Blogroll Me! The Madness of Scientists - scientific misunderstanding of public and media: Fit the eighth: Waiting in a row or, all eager for the treat

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Fit the eighth: Waiting in a row or, all eager for the treat

Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear, we can begin to feed.”

Lewis Carroll, The Walrus & the Carpenter

In Lewis Carroll’s world, oysters were not only able to move about, they could hop, and wear shoes, without having feet. But they did preserve one characteristic common to real oysters, and scientists – the tendency to cluster together in a mob. Who exactly are the bodies who come hopping through the frothy waves and scrambling to the shore to walk with the cynical walruses and carpenters of the PUS/PEST industry?


Governments worry that if the public does not understand scientific issues, then it will oppose those aspects of science that they wish to see promoted for reasons of economic growth, competitive edge and military advantage. It recognises that science is important to its power, and is worried that public opposition and unrest might impede or derail its plans.

Such bald motives would be too cynical to expose overtly. Therefore governments also pretend to be concerned about science as culture, and the image and social standing of scientists within society, and other cosy concepts not likely to ruffle the fluff of Today listeners before they cycle off to campus. This is window dressing. Governments are not interested in anything as culture unless it increases invisible earnings, and science is never very likely to do that in any quantity.

Having perceived that it has a problem if science has a problem, government looks for allies to do its bidding among its appropriate civil departments, and their creatures. These creatures are various quangos and non-governmental charitable bodies, all of whom receive too much Government support to do other than give their paymaster the answers they know it wishes to hear. Herein lie the seeds of the conspiracy that allows the Emperor eventually to go about naked.

Scientific quangos

These quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations with a scientific remit, often get sucked into this process because of their close relationship with the state apparatus that largely funds them. Organisations whose employees are members of Her Majesty’s Civil Service – like the Meteorological Office or the Ordnance Survey, for example, are encouraged these days to be more entrepreneurial but only so that they can become less of an burden on the taxpayer. The independence of thought and action that should come as a fringe benefit from increasing commercial independence is never much in evidence.

Such bodies tend to have a public relations function that is discharged by a special breed of civil servant – the Government Press Officer. Government Press Officers are sterling folk whose first instinct is to do what they are told, and to do it by the book. This is not meant to sound disparaging, though I realise it does. The fact is, they cannot behave any other way. Their operations are usually understaffed, and have far too many responsibilities for them to be very effective at any of them. They find compliance with newfangled Government initiatives tiresome but unavoidable. Their usual response is to take an already existing initiative and “re-badge” it appropriately. Theirs is therefore the most intelligent possible response. No damage is done, no extra time is wasted.

It may perhaps appear paradoxical, but the best reaction to useless initiatives comes from organisations over which government has most day-to-day influence. Only they treat government whims with the appropriate scepticism. Their contribution to the understanding of science circus is therefore usually pretty negligible. The rest on this list are not so fortunate.

Learned societies

Learned societies exist to make their members feel good about themselves. The Royal Society (founded in 1660 to bring scientists together), the British Association (set up in 1831 to bring science to the masses) the Royal Institution (1799) and the other more specialised learned societies (set up mostly in the 19th and 20th Centuries to bring subsets of scientists together and foster their subjects’ interests) are the main - but by no means the only - lobby groups for science. Many are either directly or indirectly supported by some Government money, or in kind. Being clubs themselves, they may occasionally club together (see below for “collectives of collectives”).

New collectives

New collectives sometimes spring into existence when minority groups feel under threat and see no help forthcoming from existing groups - like the learned societies. One such was Save British Science (SBS), now renamed the Campaign for Sceince & Engineering in the UK, which was formed by university scientists in or around 1985 to protest against the way in which the Thatcher Conservative Government was, in their view, underfunding science. There was much academic disquiet at the time (of which more below), because the universities were also being reformed at this time (and have hardly ceased since). SBS replaced a body called AGREF, the “Ad hoc Group on Research Funding”, which itself came into being after a general failure to set up an overarching Association for Learned Societies in Science – both initiatives that sprang from the Physiological Society and Prof. Joe Lamb (University of St Andrews) who was a Committee Secretary there.

AGREF began a noble tradition of trying to understand the figures, a function which Save British Science continues to this day. In doing so SBS did the right thing by finding something that everybody needed and felt themselves inadequate to do, and doing it for them. Thus SBS still provides invaluable advice on Government science funding, clearing smoke from the air and mirrors from the walls in an attempt to discover whether the totals really are going up or down. It had to step on toes to stay in business – the Royal Society, feeling that cannons had been drawn on its lawn and that it was being shown up, complained bitterly that SBS was “unrepresentative” – which was pretty rich. SBS took no notice, and good for them.

