David Shukman looks forward.
At the risk of sounding rather astrological, science reporting could be entering a potentially very promising period because of a favourable alignment of certain key planets.
The line-up starts with the planet of science itself. By any standards, it is on the brink of an unprecedented age of discovery. From the Large Hadron Collider catching glimpses of the Higgs Boson to new telescopes imaging marvels in the heavens, the coming years should yield a wealth of revelations. For example, is there life beneath the Antarctic ice in the ancient Lake Ellsworth? I’m planning live coverage of the search this winter. If ever there was a chance to excite the public, this is it.
The second planet is also to do with science: the desire among scientists themselves to be more open about their work, sharing its successes and failures.
It has not always been this way. In the past, I’ve sometimes had the feeling that reaching the public via the media was regarded as a chore, possibly unnecessary and certainly tiresome. But that has gone and I sense a new eagerness for engagement.
Obviously funding pressure is one motive, encouraging researchers to seek attention to support the next grant application. And, in the fall-out from the ‘Climategate’ emails saga, openness about data has become a requirement. But whatever the reasons, transparency can only be positive in helping us journalists portray science as it really is: a human endeavour, advancing in small, sometimes messy steps, in the noble cause of narrowing a range of uncertainties.
Third in our planetary alignment is a very healthy appetite for science news. Our in-house research shows this clearly.
If audiences are asked whether they want more science coverage, the response is lukewarm. The word ‘science’ is not universally appealing. But if presented with concrete examples of science stories, the figures for audience appreciation leap off the page.
Two stand-out stories in the past few years were the launch of the Large Hadron Collider and the inadvertent release of cloned meat into the UK food chain. To me, this odd pairing reflects a couple of fundamental points: not only does science have the capacity to enthral, but it can also touch people’s lives in challenging ways.
A further insight came when our researchers asked people what they were most likely to be interested in this year. The answer was not the one you might expect, the economy. That came second. Top of the list was extreme weather. Clearly, snow, flooding and heatwaves do not merely touch people’s lives, they disrupt them - and scientists are under pressure to offer explanations.
One BBC Science
The final body in the celestial line-up concerns the BBC. Science is recognised as a hugely important part of the corporation’s remit, reflected in new radio programmes, landmark TV series and Sir Paul Nurse giving this year’s Dimbleby lecture.
Appointing the first Science Editor for BBC News is part of that. Also, for the first time, the Radio Science Unit and the Science News team will be united in the renovated Broadcasting House, with colleagues in Television Science a few floors up. Anyone familiar with a large organisation historically divided on tribal lines (like a university?) will appreciate the significance.
And this comes as different forms of audience input are explored, from Stargazing Live inviting viewers to join the hunt for exoplanets, to the hugely successful ‘So you want to be a scientist?’ to a growing BBC presence at science festivals. This should be a cause for optimism. But at the risk of sounding superstitious, fingers crossed.