So the Royal Society has appointed Professor Brian Cox as its new Professor for Public Engagement in Science at the University of Manchester.
The physicist who is becoming increasingly eponymous with science on TV in the same way that the broadcaster and naturalist, David Attenbrough, has with wildlife programmes, or Janett Street-Porter became associated with youth programming in the eighties, is to be the figurehead for the Royal Society’s public engagement work.
The Royal Society thinks he is going to be an important voice in the run-up to the General Election, particularly in the debate about the need for more science funding that will continue with any incoming Government needing to balance the books. I agree.
But Professor for Public Engagement in Science? That’s another matter.
In fact it feels like a predicatbly unimaginative move by the Royal Society. One that says much more about them and their view of public engagement than it does about Sir Brian who I rather admire for his energy and conviction and wish well in his new post. But then, like many institutions and clubs, they are never more comfortable than when dealing with one of their own, especially when comes to something they don’t truly understand or are rather afraid of.
I read the Royal Society press statements today and thought: this is the wagging your finger, ‘you’ve got it all wrong, we’ve got it all right’ approach that the Royal Society takes when it must emerge from Carlton Terrace and rub shoulders with us ‘ordinary’ folk. Am I the only one, for instance, who thinks it’s just a little bit jumped up to include the BBC in the Professor’s new remit. Don’t we have a publicly accountable BBC Trust (unlike the Royal Society Council) to argue with over things like science broadcasting? Ideas above their station and all that.
I may be jumping the gun and doing Brian a disservice but this Professorship does not seem to be about challenging the way in which scientists currently engage the public, their approach and behaviours. Nor how to involve citizens in making decisions about science or how to make it more open and transparent. That’s the future in public engagement.
I seem to remember that last month the President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, accused politicians of behaving cowardly when it came to making decisions based on scientific evidence. Maybe. But perhaps there’s also just a little bit of cowardice at the heart of such great institutions when it comes to thinking about how to involve citizens in what they do.
To Sir Brian I would say: ‘Is this public engagement, Brian, but not as we know it?’
Prove us wrong.