Save British Science succeeded in raising the profile of research funding through the late 1980s. It used the classic techniques of the disgruntled academic – it wrote letters to the Times, paid for big half-page advertisements, and got on the BBC Radio’s Today programme. As a result it was tempted to talks by the gently smiling jaws of the then Education Secretary, the late Sir Keith Joseph (left). Sir Keith did what he always did in these circumstances. He looked amazed, complained that nobody had told him this before, and then moved in for the political kill by inviting SBS to regular chats. SBS, to its credit, did not make the rookie mistake of agreeing.

Although its roots lay embedded in the deep loam of academic cluelessness, SBS eventually defined a very useful role for itself – namely to lobby government on behalf of general science funding (independently of disciplines), and to try to make sense of it all. It has wisely steered clear of the murky waters of public understanding/engagement, and stuck to the honourable work of all pork-barrel lobbyists, namely shamelessly trying to get more cash out of the commons for “people like us”. They have also resisted the blandishments of subsequent governments who, believing they have raised research funding, have suggested (only half jocularly) that perhaps the time was come for Save British Science pronounce the patient saved, and change their name.

Of course, they now have. But timing in these matters is everything and they have kept their old URL, presumably because they know that "Save British Science" is well embedded in the consciousness. (As a historical wrinkle, the office of the Campaign is the very same one I once occupied myself, under the eaves of 29-30 Tavistock Square, when I joined the then occupants of that building (CVCP, now Universities UK) as Science Writer...)

Industrial collectives

Such organisations (to take one example at random, the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries (ABPI) and many others) carry a torch for science research and teaching, because their members’ businesses depend upon it. They are not beholden to Government and are theoretically more capable of independent thought and action – though because they are run by committees this is not always very apparent. They rarely employ any professional science communicators directly, though they may have press offices of varying effectiveness.

Many of these collectives join organisations in yet another layer of collectives such as the EEF (Engineering Employers Federation) the EC (Engineering Council) and so on, which may from time to time also feel compelled to have an opinion on science communication, or the recruitment problems of their professional group. I call these collectives of collectives.

Collectives of collectives

Collectives have a natural tendency to coagulate into collectives of their own. The Science Council, for example, is a coagulate of learned scientific bodies, reborn phoenix-like from the ashes of the Council of Science and Technology Institutes (CSTI). This is often done in the name of achieving that elusive “united front” – something that many lay claim to, but nobody actually delivers, and as imaginary as the “unified culture” that CP Snow imagined back in the fifties.

Collectives of collectives go via the institutional route, and claim to represent the members of all those societies that affiliate to them, much in the manner of Trade Union block voting. This is a strategy easy to pick holes in, since most of the collectives who join collectives themselves can only barely claim to “represent” their members. But that aside, the more rarefied such collectives become, the more diffuse their constituency and therefore the less obvious their function. So, such bodies tend to spend a lot of time determining a purpose in life, since the question “what are we going to do?” is rarely answered before they are set up.

Collectives of collectives tend to be thinly staffed but have extremely active Presidents – old men (or women) in a hurry, generally - who have formerly distinguished themselves in some other sphere (or spheres). They may well have ambitions of entering the Upper House and are currently looking for some convenient lightweight craft to cling to for long enough for someone in government to see them waving frantically. The institutional hope is that no matter how banal the opinion to be expressed, the President’s (or the collective’s) massed gravitas will carry it (and him/her) into the news without very much work.

These bodies can do little more than any poorly staffed civil service – namely, engage in administrative tasks that map activity and steal other people’s ideas and opinions for use as clothing. The body then tends to publish a report of surpassing dullness – third-hand confections of second-hand data, doubly unreliable, always outdated and immediately forgotten.

However this does not matter because the President gets quoted, and the quote lives on in the libraries of policy organisations and newspapers. Because their driving officers are all parti pris with an appetite for quick and dirty hand-me-down opinions, collectives of collectives are especially addicted to the PUS/PEST circus.


Universities, (at least the pre-1992 ones) are also collectives, in the sense that they are collegiate bodies, and often hopelessly democratic. These institutions also form a collective, and the one that once represented the pre-1992 universities (the Committee of Vice-Chancellors & Principals or CVCP) used to lobby hard for science – particularly research. However, the political scene shifted dramatically when the “old” universities merged with the former polytechnics. At that point, “research” changed from being a unifying issue (among the “old”) to a powerfully divisive one between the “old” and the “new”. This was because the former polytechnics fondly imagined that their change of name and status would bring with it a level playing field for research – i.e., that all the benefits of the dual support system (as it was then) would be extended to them.

