Blogroll Me! The Madness of Scientists - scientific misunderstanding of public and media: Fit the tenth: Getting real or, why it’s really a lot simpler than we imagine

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Fit the tenth: Getting real or, why it’s really a lot simpler than we imagine

“Few new truths have ever won their way against the resistance of established ideas except by being overstated.” Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder

“Success…in music like all art, involves a skill in making things that is not necessarily given simply because one has strong feelings” Julian Johnson, Who needs classical music?

Necessary distance

One Friday night many years ago after a very long evening in the drinking holes of Cardiff, I found myself eating a curry in one of those low dives that used to – and perhaps still do – grace the thoroughfare known as Caroline Street. I was there in the company of a number of other research students, though whether they will be able to vouch for this tale, I could not say – for this conversation did not involve them.

At a neighbouring table, alone and (also) somewhat the worse for drink, sat a lady of the night. (Ladies of the night and PhD students seemed to be this restaurant’s main clientele after a certain hour on non-rugby days.) On several occasions she attempted to speak to me, but I am afraid to say I rudely took no notice. I was a young man, and more modest then than now.

However, sensing perhaps the reason for my silence she suddenly said, “It’s all right, darling, I’m not working. In my line there’s not much you can do after a chicken Madras.”

As the full import of this remark sank in I apologised for my rudeness and conversed with her for much of what remained of the evening. She regaled me with her rather unedifying and somewhat predictable life history, ending with a remark that has served me as an axiom in public relations ever since. She said that she would stay on the game for as long as she turned a profit on a bad night, or until she started "coming with the customers".

Unfortunately for science, many if not most of those responsible for promoting it (at least from the inside) have not learned this crucial lesson. They carry a torch for science. They are, in other words, coming with the customers. Once you have circled the PR block a few times, you come to understand that it is always a lot easier to promote something in which you have no personal stake than it is to face journalists on an issue on which you feel strongly. Maintaining the necessary distance from the subject allows you to think more clearly and frame defensible answers to the questions you will be asked by professional sceptics.

A Chief Executive for whom I once wrote speeches was very fond (perhaps over fond) of quoting George Burns’s famous quip – “Sincerity is everything – if you can fake that you’re made”. I used to discourage the inclusion of this bon mot lest it give her game away, because Mr Burns was right – as was the poet Hugh MacDiarmid when he reminded us: “Deep conviction or preference can seldom/Find direct terms in which to express itself”.

Proficiency in the black art of fluent advocacy tends to bear an inverse relationship to depth of conviction. I would go further and say that successful advocacy demands the suppression of personal feelings, which have nasty habit of blinding you to opposing views, so weakening your argumentation and even (on occasion) rendering you speechless. Which brings us back to scientists, for whom the idea (what they would call “substance”) and the word (what they might call “style”) tend, as we have seen, to lead separate existences, so that they give all their thought to what is being said and very little or none to how, in a dichotomy unthinkable in other fields.

Successful advocacy requires that the advocate first understand the reality of what is being promoted. In science’s case this means realistically assessing its position within contemporary culture, and being clear about why we are performing the advocacy in the first place. If I were training people to become advocates for science I would urge them to forget science for a moment and look for analogies. In terms of social impact, I see science as occupying much the same sort of role as, and sharing many of the characteristics of, double entry book-keeping and jazz.

All what jazz?

I borrow a title from the poet Philip Larkin, who was not only the world’s most famous university librarian but also a noted jazz critic.

Like science, jazz is an immensely influential world movement and constitutes the United States’ main 20th Century contribution to high Culture. Though it is not itself jazz, just about all the music listened to by most people every day all over the world, owes its existence to jazz. Despite this, within our everyday culture, jazz itself remains almost entirely elusive.

Talk to any jazz cat of the 1920s and 30s and he will tell you that things have never been much different. The music most people listened to in the so-called jazz age was in fact “corn” - the jazz-idiom dance-band music of the time (and worse). Even in its heyday, when people thought it new (because it was new to them), jazz was never popular. It was fashionable for a moment, just as science was fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s. But popular? Widely understood? Never.
This is to me an interesting and significant distinction. It will by now be clear that I believe most scientists’ attempts to educate people are cynical and completely misguided attempts at gaining popularity. However what I really think scientists want is to regain their fashionableness, which is the only thing they have actually lost. They think they have lost trust, respect, comprehension. What they have really lost is that buzz of being in vogue.

In our society (which is the only one we’ve got), this is to some extent the same thing, because those in vogue are automatically accorded popularity, trust and respect, for no good reason at all. Here lies a moral dilemma, one of wanting the “right” thing for the “wrong” reasons. Ever tried to tell a vegetarian that you always eat humanely-reared veal because it tastes better? I have always maintained that, once you cut through the high-sounding ideals of public engagement, education and Reithian mumbo-jumbo, you get back to the same old thing. What scientists really want is to regain their former fashionableness - and be allowed to get on with things unhindered.

