The Royal Institution, the Bodmer report, and the future of science communication

My guest post over on the Times Science blog, pasted below:

Professor Colin Blakemore has seen the future of UK science communication: it the Bodmer report. That’s Sir Walter Bodmer’s report on the Public Understanding of Science, of 1985.

It’s rather esoteric, and Blakemore’s reference to it in The Times on Wednesday took me by surprise. Though in a tangential way I maybe owe it my job, it’s been gathering dust in the archives of the Royal Society for a few years now.

I should stress that I think Professor Blakemore is entirely right that re-invention is the only way for the Royal Institution (RI), but recourse to 1985 isn’t the way to get there. In particular, I worry about the image, propagated by some, of the RI’s long history up against a Greenfield sense of modern realities. It seems out of date to me: playing 19th against 20th centuries (when we’re well into the 21st).

It worries me in the same way the juxtaposition of greybeards verses miniskirts does. It allows Baroness Greenfield to be painted as new and fresh, battling against an old guard. This is not how she is viewed in end of the scientific community I inhabit, where Greenfield has herself long stood as emblematic of an old guard. It would be exceedingly unladylike of me to repeat the various tweets that circulated after The Times posted its interview with her online today. Suffice to say, she isn’t just a figure of fun: the things she says about science in society make a lot of people very angry.

1985 was a long time ago. I was in nursery school when the Bodmer report was published; I’m now a lecturer in Imperial College’s Science Communication Group. One of the reasons degrees such as ours exist is the decades of debate over the meanings and appropriate attitudes of science communication that have followed the Bodmer report.

Science communication has changed. It has turned itself on its head in places, and at least tried to move “upstream”. As some recent LSE research demonstrates, Sir Walter himself uses a very different vocabulary. I remember, in 2003, reading Jon Turney’s now classic rant against ideas of so-called scientific literacy: “How Greenfield Got it Wrong”. Even then, it read a little as if Turney was having to explain very slowly to someone who has not quite caught up with the 1990s.

Professional navel gazing aside, we have all been through the National Curriculum, BSE, the 1997 election, Lords Sainsbury and Drayson, Frankenfoods, Wikipedia, Climategate and Brian Cox. I wouldn’t be as complacent as to suggest the rest of the UK science communication industry has been doing nothing but sterling work whilst the RI looked the other way, but today’s science does sit in a different social, cultural and political context from 1985.

As I left the RI after the special general meeting on Monday, I saw the looks on the faces of the staff (note: many under 35, many female). They looked pleased. Moreover, they looked excited. Over the last few months, the phrase “what’s the RI for exactly?” has been repeated a lot. Not least by me. However I now think a better approach is be to start from the position that it exists, and then think of all the great things we could do with it.

Whatever the RI staff decide, there was a heartening sense of freedom and imagination breaking through all the fear, gossip and backbiting of Monday night. I imagine the financial problem will remain a cloud for sometime still, but I for one am really looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.

2 thoughts on “The Royal Institution, the Bodmer report, and the future of science communication

  1. Stan Carey

    Good piece, Alice. As someone who isn't UK-based but is close enough to have at least a passing familiarity with these events, I found it a helpful and interesting insight into prevailing attitudes to official science communications in Britain.Since science is at least partly concerned with exploring uncertain territory and generating new information, any chronic institutional lag will be very frustrating to those with a mind on its advancement (as opposed to the preservation of its status quo). But a certain amount of foot-dragging has always been inevitable, I think, and is likely to remain so.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Royal Institution, the Bodmer report, and the future of science communication « through the looking glass --

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