It didn’t happen, to nobody’s great surprise but theirs. As the new universities’ disappointment rankled, research funding was hastily swept under the carpet. Meanwhile the VCs of the research-heavy universities felt uneasy that their main concern was no longer being met by CVCP, so they began to meet in London’s Russell Hotel the night before its Main Committees.

In a vain attempt to throttle this emerging (and now fully emergent) “Russell Group” at birth, CVCP remitted research policy to a special Council subcommittee. Predictably, this move – if it were ever really intended to raise its profile - overtly sidelined research. In fact, Research Policy Committee never achieved very much at all, least of all the stifling of the Russell Group. UniversitiesUK (as the CVCP is now called) is no longer an effective lobby for science (notwithstanding its recent return to the subject with its publication Eureka UK), in universities. The conspicuously unstifled Russell Group lives on, but doesn’t achieve very much (in public) either.

UniversitiesUK, anxious to diversify its sources of income away from its members, operates a commercial company to market the conference facilities in its new HQ building Woburn House, London. Herein lies a final irony because one of the things that company does from time to time is organise commercial conferences about the Public Understanding of/Engagement with Science. Having found it next to impossible to frame any firm opinions of its own that do not split its membership, UniversitiesUK is now able to now earn cash by providing the performers of the PUS circus with a platform on which to air theirs.

Universities doing little or no scientific research of any great significance (which is always bound to be most of them, because you can never have mountaintops without lower slopes) have no great fondness for science because they make more money teaching cheaper subjects. And though they do not admit it, research-intensive universities (the Russell Groupies) would rather research than teach because it is more lucrative - and because most of their staff also feel that way. With such disparity in outlook, it is not surprising that universities collectively can no longer do much to harness science for their collective PR benefit.

Individual universities where research is done have no such problems in using it, but unfortunately, very few universities with marketable science research stories to tell fund effective science PR – about which more later.

Universities reflect the tendency of their members/staff to fret about science – mainly about its not being appreciated or understood. Most fear for their collective future if young people do not choose to study it, or if the public does not vote for governments that tend to support it. They generally have no (or little) experience or knowledge of communication and not enough in-house communication expertise. They are just the fodder for the PUS/PEST industry for they lack the judgement to know right from wrong and the appearance of activity sates their appetite for (albeit futile) action in pursuit of their perceived problem.

The PUS/PEST industry has also brought media profile to several controversial (or would-be controversial) scientific dons and grandees, who are seemingly more often in the media than in the lab. Whenever they are in the public gaze, these pundits talk less about science than about the public understanding of it. This is a shame because science is at least something they know about. They know next to nothing about the public. It was a group of such folk who persuaded the RS to form COPUS, a body that inherited (to its immense detriment) many of their misconceptions, inadequacies and defects.

The grandees

Self appointed science grandees are always fervent top-downers, confuters of education with public relations, of news with teaching, of readers with students. They believe that educating the public about science will make them favour it – a wholly unsubstantiated notion.

As with all prominent campaigners against injustice, they suffer from the “Tutu Suspicion” – namely that they secretly dread the thing they campaign for, since its advent spells the end of their celebrity. Whatever the truth of that perhaps unworthy thought, until that day should dawn, these pundits will continue to write op-ed pieces for broadsheets in which their fretting about science can bore an ever-wider audience, but convince scientists that someone is “doing something” and “getting the message across”.

What these pieces actually serve to do is expose the most undesirable aspects of the scientific temperament to ridicule. Thus their authors become more part of the problem than the solution. This is especially so because the problem they think they are addressing (the alleged public mistrust of and disdain for science and scientists) is not only imaginary, but more encouraged than discouraged by their various arrogances, or their use of the space granted them for this issue, in order to exercise various other personal hobbyhorses.

There is a subset of PUS grandee, however, whose effect is wholly benign - the Arts grandees. Arts grandees like Lord Bragg, Sir David Puttnam and Fay Weldon have begun, since the 1990s, to come out as admirers of science. They also, by the same token as scientists, are rather flattered by the thought (perpetuated by Snow) that arts and science are two halves of one thing called “culture”. But nevertheless, even scientists can see that to have someone from “the other side” sing your praises is very good PR. Almost nothing they say or do can damage science, its image, or its communication.