Like unpopularised science, jazz proper demands a lot - too much, probably - of the average listener. But despite its extreme rarity, nearly everybody indulges in and is influenced by the musical culture that has been spawned by it through interpreters - the people who took jazz and made it popular by making it easier. Some jazz musicians can do this themselves, just as some scientists can write popular books about their subject. But they are not many. Most cannot bear to. Most leave it (quite properly) to others. And so we are left with an almost universally fecund and powerful form, practised by almost nobody, understood by a few, turned into popular versions for the mass market by others, and actually accessible and enjoyed in this marketable form by almost all.

This is one analogy. However, jazz is art - and as such exists to give pleasure and to communicate, so it is unlike science in these respects and as an analogy may be misleading. Science does not exist to give pleasure, nor is it a form of communication – somebody has to communicate it. So let us consider another activity that, like science, was not designed with pleasure in mind.

Held to account

Double-entry book-keeping originated in Italy, the cradle of modern accountancy, where the first recognisably modern accounting records are found in documents dating from the early 13th Century. These earliest accounting notations relied on a formal syntactical (sentence-based) system for recording who was creditor, who was debtor, and by how much.

Double-entry book-keeping is first known to have been applied around 1340 in communal account books of the City of Genoa. However the first description of how the system works is contained in a manuscript of 1458 by Benedikt Kotruljevich of Dubrovnik (whose name is more frequently written in the Italianised version, Benedetto Cotrulli/Cotrugli). The same technique was recorded by mathematician Luca Pacioli (picture) in his De Computis et Scripturis, printed in Genoa on a Gutenberg press in 1494. This work was subsequently translated by Domenico Manzoni and published in 1540 under the title Quaderno doppio col suo giornale, or the “Double ledger with its journal”. Historians of accounting in the 20th Century identified the adoption of this system as a key step in the emergence of a modern, capitalistic profit-oriented way of thinking, where the enterprise came to be seen as a separate entity from the person of the merchant entrepreneur.

But what exactly is double-entry book-keeping? Although it – like science, alas - has become a symbol for all that is difficult and arcane, it – again, like most science - is actually rather easy to understand. It is a simple system for monitoring the income and expenditure of a typical small company, in a way that allows a check to be kept on accounting accuracy. Entries are divided into debits (on the left) and credits (on the right). Debits record transactions relating to purchases made, expenses incurred and increases in the firm’s assets. Credits record transactions relating to revenues, and an increase in liabilities. Recording any transaction requires both a debit and a credit entry. If both entries are correctly written down and both columns correctly added up, the totals in each side of the ledger should be the same.

In subsequent centuries this supremely useful technique has helped make financial institutions reliable, and company finances sound. Yet people at large are happy – nay, delighted – to remit actual knowledge of double-entry book-keeping to those who make it their business. And this is what makes it similar to science.

We can know it for you wholesale

Like science, people at large can be made aware that double-entry book-keeping is good for them, and be made to feel glad it’s there (both achievable through effective PR), but be even gladder that people better educated in its intricacies are looking after it for them. From time to time, they may enjoy hearing a tale or two about life as a double-entry book-keeper, such as might perhaps be engineered by the Institute of Accountancy to reinforce the noble image of their profession. Such a tale might be written by an accountant, but is more likely to be successful if it is written by a journalist who has interviewed one.

If Mr J Public feels the need to know more – perhaps because he thinks his accountant is robbing him blind – he can take the trouble to learn the detail he needs; at which point he will find that such information is everywhere, and not that difficult to mug up, especially when you have the motivation. Ask any journalist who has written about families suddenly struck down by unusual life-threatening disorders. They know as much about them as their doctors in months.

But for most people, most of the time, and for much the same reason that makes most science "soft news" in journalism terms, science is non-essential knowledge. And like so much else, people at large are content that someone else knows about it so they don’t have to. Now - this is an example of a warm feeling, and you achieve it by doing good PR – yesterday, today and tomorrow – because as the man said, it’s always there to be done again. It is scientists’ duty to keep this continuous feed of information going. Otherwise, a basic understanding of the limits of scientific knowledge (which should be taught to everybody at school and I fear isn’t) and a feeling for how big a pinch of salt to take with what scientists say (which grown-up people have instinctively) – is enough.

This is not cynical – it is realistic. At any given moment, people at large – and I include myself in this category, by the way - are almost completely ignorant about everything around them and – as Geoff Dyer has pointed out in his Yoga for people who can't be bothered to do it – it really doesn’t matter at all, most of the time – that is, until you actually want to do something with knowledge. Then you really do need to know about stuff, and given that the world is vastly overloaded with information about everything scientific, this is not hard.

But being unknowledgeable about science is no more shameful or disabling than being unknowledgeable about double-entry book-keeping – or how the legal system works, or how the model for Shakespeare’s The Tempest is rooted in European dramatic tradition, or how the British constitution came to be framed by its history. If you need to learn about these things, you can. And being made to learn about it so as to train your mind - and then forgetting the pub-quiz crap so you can make room for something more useful later - is wonderful and good, and the whole purpose of education. But you don’t need to carry it all about in your head all the time. Expecting people to do that is just ludicrous.

