings of BBC 2's documentary output, and QED is consistently in BBC 1's top 10 programmes.

Ms Ramsden shares Ms Bennett's despair about the lack of scientific knowledge in their audiences. 'Science is one of the most exciting and all-permeating fields of knowledge, yet we are one of the worst countries in Europe for our level of science knowledge. I feel embarrassed if I have to admit I have not read a Dostoyevsky book, but most of my colleagues feel no shame that they don't know how the body's cells work, or even the first thing about Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.'

Her basic tenet, however, is that science should be fun. 'I want to take science off its pedestal . . . it is not always working in the best public interest. One of my first priorities will be to explore ways to serve a youthful audience. Science can be so funky. It can also be fun and friendly.'

Ms Bennett's vision for the future of her department is a touch more grand. She wants it to become a player in the cultural life of the nation.

As a sponsor and patron of the arts, the BBC's Music and Arts Department has always influenced the political and cutural flavour of the nation, and she sees no reason why the science department should not have a similar role in supporting scientific events.

Perhaps the science department should first look closer to home, and extend its influence to the science content of mainstream news programmes. Science news, which usually means health stories, still tends to be relegated to the 'And finally . . .' slot.

What the channels offer


Horizon (BBC2) - Stylish documentary. Assumes interest but not scientific knowledge. Broad subject matter, including discoveries, investigations and human interest tales. Highly respected for its painstaking accuracy. Average audience 3.4 million.

Tomorrow's World (BBC1) - Only science programme in mainstream viewing time-slot. Upbeat magazine format aimed at non-scientific mass audience of all ages. Has tried to tackle 'serious science' subjects, but still tends to be gadget-led. Recent efforts to bring social element to items such as public transport. Average audience 4.5 million.

QED (BBC1) - Human interest documentary using personal stories as hooks into science, technology and medicine. Aimed at mainstream audience. BBC claims it is the most- watched science programme in Britain, with an average audience of 6.2 million.

Big Science (BBC2) - Occasional series from 'youth' department. Brave attempt at brash tabloid style. Some content of questionable accuracy. Audience: 1.5 million.

Equinox (Channel 4) - Topical programme billed as 'applied science'. Particularly strong on technology, engineering and design subjects, although emphasis expected to change to include more human interest. Accessible and entertaining presentation of sophisticated subjects. Audience: 1.6 million.


Science Now (Radio 4) - News-oriented programme covering developments in broad sweep of science.

Medicine Now (Radio 4) - Medical science developments. Reports new research, looking at how this translates into new treatment and practice by GPs and hospitals.

Blue Skies (Radio 3) - Aims to bridge the gulf between science and the arts. Takes a single subject and looks at it via different disciplines, eg 'landscape' from geological and artistic standpoints.

Big Bang (Radio 4) - New series starts after Easter for younger listeners. Will look at the 'weird, wacky and worrying'.

(Photograph omitted)