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Consultation overload?

18 October 2010

We’ve done a huge amount of work recently responding to consultations and promoting ASE’s views in the press and on the radio. We could complain of consultation overload, but we want the ASE’s voice to be heard and we have some useful input to give.  Generally, if we need to produce a response to a consultation we will set this up with one of ASE’s special interest groups and we can then respond with authority on Early Years curricula, on vocational science or whatever the issue under discussion happens to be.

The consultation that I’m looking at now is different, though.  We’ve been asked to feed back to the BBC Trust our views on the science content of BBC programming.  So this goes across our areas of expertise.  ASE would always be interested in taking part in this review, as the young people we teach are avid consumers of broadcasting, but an added reason for interest is that the review is being led by Professor Steve Jones, our President-elect.

The request is worded thus:

“Does BBC science, taken as a whole, present a full and impartial view of the nature of the subject and of the role of science in society?”

It will assess a wide range of UK news and factual programming that refers to scientific findings and to their relation with policy, including not just the natural sciences themselves but aspects of technology, medicine and the environment that involve claims made by scientists.  It will look at whether the BBC’s assertions about scientific theories are accurate, well sourced, based on sound evidence and presented in clear and precise language.

So, I would be grateful for the thoughts and ideas of ASE members on this, and if you are willing to be part of the group that we consult on other matters, please let me know directly.  Responses to the blog will be welcome on the BBC review and direct emails if you would like to be consulted in the future.


Alastair Gittner

Wed. 20/10/10

Does BBC science, taken as a whole, present a full and impartial view of the nature of the subject and of the role of science in society?

Up until about a year ago I would have said definitely not, other than nature programs science output was limited. However in recent months the scientific output from the BBC has improved massively.

Programs like "wonders of the universe," "Chemistry: A Volatile History" "bang goes the theory"and "the Story of maths" have helped to improve the public image of science no end. Sometimes I think Brian Cox is single handedly raising the interest in science.

However away from these well researched and presented, high production value programs some of the little bits of science in programs are also much better. Some of my favourite ones are either in the news but more especially in programs like "The One Show." THese are often very well done, and though they are often pieces on science in the news, they are usually good rigorous science, well presented and well explained. Indeed many has been the time when I wish I had pressed record at the start of the article so that I can use it in class. I'd love that it were the law that the BBC had to put ALL of these clips on their website.

I like many teaching colleagues value the science section of the BBC website. I often direct students to these pages, knowing that they will be well written and usually have links to other sites (often the original articles) for further research.

I have issues with "Horizon" which for one of the flag ship science programs is often popularist and muddles real science with subjects like homeopathy/reflexology. I've lost count of the number of times where I've shouted at the screen.."But what's the next can't stop there!"

I enjoyed the programs like "Jimmy Doherty and Darwins Laboratory" and "Darwins Tree of life" both of which as a teacher I have used in classes. Building a whole teaching unit round the former. This sort of program I feel helps with the part of the initial question on the "full" bit of science as they were very good on the reality of being a scientist.

I do think the BBC is "impartial," I don't remember thinking that the BBC was being biased in a story and even with controversial topics like global warming they usually take the "party line" of the view that is accepted by the majority of scientists, without shying away from discussing the counter view.

So is there nothing the BBC couldn't do better?
1. Start a policy to really help our society understand risk and chance. Areas like how eating certain foods or behavious, effect chances of disease, chances of asteroid hits, winning the lottery, what a scientist means by 90% sure.
2. Ban news readers, and presenters for admitting on live tv that they never did understand science...giggling..and then giving the impression that its perfectly OK to be scientifically illiterate. It isn't.
3. Ensure that scientists brought on to discuss items are interviewed by people who have been well briefed. In science we have a problem in that often we are dealing with theories. We can never be 100.0000000000% sure that for instance human activity is causing global warming. Presenters that try to push scientists to give this level of certainty, then when the scientist can't undermine the basic truism.
4. Create more docu dramas like the wonderful "double helix" from a few years ago. Programs that show the human, creative, realistic view of scientist's lives. Films that portray how exciting, wonderful and fulfilling it can be to perform barnd new research that no one else has ever done.
5. Agree with the scientific community that unless there is no one else available they will always try to use the youngest, most erudite, coolest scientist in the field that they can find to discuss an issue. Ageing grey haired white men should only be used in extreme circumstances. The vast majority of scientists are not like that and I speak as a forty something grey haired white science teacher.
6. Make as many as their science clips available on their web site.
7. There are probably a few messy, untrendy topics, like alzheimers, aging, parkinsons, MS that will become increasingly important topics as our population ages that are possibly worth a few good programs.
8. Ensure whenever the latest health scare is on the news that at the of the article they give the number of people in the trial and whether the story has been published in a peer reviewed article (these days many "discoveries" hit the news and the internet before they are published in a learned journal)

So in summary
Does BBC science, taken as a whole, present a full [probably, though there are topic and aspects of scientists lives that could be addressed] and impartial view [yes] of the nature of the subject and of the role of science in society [ yes especially if they help us understand risk and chance]

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