A little earlier I nonchalantly and lazily microblogged using the oh-so-professional channel of my Facebook status about something that slightly irritated me whilst watching the news. Here was what I wrote:
One attempted act of terrorism: Almost 24/7 news coverage. Thousands of scientific breakthroughs every day: Not even a few minutes of airtime. No wonder the general public feel isolated from science, in fear of technological advancement and generally depressed at the state of the world…
Anyway, seeing as the comment sparked quite an interesting conversation, I thought I’d relay these thoughts on this, my slightly more traditional soap-box haunt.
Obviously my comment pertained to the recent attempt to bring down a plane travelling from Amsterdam to Detroit. How much about this could there possibly be to report? Hours worth of television time, apparently.
It just depresses me that the news programs, day after day, cover crime, terrorism, war and political unrest as their main stories, then attempt to lighten this doom-riddled cake of hopelessness with a cherry in the form of a ridiculous human factor story about some family’s cat being rescued from a tree (or something equally banal). Earlier today I watched a story about freak weather in the UK – the seemingly important aspect of this being a woman who gave birth in an ambulance because it was stuck in the snow on a sliproad on the A14. Oh, and then there’s 10 minutes of football news!! If I were sat at a desk I would somewhat non-figuratively be slamming my head against it at this point. Luckily for me I’m on a sofa.
I’m not just going to have a long rant here about what I think the news SHOULD be covering, I think that much is pretty obvious from my list of interests ~superconducting flux qubits, yey!~ <-excuse the voices in my head.
Moreover, I'm wondering: What can we actually DO about it?
During my time in a University setting, I think I've only once been invited to a seminar by a person from the Press (in this case it was Radio 4). I think that the press just do not engage enough with scientists. There is so much cool research just waiting to be explored and popularised. There is also a large body of enthusiastic, young PhD students who would be willing to talk about what they are doing, which would not only help popularise their respective subjects, but also break that 'mad professor / scientist' stereotype which seems to still be hanging around a couple hundred years after it was actually representative.
However, until the 'media approaching scientists' kind of thing reaches a critical mass, it will be up to the scientists to shout louder and more ingeniously to make people take note. It will be up to them to chase down the media opportunities.
And I believe that there is a somewhat insidious problem here – primarily that it's not considered a worthwhile activity amongst science/engineering peers to communicate and popularise your research. Carl Sagan et al. are very much the exception rather than the rule. Popularisation is certainly not taught alongside science, or encouraged, even though there are lots of external grants available for this kind of thing. We rely on the rebellious defector amongst academics to propagate the enthusiasm. Instead, we should be supporting those who wish to act as spokespeople for their research.
A lot of media types are also looking for the ‘scare story’ angle. They will try every trick on the book to hype the negative angle of your research, especially of you are working in disruptive or controversial technology areas. I think that academics should be trained to answer media questions a bit like politicians: Get across the positive impact at all costs (short of actually, you know, lying..). And for goodness sake don’t mention Skynet. Or nano
greygoo*ahem* tech. It’s ‘submicron’ or ‘molecular’ engineering, guys!
Ultimately, the goverment hands out the money to the funding councils, and therefore if we as scientists aren’t in the forefront of their minds (I mean look, we’re competing with the NHS, the education system, the war in Afghanistan, etc….), if they don’t see our science and go “Wow, you know – that’s not only the future of our country, but it’s actually pretty interesting too”, then funding for our research will indeed be cut.
So go out there and tell people that your research, be it Physics or whatever, is awesome. In any way you can. Ignore anyone who tells you that it isn’t worthwhile. And if you do it right – if you do it *really* right – then those people might just mention it to their friends the next time they have tea and cake 😉
Note: On this topic with a slightly more transhumanist slant, inspired by the conversation, Stuart has also written a blogpost.
Merry Christmas by the way people.