Science vs. the BBC: The Fight Goes On

Reading Steve Jones' fascinating report on the state of science coverage by the BBC, I was struck by parallels between his recommendations and efforts made by science's elite during the 1940s and 1950s. Nothing has changed it seems.

Reading Steve Jones' fascinating report on the state of science coverage by the BBC, I was struck by parallels between his recommendations and efforts made by science's elite during the 1940s and 1950s. Nothing has changed it seems.

"petitioning by scientific organisations of the BBC in the quarter century from 1941 and especially from 1949 was second only in persistence to their approaches to government. This shows how organised science increasingly placed a high value on creating a positive public opinion of science."

Science and the BBC have been sparring for seven decades now. Let me give you a flavour:

September 1941: The Association of Science Workers suggest to the BBC Director General that, "It is imperative that the general public should be infused with the knowledge that the body of science and its method of development -- scientific method -- are instruments that can be controlled and utilised to whatever ends a community may choose..."

The memo suggested a roster of programmes and recommended a scientific committee to advise on and develop programme ideas. "They also wanted the BBC to nominate a Science Programme Officer to liaise between the committee and the producers," Boon says.

The result? The BBC did nothing.

May 1949: Physicist Professor Sir Mark Oliphant, writes to the BBC suggesting the BBC needs to appoint an advisory committee on scientific broadcasting:

"Can we sometimes forget war and atomic weapons, industrial advance or productivity... and say something more of the history and growth of science, of the great solution wrought by the introduction of the experimental method...? and 'The evil wrought by science springs, not from intrinsic evil in science itself, but from its misuse by men who do not really understand what science is ...'

The result? A hit! A sub-committee looked into the idea, and recommended the appointment of a scientific advisor of 'high standing'. Nobel laureate Sir Henry Dale got the job. However, it was described by those who worked with him as a "somewhat unhappy page in BBC history.' He was let go after two years and never replaced.

September 1958: The President of the Royal Society and the President of the British Assoociation approach the Director General of the BBC. The agenda? The scientists wanted to "present science as vital to the well-being of our contemporary world."

The DG's response was to ask his producers whether a science department was "practicable or desirable." The producers thought not, and convinced him that they already chose subjects that were reflective of what the scientific elite would regard as "important and suitable"; they argued they already wanted to "earn the goodwill of the scientific profession."

The result? Neither a special coordinator nor a specialist department was considered necessary.

June 1962: The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (BIS is the modern UK equivalent), the Royal Society and the British Association issue a report that declared there was a "compelling need to present to the public the significance of science." It recommended a scientist take charge of BBC science programmes and establish a scientific advisory committee.

The result? After two years of discussions, the BBC manages to avoid having a scientist imposed on senior management team by forming a "Science Consultative Group", peopled by nominees from the Royal Society, the British Association and Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. It met twice a year for several decades - but was largely pointless. Two years after its inception, in February 1966, a BBC representative announced that the Consultative Group has proved "extremely valuable" but "most ideas have come from producers". He mentioned the problem of "inbuilt vested interests" and announced "we have firmly decided that the broadcasting of science shall be in the hands of broadcasters."

Today, the fight goes on, and the BBC is still not quite caving to the scientists: the BBC says it proposes "to appoint a Science Editor for BBC News, rather than for the whole of the BBC" as Jones suggested.

I like the fact that the BBC doesn't want to cede all control to the scientific establishment: Jones's report makes it clear that the BBC is already doing a great job with science. I would even suggest that the few shortcomings are a price worth paying to ensure that its output does not constitute a slavish PR mouthpiece for Brand Science. Viewers (and listeners) have a sixth sense for that kind of thing, and any sniff of it would harm the acceptance of science that has been established by decades of thoughtful and detached journalism.


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