Unfortunately these grandees stand in danger of becoming wholly swallowed up by the PUS/PEST bandwagon, and not knowing any better, always imagine they are speaking to a representative group of science practitioners and communicators. That they are not is hardly their fault. That they maintain their allegiance to the cause of science despite having to chair meetings at Carlton House Terrace for some of the most repellent whingers of the PUS/PEST industry, is all to their credit. What is sad is to see them paraded about like mascots at PUS/PEST conferences, as though to demonstrate the very death of the Two Cultures concept that they are unwittingly validating (by embodying the other “half”).

How the conspiracy works

The conspiracy began with scientific grandees (harbouring a grudge about what they wrongly imagine to be science’s poor public image) who then wrongly assumed that this came about because the public did not know what they know.

Beginning with the classic “letter to the Times” approach favoured by their ilk, they graduated to writing op-ed pieces for the emerging science pages of that era (the early to mid 1980s). Through a gradual galvanising of uninformed opinion, this group finally was able to persuade the Royal Society to set up COPUS, an initiative which also sucked in the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Institution.

It is important, when dealing with bodies like the Royal – or anything else for that matter - to ensure that one is not afflicted with undue awe. WH Auden, when serving as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, is reported to have leant to his neighbour during some tedious Latin citation for an honorary doctorate and said; “Don’t forget – everybody pees in the bath”.

The Royal Society is actually called the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. I give it its full title in answer to those innocent folk who, when you mention this august institution by its shorter moniker, ask the annoying but understandable question “The Royal Society of what?” It is a club for the greatest and best in science, and because we never had a real one it has become the UK’s National Academy of Science (and actually calls itself that now). As one of its truly deserving Fellows (Sir Peter Medawar) once wrote of it: “not all who are members deserve to be, and not all who fail to get in do not”.

My own impressions and those of the heroic people who have had to do the Royal’s PR over the years, is that of those who do get in, a very small minority deserve it by any stretch of the imagination and the rest have got there by the usual tactic of staying out of trouble and knowing the right people. Medawar, acknowledging much the same thing, added that such shortcomings were to be debited not to the failings of the Royal, but to the account of human frailty, and I would not demur. Fortunately there is an easy test to tell one group of Fellows from the other. Those like Medawar behave with unfailing courtesy and charm to all and sundry. In case you have not had the pleasure, I leave you to imagine what the others can be like.

Anyway, COPUS began life as another fuzzy initiative emerging half-cocked and ill thought-out from the minds of these allegedly great. Born thus from vague notions of malcontent into a state of cluelessness, it was remitted to a dull administrative civil service (the Royal Society’s multitudinous secretariat), which ensured that it spent some time searching for members to give it direction. Subsequently it spent even more time doing what all such bodies always do, namely, mapping activity.

COPUS committees consisted of various interested FRSs, RS committee hacks, recognised pundits, and representatives of organisations thought to be of prime importance in improving the public’s understanding of science (like the universities – which is how I got to be on one, briefly). COPUS was a committee of top-downers intent upon forcing science upon the public and insisting that they should like it. Though they belatedly realised their mistake (to their credit) they proceeded from a wholly mistaken assumption, and having misunderstood the media’s purpose and working, they then determined that the solution was to educate the public about science (turn them into little science graduates) by getting the media to include more science in its news programming. (This is what those who think too much about these things and teach on courses in Science Communication refer to as the “deficit model”.) They also wanted journalists to be nicer to scientists than anyone else because they were A Good Thing.

Despite my abiding affection and respect for many of the people who have given their best efforts to COPUS and the Royal Society’s other works over the years, I fear (and I am by no means alone) that there was hardly a single aspect of the way that COPUS approached anything that was either correct in principle, or practical in outcome (with a few noble exceptions described later). As I have already said, the spectacle of ministers and professors trying to tell the young what’s cool is itself deeply bizarre and shows the level of unworldliness that obtains in the minds of those who try.

Just as bizarre is the puny scientific establishment trying to tell the media how to play its own game – a tactic as likely to succeed as a gnat attempting to alter the course of the Flying Scotsman. And the Royal Society presuming to tell journalists how to do their jobs, as they were still doing as late as 2002 shortly after millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money had been wasted by scientists who mislabelled their specimens and squandered several years examining cow brains when they thought they were examining sheep (or was it the other way round?) just little short of breathtaking. But then the Royal Society is seldom less than breathtaking.