So much for the “deficit model”, as it has been dubbed, based as it is on the mistaken idea that if you educate the public about science they will be on its side, or that the public needs to know what scientists know to be fully enfranchised in a modern society (and that you can use the media to deliver these educational materials). It is undoubtedly baloney. Whether it is dead baloney, however, is another matter. I find it to be alive and well among scientists. As with those diehard Two Cultures, there is nothing so alive as an idea that intellectuals all claim is dead. Such notions are too easy and attractive – too robust - to die when some egghead says so.

As we have seen, the old COPUS, which embodied this idea, was abandoned in late 2002. By that time the initiative was co-sponsored by three august bodies, who issued a joint statement on December 9. In this document, Roland Jackson, Chief Executive of the British Association, Baroness Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution and Stephen Cox, Executive Secretary of the Royal Society, announced that they had come to a decision.“We have reached the conclusion that the top-down approach which COPUS currently exemplifies is no longer appropriate to the wider agenda that the science communication community is now addressing. We believe it will be more effective to allow organisations to seek their own partnerships and develop their own activities, within the strategic framework outlined by the British Association in its report.

“We have decided not to appoint a new Chair for COPUS and to stand down the Council as it is presently constituted.” It was the end of an era.

And thus, in place of top-down prescription and the deficit model, we got engagement. Among science’s professional cheerleaders, engagement is now firmly embedded in place of deficit. The public needs to be more engaged in decisions regarding the future course of technology and science, they hold. Having moved on from Public Understanding (PUS), we must now, they say, recognise that with greater knowledge and awareness comes greater ethical responsibility. The public must make informed choices, based on negotiation and mediation. Scientists must talk to the public and learn to understand their fears, engaging them in the process in a two-way discussion about the future. Above all, there must be debate.

The Royal Society recently did just this over issues connected with genetic modification (GM). Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse FRS told me how useful this exercise had been because when asked why they would not buy GM tomatoes, their sample responded: “because it might contain genes”. The idea that people at large were unaware that all food is stuffed with genes and always has been, plumbed a level of misunderstanding at which Fellows of the Royal had never even guessed.

This is all very laudable, and useful education for the Fellows; but unfortunately the engagement model is a sham.

First, the evidence simply does not exist that the public wishes to engage in any such debate. Those who think there is, are either making the mistake of believing the polls (according to which everybody also watches Panorama every week) or are mistaking the audience of the BBC’s Today programme for the general public.

Second, scratch a PEST and you find old-fashioned PUS. The deficit model is alive and well, I fear, even among those who proclaim its death. Although it is valuable that the Royal Society now knows how uninformed people are about matters genetic, their answer to this will be more education. Which is where we were before.

The PUS lobby thought that "knowing what scientists know" was the answer. What you detect with the PEST lobby is the insulting (but familiar) implication that if people can only be more informed and induced to think rationally, then they will end up agreeing with scientists. This, at bottom, is what scientists hope the engagement circus will achieve – in other words, the same thing. Fancy "consensus conferences" and on-line discussion fora and all the rest of it are just, in their minds, yet another way of saying “seminar”.

Though science may be internally rational, scientists are as gloriously irrational as anyone else and they have absolutely no right to appropriate rationality to themselves. This is one of the many arrogances that alienate the non-scientific among us (nearly everybody) and jeopardise scientists’ chances of doing what they need to do - which is to convince people that what they (the scientists) want is, on balance, good for everybody, and not just good for them or the Establishment.

So how do you do that?

In many ways the world is a simple place – it works on self-interest. When scientific issues run into trouble with the public, it is because someone has first made them aware of it (probably some damned journalist, for that is their job), and pointed out negative implications (probably because some anti-science lobbyist got their act together first).

Hence the trouble with GM foods. People can see what’s in it for supermarkets and manufacturers and farmers, but the rest of us? People may object to mobile phone masts hundreds of feet in the air, but not to the mobile phones millimetres from their brains because they feel the benefit of one and not the other. The phone is small, yours, useful and cute. The mast is big, ugly, and belongs to The Authorities in ways that make it inherently suspect.

These are, in principle at least, relatively simple PR problems and can be countered most effectively by the usual PR means, based on the principle that no member of the wider public will support anything unless they can be made to see what’s in it for them. For science, effective public relations must be aimed at explaining benefits and creating an affective bond between science and its consumers and major funders (i.e., people at large) so that more of them will feel happy about making a free choice in science’s favour.

This freedom that is my freedom is your freedom

As Shirley Williams pointed out all those years ago in her 13 Points, the freedom that allows scientists and technologists to pursue their activities is a social contract between them and the rest of us. But it is also, like all freedom, indivisible.

Even assuming you could engage people at large in a debate that only you want to have, the logical conclusion of such a dialogue (about future directions in science and technology) must surely be this. After “the public” has heard and understood arguments in favour of, say, GM foods; even after it has taken on board the pros and cons, weighed carefully the benefits (fewer pesticides, possibly) against the potential dangers (The Day of the Triffids), and had everything explained in such a way that even scientists are happy, people at large are still free to say "no", just because on the whole, they’d rather not, thank you. If the people who pay for it and will have to live with the consequences simply don’t want the science or the technology, then no matter how "irrational" scientists might think their reasons, then they will just have to accept it.

