What next for the BBC: ‘Science in Need?’ #BBC #sciencefunding

Yes, wouldn’t it be great if the BBC did indeed launch ‘Science in Need?’ Then, for the first time in history, we could have a public broadcaster encouraging us to ‘SIN’ and be SINNERS with our donation to science.

There is something rather beautiful but perhaps also tendentious about the juxtaposition of yesterday’s launch of the BBC’s new strategy including its plans for science (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-34168310); and the call by almost 200 science leaders in a letter to The Financial Times for Government to back British science strongly in the on-going Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).  Both carry essentially the same message that ‘science is in need.’  Yet one wonders whether Brian Cox’s by-all-accounts excellent speech at the Science Museum as part of the BBC’s launch might have been the right speech in the wrong place. For I am not sure the BBC needs to give the Government any more excuses for thinking it has a political agenda.

What of the BBC’s new pitch on science? Well, what’s not to like about the most esteemed public broadcaster in the world making science such a big part of its future plans (Future of the BBC 2015)? I think it’s great. But… Yes, you knew there was a ‘but’ coming didn’t you?  Fact is, it is good.  But it also grates in parts.

Perhaps it is the cringe-worthy and religious-sounding title for the science bit (Section 6.4) of the strategy: ‘A New Age of Wonder’ invoking us to bow at the altar of science as in a medieval painting.  Or maybe it is the list of hallowed science organisations with which the BBC says is going to link up with to embark on the biggest public engagement campaign in science in history? There are many other organisations – local and national – that need to be part of this partnership if it’s to reflect the national science enterprise that it avows to campaign for.  Not just the ‘great and the good’ of the science institutions.

And a campaign? Does this mean we can expect Soviet-style, four-legs good two legs bad programming? Have we ditched impartiality and putting science under the same scrutiny as every other sector in life’s? Seems a bit dodgy to me to position the BBC as something akin to a propaganda machine. Celebrate, absolutely, but let’s not forget there’s a lot to debate, to question, to challenge about science as well.  As ever, the danger with the approach implied in the BBC’s report is that the  desire to influence and persuade becomes more important than the quality of the dialogue and engagement.

True there is a welcome reference to citizen science. But it could have done with an illustration or two of how it will tap into this movement if it wanted to be more convincing. I, for one, would love to see the BBC empower citizens with its science coverage. Just as it has young writers with its wonderful annual story-writing competition that features on Chris Evans’ Radio 2 Breakfast Show.  This sort of populist but life-enforcing approach must sit alongside that of the other roles the BBC should play.

What did the founder of the BBC, Lord Reith, say: ‘inform, educate, entertain.’

How about ’empower’ as well?

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