COPUS’s approach set the tone for events of the momentous 1980s. Everywhere science and the universities were being cut. Labour had been thinking about it since the late sixties (Shirley Williams again), but it was the Tories who carried it through. In Oxford, as a protest against government underfunding, a group of petulant dons led by Professor Denis Noble, leading light of the nascent Save British Science, denied Mrs Thatcher the hitherto automatic honorary DCL degree given to Prime Ministers who had graduated there.

This was the unedifying spectacle of dons indulging in student protest, and it achieved the same thing. Margaret Thatcher was once attacked by sociology students at Enfield College of Technology while she was “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher”, Secretary of State for Education. This was (and is) a dangerous job. Both Keith Joseph and later, Kenneth Baker found themselves on the receiving end of student missiles - Mr Baker, I well remember, copped a pot of pear-flavoured yoghurt during a visit to Leicester University. Thatcher loathed social scientists - even commanding that the word “science” be dropped from the name of what we then called the Economic and Social Science Research Council - and was not persuaded otherwise by her Enfield visit. And neither of her successor ministers at the DES was known for their enduring love of university students, though they often flinched at the thought of the power wielded by their parents in the ballot box.

What the Oxford dons achieved was twofold. They achieved a momentary frisson of delicious protest against a political leader that they and their kind instinctively despised. The feeling was mutual. For Oxford, the university system and science, they made an enemy of the most powerful and long-serving PM in recent history. It ensured that any lingering affection she may have entertained for science, research or her alma mater, was utterly effaced. And science went on feeling the pinch, but – O malheur! - nobody cared. Everybody else was feeling it too. The dons rankled ineffectually on.

The Government, mainly through the DTI and subsequently the OST, then began to develop an interest in the perceived problem of science’s “image”, and began to fund programmes fostering PUS/PEST through the British Association for the Advancement of Science. This, after all, was cheaper than actually spending more money on science itself, and as a sop to the twittering classes it seemed to work.

Until the early 1990s, the BA had been pootling along, organising its very successful Annual Festival of Science, which enjoyed, then as now, a firm following among science journalists and an excellent press office staffed (then) by a redoubtable chain-smoking lady called Sue Lowell and her ever-present box of 20 Gitanes. Suddenly, however, the organisation found itself receiving several millions of pounds of State money to organise, on behalf of the government, the first Science Engineering and Technology Week, (SET7).

What this did was turn (bits of) the BA into quite seriously funded organisations. The sudden change in its functions and fortunes demanded restructuring. Personnel changed rapidly. New staff were engaged replace old, and to cope with the new Government-funded projects. For every old oyster that shook its heavy head and left, four young officers seemed to hurry up, bright, resilient, chirpy, all eager for the treat.

But, sensing their time had come round at last, some rougher beasts were seen lurching towards the BA’s headquarters, then in Savile Row. A raft of (usually) minor communications companies began to appear, brought in on a contract basis to help the BA cope with the many new demands placed upon it. Quite suddenly a large number of jobs, even in the commercial sector, began to hinge upon the continuation of Government interest in the subject of PUS/PEST.


On the periphery of this emerging talking-shop circus (but separate from it) sat (as they do still) three well-interconnected groups – professional science journalists, competent media relations officers (in research councils, learned societies, universities and institutes) and scientists who regularly communicate either directly or, via the second, to the first - and hence to the public. These are the scientists whom science journalists choose to talk to because they hold responsible positions, their research is newsworthy, they put themselves to trouble for the press, and they know how to give a quote.

But science journalists only began to register the existence of the emerging PUS/PEST community and its attendant circus when they started holding conferences and inviting them to come along as guest speakers and talk about their work, or sit on panels and answer questions from the floor. It was rather bewildering, and it still is. What these journalists noticed, however, was that almost none of the good press officers they used, nor any of the scientists they spoke to regularly, and no journalists at all, were ever to be seen in the audience. So who were these people?

Nobody knew.

The inaptly named “Science Communicators’ Forum” held as a kind of fringe event at the BA Festival of Science in recent years by – guess who – COPUS, brought this joke to its climax. At the Festival, a large section of the UK’s (and much of Europe’s) science press meet in one place. Scientists communicate their work to the assembled media from 0830 to 1800 for five days solid. The media (unless anniversaries of September 11 intervene) devote pages of coverage and hours of airtime to the fruits of their labour. Canny press officers from scientific institutions (like the natural History Museum launching its book about insects in amber) organise events to capitalise on the media presence, and socialise after hours with journalists from all over the world. All this works brilliantly, and always has, mediated by the consistently conscientious and often brilliant BA media relations team.

