Newsnight II

Jonathan Dawes

So, more reflections on the Newsnight piece now...

For whatever reason, or reasons, it wasn't at all a `pure science' piece. Although there was a decent amount of time spent on the science itself, it is interesting, culturally speaking, that the producers felt that a piece without the political or financial elements wouldn't stand up. So Newsnight worked hard to use the RSSE as a peg to hang the current spending cuts on, and implications for science funding as compared to how science funding is currently being handled in other G8 countries (meeting this week, hence that's a useful current shorthand).

Perhaps science alone itsn't interesting enough to hold the attention of the Newsnight audience at large - hard to judge this one, given that I know that I personally do actually find science interesting. Or maybe (because who doesn't like a good conspiracy theory!?) we can delve deeper for the media's agenda here. Certainly there are journalists who seem outraged at scientists trying to present the case for continuing financial support at current levels. If you find that hard to believe, please read Simon Jenkins in the Grauniad earlier this week:

Comment may indeed be free, but it's not always a worthwhile use of space. An early indication of the reaction to this article is that it currently has 286 comments on the Grauniad website, over twice the number his articles appear usually to garner (ooh, careful with that infinitive).

So why the outrage from (sections of) the media? Perhaps because science is still seen, by those, such as Mr Jenkins, who have been scared of it for the whole of their lives, as superfluous to modern living and modern society. Well, at the RSSE, have we got news for you. Mr Jenkins, it would be great to see you at our exhibit and talk in person, if you happen to read this before next Sunday 4 July.


Chris has alerted me to a much more nuanced and specific worry about current arts/science interaction written by Ivan Hewitt in the Torygraph last Friday:

 where the worry is much more about Darwinist explanations being promoted as the only reason that we respond well to Beethoven and Shakespeare. Luckily, there's plenty more to modern science than Darwin. Worth repeating, I think: Darwin is one small part of modern scientific thought. Come and see bundles of other scientific ideas at the RSSE, and chew over a Brazil Nut or two (blog posts passim, as Private Eye would say).



Thanks for the comment!

I'm delighted to have a comment from the liquid crystals stand.


No, I didn't see any Newsnight journalists on Sunday - I wasn't running our stand then. But I agree with your comment here - I'm very pleased that they came along outside office hours, and I hope they enjoyed it. It bodes well for the programme's engagement with science.


From the BBC website, 'Newsnight' is described as follows: ''However, the identity and purpose of the programme remains indelible - Newsnight makes sense of the day's news, tries to explain the detail of current events and holds to account those responsible for them. ''

This is a broader brief than just politics, although a lot of this kind of material will be politics-based. But I believe it would have been *possible* (no shortage of material) to run a story about the RSSE and the 350th Anniversary without mentioning science funding at all. Or at least to have given science funding substantially less prominence than the piece actually did. The temporal proximity of the Jenkins piece and the Newsnight piece made me want to include both of them in a single post. I would be happy if you wanted to refer to my remarks about both programmes in terms of a 'Scientist's Understanding of the Media' - the Media provides a lens that our work often is re-focussed through before it reaches the general public. I would say that this focussing process is of substantial interest to all of us, and well worth reflecting on, and questioning.

Did you see ...

... a certain Newsnight presenter at the Exhibition yesterday (I assume for reasons of personal interest / football avoidance rather than anything work-related)? I took this as a vote of confidence. Newsnight is, when all's said and done, a news and politics show, so I guess it is only to be expected that they cover the RSSSE from that perspective (note that the preceding item about architecture similarly focussed on the Prince Charles arguements more than the shape of the building). The Jenkins piece is something else again. To me, its main flaw is its failure to differentiate between "scientific research" and "decision makers' uses of scientific information". You and I know that there is a vast difference between the work of a bench scientist and the decisions made on buying up stocks of tamiflu or keeping jets away from clouds of volcanic ash. Why does he not appreciate this diference? Is his approach, of lumping anything vaguely science-reated into a single pot, a common one? Hmmm ... Rather than "Public Understanding of Science" this is morphing into "Scientist's Understanding of The Public".