Meanwhile other publics in other countries might decide otherwise – but then, their freedom is indivisible too, and it includes the freedom to make their lives better by adopting technologies that wealthier countries can afford to be sniffy about. Western countries are now in just the position of those fictional louche arty folk, so deplored by CP Snow, who could afford to hold their noses about science and progress, but only because they accepted its benefits.

Is this really the situation scientists think they are getting into with engagement? I don’t think so. And the furious reaction to a suggestion along similar lines made by Lord Winston some years ago suggests that I am right. The avuncular professorial peer has moved from being the most widely known fertility expert in the UK to being a TV celebrity – the latest thinking woman’s crumpet. Preceded as ever by his trademark Groucho Marx moustache, he has fronted several high budget science series, and is noted for his willingness to swim with sharks (protected by a cage, rather than yogic inhaling) and other acts of didactic derring-do.

Speaking to the Times Higher Education Supplement in December 2003, he suggested that scientists must recognise and abide by public opinion on issues such as GM crops. He also said that scientists risked tarnishing their reputation by associating with governments, and cited the rumpus over the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, when the scientific backing for Government policy made little headway – probably because of this baleful association. “We have to recognise that it is unwise to get too closely associated with Government. Government has a different agenda” he said. How right he was.

Perhaps because his words were barbed with arrows of truth, Winston was roundly lambasted by a wide range of other science pundits and a bunch of cocky politicians. Mostly his critics feared that if we lived in their conception of Winston World, popular opinion would dictate scientific research directions. Oh horror. Basically, they said, the public were not (and could not) be qualified to make such determinations.

Well, if the purpose of engaging the public in debates about science and technology cannot, theoretically, lead to just such an outcome - what is the point of it? How sincere is a process of engagement in the ethical dimensions of research when one side says that any outcome is permitted except the one they don’t want? I am not suggesting that it would be a good idea to do as Lord Winston says. However by suggesting it he did us all a service - by laying bare the whole empty, useless charade of the PEST industry, which is frankly conning everyone.

Scientists are being suckered into it because, while it is sold differently, in reality most really think of it as another way of educating people (and thereby persuading them). The public are clearly being conned, because the engagement on offer is a one-sided sham. No scientist is prepared to let the public determine the direction of future research, or future applications. Some make hay with the difference between applications and research, but if they understood the history of science better they would realise that this dichotomy – like so many others - is nonsense. So – let us ask: who really needs public engagement? Who really stands to benefit from it? The answer is – the ones who are buying and selling it – namely government and those who conduct the process.

It is absolutely true that society needs public consultations on certain scientific and technological issues important to public policy. Recent issues that have excited enormous public disquiet, including GM foods and cloning, nuclear waste repositories, power generation, global warming, the looming energy gap and so on, are matters on which Governments need policies. And yes, the social contract with scientists dictates that the public should be informed about these matters. Those who wish to debate them should then be able to do so - for example, through consensus conferences where concerned volunteer members of the populace examine evidence from all sides and, with the help of professional mediators, produce ethical guidelines with which they feel comfortable, and within which successful policies could be framed.

This is highly useful to policymakers, who may live too closely to their subjects to be thinking straight about them, or to be capable of conceiving the full depth of natural ignorance. It is educative, in other words, for Governments, and its chief scientific creatures. That it has taken so long for governments to come round to this idea is startling. That such models for consultation are still more often seen among recommendations from Select Committees than in the observance is a matter for regret. But it is all marginal, and nothing to do with the real business of the media.

At the moment, the PEST industry is elaborating itself into endless conferences about just this sort of public consensus-forming debate. But the fact remains that as scientific proselytisation, it is largely ineffective, at best involves a few tens or possibly hundreds of motivated people, and is more a means of covering policymakers’ backsides than anything else. Science needs these forms of consultation a lot less than governments do. Governments need to know what policies might be acceptable, and why others are not. Governments want to make sure that profitable technologies are not lost to the country. They need engagement because it is the first step towards framing policies that we will vote for – and towards softening us up.

By holding out the prospect of large wads of cash, governments have succeeded in persuading many of science’s most senior representative bodies that they should be doing it. This is the central irony. Science is therefore now colluding with government – and as we have seen and as Lord Winston has said, it isn’t science that people are most suspicious of – it’s authority. If science is ever seen as being state property, incapable of kicking politicians in the arse from time to time, it has had it with the public.

There is no doubt in my mind that PEST is better than PUS. But I doubt if it is going to do science any good. Meanwhile it will divert the time and resources of scientific organisations into running focus groups for government.

Edjerkashun, Edjerkashun, Edjerkashun

I do not deny the importance of science education – I merely deny its efficacy in PR terms - the attempt to do it by stealth through the media. The place for scientific education is in school, college and university. After that stage, what learning people at large choose to engage in is up to them. Anyone who tries cynically to force education upon an unsuspecting public by consciously manipulating the news media and other legitimate forms of entertainment deserves to be drowned in their own ink. Also, of course (and why is this so easy for scientists to forget?) science journalists are journalists. Like any other kind of specialist reporter, they are there to be informed, independent, and above all critical commentators on their subject, not its lecturers, mouthpieces, cheerleaders or spin-doctors.