Yet, somewhere on the edges, there was now a “Forum”, charging registration in excess of £100, but at no time attended (except as invited special guests) by anyone who was actually communicating any science to anyone - because they were too busy working. Instead, the assembled endured lectures on the theory of science communications as related to learning theory and such. A straggly audience of mostly young and inexperienced government press officers with no understanding of the media and no experience of journalism listened. And who paid for it? I suspect that eventually, you and I did.


This fit has set out to explain why the predisposing factors we have discussed earlier about what scientists think, how they see the world, and what is wrong with them (and their institutions) have given rise to another Tanganyika Ground Nuts Scheme – the PUS/PEST industry. And it is to this that I return now.

Worthy initiatives to persuade the young to do something they don’t want to do by attempting to prove that it is cool, are not only useless. Like most initiatives, they probably have exactly the opposite effect from that intended. They are the original experiment that, being not worth doing, is worth not doing well. But alas, that wise aphorism goes unheeded and the fiasco continues. It does so because the people who promote the initiatives do not take advice from the right quarter, or do not believe it when they do because it runs too much counter to their preconceptions. And to scientists and technologists, who as we have seen think they can do everything by applying their wonderful scientifically methodical brains (and to whom everyone else is just a “little helper”) running counter to preconceptions is a powerful argument against belief. Scientists view their common preconceptions just as a barnacle or oyster larva views its mature conspecifics, or the attachment scars of its dead predecessors. Unfortunately scientists are deceived and we have seen the general result of this already. However, I want to close with an interesting subset of the deceived, whose motivations are slightly different.

Engineers and other technologists often bemoan the modern lack of interest in courses in their subjects at universities. They find it hard to employ suitably qualified staff. The Research Councils, at the same time, are giving up the funding of Masters courses in things that are, in their view, too “close to market” (ie., of direct business benefit). The industries say: “we are just small firms in the main, we cannot sponsor university courses”. The research councils tend to say: “we don’t believe you”.

At this point, the employers tend to assert that universities must put on courses in - to invent a discipline - Mud Engineering, because those in the mud engineering business need the graduates and therefore the market exists. However in this remark they betray their lack of understanding of modern universities and their market. These employers are still stuck in a world of command economy and manpower planning, and think that universities’ market consists of employers.

This hasn’t been so for about 15 years, since the University Grants Committee finally came toppling down in the 1980s like other hollow, rotten Stalinist institutions that were about to follow across the world. The universities’ market today consists of the people who buy their education (less than half of whom are now school-leavers, incidentally). So if nobody wants to do Mud Engineering, then the market isn’t there. The onus is therefore on those who need mud engineers to make the career more attractive.

And so we are back with more absurd and useless official initiatives. Be a mud engineer and see the world. Initiatives like this are easy and - unlike any solution that might actually work – incredibly cheap. The real answer to manpower supply problems (as with teaching and nursing) is to pay mud engineers a competitive salary, so that bright people will consider it as a career. At the moment, all bright people will become lawyers and advertising executives, and who can blame them? It’s the market, stupid.


And so government money, poured into useless pep schemes, going straight into the pockets of website designers and pollsters and conference organisers, creates the PUS/PEST industry. This sucks into a state of dependence not only these companies, but the learned societies and lobby groups of scientists who are prey to all the misconceptions and character defects that we have already outlined. And what we are left with is – conspicuous expenditure, no results, and our nuts in concrete.

This fit has painted a dispiriting picture of a dispiriting episode in the life of science communication. But things are changing. As of late 2002, and after great agony precipitated by a wise report into the matter by the ever-energetic Sir Gareth Roberts FRS (former Vice Chancellor of Sheffield University and Chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, and recently ex-President of the Science Council), COPUS was killed off. (Though, because its name was well known, the Royal decided to keep it - which was a bit like keeping the name "Enron" because everyone had heard of it. But there you go.)

What’s more, it was killed because those sponsoring organisations recognised, and admitted that they recognised, that its top-down approach was flawed. The bits that worked were salvaged, and the rest scrapped. COPUS had been weighed in the balance and, being found wanting (by one of its own), slain - and its kingdom divided.

But wait a bit (as bluish oysters tend to cry) – is that not the sound of those who, refusing to learn from history, find themselves destined to repeat it? Oh my God, it's not quite over yet - there's another fit in the offing.


At 11:04 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it was pear and apricot yoghurt that splurged onto Kenneth Baker, I have on good authority...


Post a Comment

<< Home