Don't shoot science messengers, they're an endangered species

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There is a paradox about science broadcasting. Surveys going back to the Jurassic will tell you it tops the favourites list of viewers, listeners and readers. They want lashings of medical matters, wildlife unleashed and science unlimited: from Big Bangs to nanotubes. Yet science on air is almost unknown outside a few public broadcasters such as ABC, SBS, BBC and CBC.

Do the commercials not want this source of guaranteed ratings bonanzas? Or is something else going on?

A clue is Channel 7. Recently it brought back Beyond 2000, originally invented by the ABC, and immediately scored big audiences: 1.3 million, fine for Australia. Yet, after only two seasons, it's gone. Why?

The answer is that science journalism, like science itself, requires investment both in time and money. Without research, experience and a critical mass of qualified journalists the show quickly collapses. Public broadcasters, until recently, have been willing to pay the required bills. Now, just at a time when the world faces monumental problems requiring scientific answers, the field is on its knees.

There are two reasons for this.

First, one is attacked personally for having some kind of high profile and for trying to face general questions beyond the detail. Take Robert Winston, professor of medicine and presenter of several TV series. He says, 'It was a serious issue for me. When I started doing television on a big, popular scale, I was completely ostracised by my colleagues and it was really unpleasant. So much so that I was determined to give up doing television. I thought, this is not worth it...'

Some of us are delighted he persevered.

Second, despite what seems like public recognition (I am supposed to be a ‘Living National Treasure' for God's sake!) the reality is slim pickings. I do three programs a week on national radio, 52 weeks a year. What kind of resources might be needed to maintain such an output? Researchers, reporters, locums on stand by? The answer is zero. I have one full-time producer working on The Science Show and part-time producers for the other two shows. The odd freelancer provides an occasional report. That's it!

By ABC Radio standards I'm treated well. Imagine what it's like for my colleagues. So why put up with this? Because, without maintaining the airtime for scientific ideas, these windows too, would close. We have repeatedly warned that veterans such as Norman Swan and me (with 60 years of broadcasting between us) will not go on forever and need youngsters hired to succeed us, but the response has been Siberian.

Future Perfect Could science on air go extinct? Well, the ABC Natural History Unit, where we made Nature of Australia and Wolves of The Sea, closed in August. For many years it had no production budget. The ABC's ‘standing army' of TV staff, with no programs to make, has long been an embarrassment. Outsourcing may free up funds, they say.

But where will the expertise come from? The point about public broadcasters is that, from David Attenborough to Adam Spencer, from Norman Swan to Jonica Newby on Catalyst, they provide a thorough training ground for both skills and innovation. This may and does happen outside as well, but does anyone really know how much we can rely on the independent sector to take over this role? Whenever I look around Australia for young and willing science communicators ready to grab the baton I'm left floundering.

Meanwhile, in a way, we are being set up to fail. The work expands relentlessly, as ‘platforms' multiply and more, much more, has to made of your material, on webs, nets, blogs and co-pros.

As for my own books, slim as they are, they have to be done on the run, usually in a handful of weeks.

I was dumbfounded the other day when a commission I had received from an academic source, a book review I had done of a biography from America, came back asking for page references. This was over 18 months after I had sent it in, bang on the stated deadline. Can those dons really need as much time as an elephant's pregnancy to cope with each small opus?

Oh such luxury!

There is a third impediment to writing popular science with global or futuristic implications. Personal attacks. I once asked Jared Diamond at his office in Los Angeles how he dared do portmanteau works such as Guns, Germs & Steel or Collapse. He replied that he had completed his lifetime's bench research and could now go forth boldly, without fearing his academic career would be wrecked. Tim Flannery, his Australian equivalent, is similarly placed.

Both have been attacked for their big picture offerings. My own are smaller and more humble, provided as introductions to more hefty works by big ideas guys.

Shooting messengers is easy. What is far more difficult is coming to terms with the reality that science and the future are suffering a criminal neglect. While some of us try to maintain an output to match the urgency it's easy to miss what's happening. Flannery, Swan, Dr Karl, and Winston represent a fading generation. The real future should belong to fresh voices. Where are they?


 

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Existing comments

All true! And doesn't it just show what happens when journalism loses its mind!
Joan Seymour | 04 October 2007


I am astonished by Robyn William's resourcing. How has it been possible for him to sustain the world's best science radio programming, in such poverty stricken circumstances, over so lengthy a time?

In this time of untold wealth, for his programming to be so shockingly under resourced is scandalous. It does have something to do with a crisis in confidence in science, with a profound hesitancy with its inherent worldview (all is stuff, so we are fundamentally stuffed), with its seeming legacy of pollution and overconsumption, with satiation with whizzbangery and the like.

But science is utterly fundamental and we utterly need to maintain the conversation, fully and totally - and must allocate the money and time, and nurture the next generation.

Meantime, he is even more of a National Living Treasure than I had realised.

Thank you so much Robyn


David James | 04 October 2007


Congratulations on publishing this. I first heard Robyn Wiliiams a month or two afdter arriving in Australia in 1976, and I have listed to him (The Science Show, Ockham's Razor) almost every weekend since then. People like R.W. and Norman Swann are invaluable communicators. Best wishes, N.S.
Nigel Sinnott | 04 October 2007


When an hypothesis which may later prove to be a scientific truth is first proposed, it is then that those who are 'expert' in that field of science take to it with the utmost ferocity. This ferocity takes the form of rejecting the hypothesis at the earliest stage by declaring that there is some conclusion, no matter how minor, which does not agree with their received scientific knowledge. The hypothesis is then utterly rejected without consideration of its transcendent nature. Consider how the theory of 'sponataneous generation' held scientific sway well into the nineteenth century against the 'germ theory'.
Claude Rigney | 04 October 2007


Thankyou to Robyn for thirty years of great listening! Shame on the ABC for their meagre support. I was appalled at the lack of resources he endures. Please pass all these comments on to the ABC. We don't want to be reduced to the advertorials that pass for science reporting on commercial channels!
Lenore Crocker | 06 October 2007


Robyn Williams is right, providing popular science is not popular with academics even though the future of science depends on arousing interest. I see the same parallel with popular theology, which is my field. You are never accurate enough and are accused of trivialising.
Yet both sciences need their discoveries be communicated to the people, who ultimately are paying for the research.
I hope Robyn Williams finds scientists to follow him, just as I hope some theologians will follow me!
Fr Nick Punch O.P. | 07 October 2007


Excellent article, should have a wider audience. Robyn has been mainstay of science gen knowledge for decades. I'm appalled to hear there are no "succession" plans for him or others like Norman Swan. I realise the tall poppy syndrome is alive and well within professional groups as well as the general public. Also what about Richard Smith of ABC Science? His work has been outstanding for years not only recent Doco on Oil How can we (collectively) help what about Friends of abc etc what about schools and universities putting some pressure on public broadcasters. Pvt tv/ radio unlikely to succeed will fall into soft science and folksy science as (dare I say) did Catalyst for a brief period early this yr.

margaret gillies mb bs fracp | 09 October 2007