Without engagement, which I believe is not going to achieve what most scientists think it’s for and isn’t going to persuade anybody in any significant numbers, the only thing science communication is left with is public relations – which is, as I have said, the only thing that can work through the media. And it is on this subject that I would like to end this final Fit.

Meanwhile, scientists must have faith; faith that if education performs its task properly in laying its facts and ideas before everyone, and if scientists remain diligent about maintaining public sympathy through effective PR, then the public will remain more likely than not to award the proper victories to science in the realms where it, and only it, hold sway.

But scientists should not expect any victories to be total. They never will be. Being right, that scientific obsession, isn’t everything. In fact, insisting on always being right is a mistake scientists make all the time when defending themselves against the cruel and uncaring world that doesn’t love them enough. What they forget is that nobody likes a smart-ass.

Doing it right

There can only ever be one innocent reason for communicating anything to adults via the media, and that is the possibility that some of them might enjoy it. Moon landings and decoding the human genome apart, nearly all of what scientists have to tell other people through the media is inessential information. It has to be topical (in order to be news) but it is nearly always “soft news” – news which, if it is not in the paper, does not make the paper look incompetent, and doesn’t get the science correspondent sacked.

The only genuine excuse for burdening the world with even more of such information is that by doing so, someone else passes a few moments less dully than otherwise. If the result of your communication is dull, however, the world is not improved, and it had been better not to try. If your communication fails this crucial test - that it has transcended mere teaching and become entertainment - then what you have done is no better than commit the sin perpetrated upon university students every day (but there absolved because the victims are volunteers). By attempting to perpetrate education upon the unwilling you commit a cynical attack upon freedom - the right of all free adult citizens not be bored against their will by special interest groups.

The interfaces

The only real route to the hearts and minds of non-scientific folk lies neither through consultation nor education, but public relations, and for that alone, scientists need the media. There are not very many interfaces that really matter in science communication. They are:

  • Scientists directly to the public as authors
  • Scientists directly via journalists
  • Scientists via journalists through the medium of institutional public relations.

The first is a real growth area in publishing today and is probably in its best state of health ever. The second relies mainly on science journalists doing their jobs, and in the UK, science writing is not only in a better shape than anywhere else in the world, it is in better shape today than ever before, with more writers feeding more space in more outlets. More science makes the news than ever before, more scientists are themselves doing science writing; there are more scientific documentaries on TV than ever before. It is boom time.

The problem lies in our institutions, and the way they promote themselves.

Few UK universities with marketable science research stories to tell fund effective science PR. All is by no means darkness, and there are pockets of bright, effective talent. But to my knowledge few UK universities employ a science writer on its PR staff, solely dedicated to finding and marketing stories either for news releasing, or for sale to individual outlets. In the USA this is the standard model for science-strong universities, and (moreover) one that I proved over 20 years ago works here in the UK. One has only to look at Penn State, for instance, for a PR office based on this model that clearly works and actually results in real coverage, promoting the university’s reputation through its research, and promoting public admiration for science as a by-product. I pick that example almost at random. Ask any science journalist about the quantities of science stories that come out of US universities.

The Warwick Experiment

In the late 1980s, Warwick’s former PR supremo Geoffrey Middleton and I researched and proved this very model for university PR officers to promote their science and scientists. I have frequently held up The Warwick Experiment, as I have rather pompously named it, to conference after conference of PR officers from universities and learned societies. While its practical success was undeniable, it has never really been duplicated because it depends on two factors that occur together in almost no university press office:

  1. sufficient in-house journalistic training/experience to recognise news (a knack that may be learned, but can never be taught)
  2. time to devote to interviewing scientific colleagues in the university and writing story ideas based upon those interviews for offer to local freelance science journalists, contactable through the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW).

Geoffrey Middleton, as a sometime contributor for The Guardian, and with a reasonably well-resourced external relations office under his command, did have these things. For the purposes of the experiment I acted in the role of “available freelance” to whom he offered the ideas, and who then went off and sold the ideas in turn to newspaper editors, returning when successful to interview the scientists.

In a rather similar vein – though differently organised – another successful means of promoting a university through its science involved commissioning independent science journalists to write the university’s annual research report. I sold my services in this way for a number of years and wrote annual research reports for a number of science-strong universities and medical schools, including Newcastle, Salford and the Hammersmith (a postgraduate medical school) in London.

The experience of conducting back-to-back interviews for three or four days solid is gruelling; but in the course of collecting material for the official publication that I was contracted to produce, I also stumbled over many stories that could form the basis of news that I could then sell into the pages of national newspapers, or of op/ed pieces ideal for New Scientist or the then multiplying science sections of the nationals.

After these experiences I realised that all a university needs to do for this process to happen universally is to develop a relationship with one or more freelance journalists, and give them similar work. The subsequent steps in the process will take care of themselves and need little or no further management beyond the occasional helping hand. Everyone does what he or she does best, and reasons of self-interest will ensure it gets done. No extra staff need be permanently employed. If the university is nervous that the journalists thus let loose upon them will sniff out (or invent) embarrassing scandal that will damage the university, then it needs a good slap, which it is the press officer’s job to deliver. Freelance journalists would be failing in their duty if they ignored a true scandal, but universities are just not that interesting, frankly. And few freelances could afford to bite the hand that feeds them for anything other than a very good public interest reason.

