The Blog

Engineering a Conversation

Cox does a great job in furthering the public understanding of science. If only the people giving out the medals for communication in science could actually master the communication they claim to value.

Last week I got a ticket to a lecture hosted by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE). So far, so exciting, right? But the guest speaker, and winner of the John Collier medal 'in recognition of services to science and engineering communication' was Professor Brian Cox, Physics Lecturer, CERN Researcher, and darling of the BBC Science documentary.

Watching people file into the central London lecture theatre, I was impressed by how many young people, and specifically, how many young women, were attending. Never in the history of Engineering has an event contained more oestrogen. And so we settled down for the evening's erudition. We were welcomed to the lecture and advised of the Twitter feed hashtag (#collier2013), so we logged in via the rather well-engineered free wi-fi system, and listened.

First up, an inevitable quota of elderly white males in suits. Four of them, in rapid and vacuous succession. All of them making glib statements about how wonderful it was to see so many 'young people' at the lecture, who, it was to be hoped, would choose to study engineering at university. Much was said about how important it was to encourage these young people to study engineering, but no actual encouragement was given, except to say that the number of students studying Chemical Engineering had doubled in a decade. This 'meta-encouragement' was all very well, but the tweeters soon realised that no specific examples were going to be forthcoming to get those future undergraduates all revved up, and, notably, no female engineers were going to speak or even be mentioned during the course of the evening. 'Science, fascinating subject , so awe inspiring in fact that everyone here uses dull monotone normally reserved for funerals' tweeted Howard Walmsley (@9moons).

Even the men in the lecture theatre noticed that the femaleness of the audience was not matched by the speakers. Imran Khan (@imrankhan) noted: 'On 4th pre-Cox speaker - all male engineers so far' which was followed by Vanessa H (@HPS_Vanessa): ' BAH! Who lets that happen? Infuriating.'

@9moons was getting exasperated: 'The introduction at #collier2013 reinforces the importance of voices like @ProfBrianCox. The old guard monologues-self promoting & tedious.'

The last of the Coxless Four to appear was Vincent de Rivaz, the Chief Executive of EDF Energy, who, granted, was speaking in his second language, but whose twenty-five minutes of bland mumblings and lack of eye contact seemed to be a satirical skit on the Collier medal citation. @9moons put it bluntly: 'ironically he is speaking about energising young people, while boring them to death' and @imrankhan remarked on the suitability of the subject matter: 'pre-Cox speaker from EDF energy talking at length about industrial stamina and supply chains to inspire school audience'. The only part of de Rivaz's interminable speech I recall was a bit about nuclear power plants, where I hoped to hear some assurance that EDF were confident in the way nuclear waste should be handled in their brave new world, but no such assurance was forthcoming.

Was there not one woman engineer the I Chem E could have trundled out to say a few words? I note that as many as one out of seventeen of its Council members is a woman, and a smattering of women have recently won a couple of the other medals in the I Chem E's gift. And no doubt they have a few women scattered about their membership. But no; if I had been a young woman thinking of studying engineering, I might have abandoned the idea at this point and taken up the violin.

Thankfully, Professor Cox then appeared on the platform, unusually attired in a suit, to deliver his lecture on 'The Value of Scientific Exploration', which was indeed suitably visionary, beginning with references to the founding of the Royal Institution, the work of Faraday and Davy, quotes from Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos' ('if we don't promote our ideas, science will trickle away and civilisation with it') and references to poetry. He went on to talk about his work at CERN and how far particle physics had come in the course of his career to date. Cox was engaging, self-deprecating, non-pompous and funny. He didn't tentatively express the hope that some of the audience would become scientists and engineers, he confidently assumed that they all would, at one point gesturing at the gallery and saying: 'That problem is one for you lot to solve in a few years' time, when you've got your PhDs.' He closed his talk by calling for the government to return the funding of science and engineering to 1970s levels, saying that doubling what the government currently spends on university education would pay for itself in innovations by British researchers.

It's unsurprising that Cox has been able to corner the market as a science presenter, if the other candidates are anything like the besuited worthies of the I Chem E. As well as being a physicist, Cox seems to have become an honorary biochemist and zoologist after his series 'The Wonders of Life', but with the aid of a good scriptwriter, and an ability to learn and explain, he gets away with it. Cox does a great job in furthering the public understanding of science. If only the people giving out the medals for communication in science could actually master the communication they claim to value.