Celebrity scientists

It feels like celebrity scientists are the flavour of the month at the moment. Whenever I turn on the TV I seem to do so just as Brian Cox’s new BBC documentary Wonders of the Solar System is being advertised. Also ended up watching him on CBBC (newsround or something like that) when watching TV with one of my kids a few days ago. My wife then came in to say she’d been listening to him on Radio 4 talking to Dara O’Briain, Eddie Izzard and others, and I think he was also on the News Quiz yesterday with Sandie Toksvig, although I didn’t listen myself. Then I turned on the radio in the car this morning only to hear Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a physicist and engineer who now works for Astrium Ltd. as an optical instrument scientist, talking to Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs.

Maybe I’m just noticing it more, but it does seem like science is getting an awful lot of exposure at the moment. Those doing it, such as Brian Cox and Maggie Aderin-Pocock, also seem to be doing a good job of not only educating the general public but also of being incredibly enthusiastic and excited about what they do. Without wanting to sound too cynical, I have been wondering if this enhanced exposure is somewhat contrived. There has been a great deal of concern recently about the possibility – despite the government’s rhetoric about the importance of science – that there would be significant and damaging cuts to science funding. There has also been a concern that there would be an attempt to shift public science funding away from the more fundamental science areas into areas that could have more immediate economic impact. Maybe people are actively working to increase the exposure of science and, in particular fundamental science, to try and illustrate it’s importance and how much general interest there is in these areas – although maybe there isn’t any agenda at all and it is just coincidental. Either way, I think it’s generally a very good thing.

I only hope that the various “celebrity scientist” know when they’ve reached the limits of their expertise. The Tories, if they get into power, want to return to more traditional school lessons, but the only people they suggest would help with deciding what to do in the different areas are the various celebrity experts. We also already have Carol Vorderman helping with deciding how maths should be taught at school. I do think that the various celebrity experts have an extremely important role to play in exposing people to science and the arts and generally they do it very well. I just sometimes wish that they would realise that their skills are generally in communicating difficult subjects and that, although their science communication can inform policy, their role is not necessarily to become directly involved in making policy. I also wish politicians would realise, more often, that celebrities aren’t the only people worth listening to. In fairness, Brian Cox did a pretty good job in front of the parliamentary select committee on Science and Technology a week or so ago, so maybe some can do it all.


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