However The Warwick Experiment, in which everyone worked to their own strengths (and self-interest) to the wider benefit of science and the sponsoring institutions, will only ever work when universities employ journalists as PR officers, and (crucially) resource and manage them appropriately. This happens in the USA. It does not happen here - and shows little sign of doing so because those who might do most to help it along are wasting their time engaging people in debates they largely don’t want.

So has PUS/PEST all been a waste of time?

No. A few initiatives have been successful and have resulted in benefits to real science communication.

Media fellowships

COPUS began the media fellowship scheme, which takes scientists into newspapers, magazines, radio and TV to work as journalists, so they get to understand news and how it is made. Some go back to the lab and spread good practice there. Others use it to escape the bench. Both outcomes are wholly beneficial to the cause of science and its communication.

Expert finding

It can be very hard indeed for journalists to find appropriate experts at the drop of a hat on any subject and to help them, various organizations now run expert-finding services. Such services, one of which I was instrumental in setting up for UK universities, have made journalists’ lives a lot easier (which incidentally is the key to all good media relations).

The Royal Institution Science Media Centre

The Royal Institution’s (independent) Science Media Centre has addressed the central problem of how you deal with science stories that escape the grasp of professional science journalists, and end up at the tender mercies of the general news hack. This was a body, like COPUS, born without very much idea of what it would do or how it would do it, and credit for pushing it through seems to belong to the RI’s energetic Director, Prof. Susan Greenfield.

But instead of remitting the centre’s ultimate purpose to those who knew nothing about the problem (the “OST/Royal Society model”, you might say) the RI appointed dedicated and talented people to run it, who then took good advice before acting. They identified what was needful and are now successfully supplying it, much against the initial expectations of the cynical hacks at whom it was, and remains, principally aimed.


AlphaGalileo is a science news Web Site (and expert finding service) for Europe, aimed at journalists, who register with the site and then have access to embargoed information. It was initially set up by the research councils (NERC) but is now funded by the EU. It has been a fantastic success and has effectively extended web-based news distribution to organisations unable to countenance paying the American Association for the Advancement of Science for the privilege of using EurekAlert, its US forerunner.

Whither science and the media?

Science communication through the media, like all public relations, is like clearing the drains. It is only a problem when it doesn’t get done, or is done badly or infrequently. In the UK it is done, and by and large, better than anywhere else in the world. You can always do more of it, and how much you do depends on how much you care, and how much you want to pay people to do it. It is not a problem – except for our institutions, who persist in not doing what they should.

If the question is – “how do we get more science coverage in the media?” we have known the really important answers for years, and in the end the only thing that matters is to employ talented people with the appropriate skills and let them get on with it.

However, if universities, research councils and institutes employed their own science writers to work up research and sell on stories about their institutions, with no other functions to clog up their lives, then any communications deficit (in quality or quantity) they feel they suffer would be swiftly redressed. There is no shortage of suitably trained people, now that universities themselves are busy churning out graduates with masters’ level qualifications in science communication.

This model has been known in the UK for at least 20 years, and practised in the USA for much longer. American journalism may occasionally be a subject for scorn from its hard-bitten UK observers, who may think their US counterparts impossibly academic, boring, and lacking in news sense. But US public relations practice by contrast stands before the UK as a living reproach.

In the end, no amount of education can make up for lack of talent, which is why educators often try to deny talent's importance: namely, because they know in their souls that beyond a certain point, those who have it don’t need much educating. What they do need, however, is training in craft. And ah, wouldn’t you know it, there’s another no-no. Thus the two things of which we stand most in need, “talent” and “training in craft” have become politically incorrect even to name. For which reason I am pleased to name them.

Doing science communication right means employing talent that has been properly trained. This means reasonable salaries and pensions and National Insurance and (horror!) spending money on something other than science when the stuff’s in short supply. To nobody’s great surprise, the rub consists of money and priorities. Not all US universities can wear that one, and certainly none here. It also means admitting that scientists need professional help, and we have already seen the inherent obstacles to that. So we come back to the twin evils not spending money properly, and scientists’ refusal to admit their shortcomings.

Why does the endless agonizing continue?

The agonizing does not stop because those bodies who are asked for their views on science communication are either scientific ones, where cluelessness prevails, or others that are already sucked in to the whole self-serving PEST morass. The few lone voices who see the emperor’s nakedness do not like to speak out, because so many of their friends are caught up in it. They may also be caught up in it themselves, of course.

A few days after writing a response for The Geological Society of London to the Office of Science and Technology on matters concerning science communication I went to a meeting of the Association of British Science Writers committee, on which I then sat and which I currently chair. I asked my colleagues, who sat there sweaty and exhausted after a hard day spent actually communicating science on TV, radio, newspapers and journals, whether they were even aware of the OST consultation. Sure enough, they weren’t – either as individual journalists or as officials representing their profession. Consulting actual professional communicators of science was evidently not part of the OST’s programme. My colleagues on the committee looked at the BA/OST document I put before them, shrugged their shoulders as they passed it back and (with a smile) said “Nothing to do with us, surely?”

How right they were. Precious little to do with reality at all.


One of the most hairy-arsed scientists of all time was my hero and great Victorian, Thomas Henry Huxley, who combined scientific insight with great controversial talent, eloquence and force of character. Much though I admire him, however, I do not hold him to be a saint, nor do I agree with everything he said. Nor would I dream of taking him out of his historical context.

Huxley had a huge battle on his hands to force science into the curricula of the ancient universities, which he held to be bastions of anti-scientific philistinism. He would have agreed, as I do, with the Isaiah Berlin epigraph to this chapter, and was not afraid to overstate his case when political necessity demanded. Huxley held university education (as exemplified in Oxford and Cambridge) to scorn - not only for its scientific shortcomings, accusing them of confining their learning to “showing how and why that which the Church said was true, must be true”. Then as now, though for different reasons, it seems that education was a deeply anti-intellectual process that bore to learning the same distant relationship that the church bears to religion, or medicine to health.

The criticism was well made and had a germ of truth, but as an overstatement it raised the ire of that great High Priest of Victorian high culture, Matthew Arnold. Arnold sought to respond to Huxley’s claim. If it were true that “conceptions of the universe fatal to the notions held by our forefathers have been forced upon us by physical science”, would “humane literature” really be thrown out of the curricular bathtub along with the baby of true education?

One senses in the exaggerated posturings of these two polyphemes - their one-eyed argumentation only making sense even to them because each covered his other eye for the duration of the joust - something of the coming difference between that age and ours, the age that science has made. For Arnold, the Earth still metaphorically sat at the centre of the universe, and at its centre, Man in all his perfectible glory. At the centre of mankind sat England (and at the centre of England, Matthew Arnold).

The extraordinary importance Arnold placed on the effect of education upon the individual, and of the power of literature upon the senses, seems a little absurd today, now that – as science commentators are always gleefully pointing out – science has dethroned humanity completely, and relegated it to a cosmic accident in a galactic backwater.

However, such was not the worldview of Matthew Arnold. In his 1863 Letters in Criticism he defiantly wrote: “It is not Linnaeus or Cavendish or Cuvier who gives us the true sense of animals, or water, or plants, who seizes them for us, who makes us participate in their life”. That role, he said, was reserved for Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats, whose words convey the essence of the thing; its natural magic, and its moral profundity. For Arnold, “seeing the world as it is” meant something very different from what it meant to Linnaeus, Cavendish, Cuvier - or Huxley. And it was a world where the way in which things were expressed was inseparable from the idea that was being conveyed – the very separation that, in the scientific mind, has today become almost complete.

In the Victorian world, science was making its way; the spirit of the age (as expressed in literature) was becoming outdated, as CP Snow pointed out in The Two Cultures. It was to stay that way long into the 20th Century. What English poet before W H Auden really felt at home in his own time? But that has changed. Nostalgia, thank God, isn’t what it was.

Arnold was clearly rattled. He found himself in the same embattled defensive position as scientists think themselves in today; but in his answer to Huxley’s (supposed) assertion that humane literature would be ousted from the curriculum before the juggernaut of natural science, (Discourses in America, 1882) this son of a great Rugby headmaster wrote something perhaps truly prescient. Somehow, despite having his hand over one eye, he managed to keep s a sense of perspective.

“What will happen will rather be that there will be crowded into education other matters besides, far too many; there will be, perhaps, a period of unsettlement and confusion and false tendency; but letters will not in the end lose their leading place.

“A poor humanist may possess his soul in patience, neither strive nor cry, admit the energy and brilliancy of the partisans of physical science, and their present favour with the public
[my emphasis], to be far greater than his own, and still have a happy faith that the nature of things works silently on behalf of the studies which he loves, and that, while we shall all have to acquaint ourselves with the great results reached by modern science, and to give ourselves as much training in its disciplines as we can conveniently carry, yet the majority of men will always require humane letters….”

(You do not have to look to the Victorians to find scientists in the psychological and fashionable vanguard, rather than the doghouse. In Sir Peter Medawar’s Essay on Scians (published in 1984 but by then well out of date since it was written many years before) he drew an analogy between the view taken of academic scientists by their academic peers, and the view taken of the nouveau riche by the aristocracy. “It is in the same mean-minded spirit” he wrote, “that our brethren in the humane arts avenge themselves on scientists for being so busily and to all appearances happily employed and for getting so big a cut of the government grant… [my emphasis again]”.)

But what Arnold’s view of things displays is precisely what today’s scientists and those who fret about science on their behalf always lack – confidence, and a sense of proportion. Arnold believed that the humane arts would survive the worst that science and the hoi polloi could throw at them. Arnold’s faith in human need for the things that only humane letters could deliver was unshakable. The same is undoubtedly true today for science. Scientists need to learn this confidence, and know how to distinguish it from strutting, priggish arrogance, of which they demonstrate far too much, far too often, already.

Science is not and cannot be everything to Society (which has to balance other claims with those of science) or to a fully rounded person, who is likely to demand more of experience than science alone can provide. Science cannot even be one quarter of something called "culture", let alone a half.

As Arnold said, and as a diverse rather than a unified culture, we shall continue to acquaint ourselves with modern science - most of us to the degree that we find it amusing to do so and otherwise, to the degree that we discover it to be necessary. And yes, we shall give our young as much training in its disciplines as we can conveniently carry - to the extent that students find it compelling and society requires such expertise and is prepared to pay for it.

But this is all. Everything else is the madness of scientists.

End of the final Fit

Things worth reading

  • Science and the public: a review of science communication and public attitudes to science in Britain. A joint report by the Office of Science & Technology (OST) and the Wellcome Trust. ISBN 1 841290 25 4. Available free as PDF at or from the Marketing Dept., Wellcome Trust, 183 Euston Road LONDON NW1 2BE. Tel: 020 7611 8651, FAX 020 7611 8545, Email
  • Baron-Cohen, Simon 2004: The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain (Penguin) ISBN: 0141011017. This study reveals the scientific evidence that female-type brains are better at empathising, while male brains are stronger at building systems, either concrete or abstract. It also theorizes that autism and Asperger's Syndrome are examples of the extreme male brain.
  • Parry, Vivienne, 2002: Scientists as communicators: how to win friends and influence people. Journal of Molecular Biology 319, pp973-978.


This is a blog about homes – choosing them, escaping them, and interpreting the view from outside in, and inside out.

Thomas Mann, author of the epigraph to the Introduction, managed to outrage his bourgeois Lűbeck hometowners with his first great novel, Buddenbrooks. I fear that I too may be accused of fouling the nest, so perhaps I should first record my indebtedness to the Geological Society of London and my editor-in-chief, Professor Tony Harris; not least because they have allowed me space in the magazine Geoscientist wherein many of the hobbyhorses that follow were first ridden. Not many organisations would allow one of its staff to rant regularly at its Fellows on matters connected with science and the media.

I should therefore extend my thanks also to my fellow Fellows for their forbearance, and to those others who from time to time write to my Editor, suggesting I be encouraged to find alternative employment with The Sunday Sport. I wear their disapproval with pride. I should also thank two other organisations: the Higher Education External Relations Association (HEERA), which I helped to found when I was the last chairman of one of its predecessor organisations, the Standing Conference of University Information officers (SCUIO), shortly before the merger of the universities and polytechnics in 1992. I should also thank the Science, Technology, Engineering & Medicine Public Relations association (STEMPRA) on whose committee I sat for a number of years.

For critically reading the bits and pieces that will appear here, and discussing the themes, I must thank my former school chum Dr Jeffrey Williams (Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, Paris), my old student buddy, Professor Michael Ellis (variously of the University of Memphis, ETH Zurich, and now of the US National Science Foundation) and a newer pal from the 4th Estate, science journalist and doyenne of communications pundits, Vivienne Parry.

My experience of science policy in Higher Education context was gained while working at the Committee of Vice Chancellors & Principals. I should therefore like to thank Auriol Stevens (subsequently Editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement) for hiring me and for teaching me so much. The usual disclaimers apply – these persons are entirely innocent of my overstatements, gross generalizations and errors – all of which I own completely, though with different degrees of enthusiasm.

I should like to thank the British Association for the Advancement of Science for its Annual Festival, and for its Media Suite from which I have reported on science for various organs for most of the last 20+ years. The BA remains one of my favourite organisations, and its media relations offices through the years have been consistently miraculous. I hope that they will forgive me when I josh their employers’ policies from time to time.

Lastly and mostly, I must thank my wife Fabienne; not only for being blest with the glorious self-confidence natural to the French, but for wisely never having anything to do with science, or its alleged communication woes. What possessed her to ruin this impeccable run of sound judgment by marrying me under a casino in Reno, Nevada, I shall never fully comprehend.



At 5:11 am, Anonymous Jeri Massi said...

Dear Sir,

I bet I am the first person to comment on your blog, and the reason for this is that your blog is incredibly boring.

I have not stepped out of Proust, and certainly not Vogue. You have excellent writing skills and even better skills at putting witty pictures into the text. However, you are talking about issues that nobody cares about, and making distinctions too minute to matter.

What this really means is that you are a good writer but a bad thinker. You fix your mind upon the insignificant. Quite frankly, if I could name off the periodic table or figure out what the E stands for in Einstein's equation, I would be a scientist for a living. But I would also have beer with my friends and watch DOCTOR WHO without worrying about the crappy science.

You are a human being first, and then a lot of little things. Being a scientist is one of the littler things. But you should be all the other things as well.

Best wishes,

At 9:40 am, Anonymous Box of Frogs said...

The blog is not 'incredibly boring'. YOU have found it boring.

The issues raised are not ones that 'nobody cares about'. YOU don't care about them.

There is a fine line between robust comment and rudeness. Which do you think calling someone a "bad thinker" is? And as for telling someone what he "should be"! I am sure you will have some very useful and non-patronising advice for all of us.

I found the fits laid out known data in a new way and offered ideas for the future which re-set some of my own thought patterns; with a side order of involuntary laughs. Easy to read, with an obvious basis of wide-ranging knowledge and sources.

I am definitely from the louche artist end of the spectrum.


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