Spin doctor for science

Next week the British Association launches its annual bid to bring science and technology to the masses. Paul Carslake talks to its president, Sir Derek Roberts

You can expect some extraordinary headlines in the newspapers next week, as the British Association’s annual festival of science gets under way at Leeds University.

More than 300 speakers will take the rostrum over the five-day event to deliver papers with titles such as What to ask an alien, Mr Spock and Dr Strangelove, and Sperm wars, infidelity, testis size and male body symmetry.

It’s the biggest media event of the year involving science, engineering and technology. And it is unashamedly populist.

‘It’s all designed to grab attention,’ explains Sir Derek Roberts, former development director at GEC, and this year’s British Association president. ‘And I don’t have a problem with that. We want to try to get across the idea of the excitement of science to young people.’

As Provost of University College, London, Roberts is acutely aware of the difficulty of getting the brightest students to choose engineering or technical disciplines. The British Association annual festival, with its eclectic range of speakers, family days, student events and links with local schools, is part of a general campaign to generate enthusiasm about science and technology among Britain’s children.

It wasn’t always like this. The British Association first met in 1831 – the year Faraday discovered electricity – and for more than a century its annual gatherings were a forum for the most prominent scientists in their fields, and the place to unveil new research findings.

The association was set up as a scientific society, though today its status is that of educational charity, aimed at promoting the public understanding of science. Its small membership of just 2,000 people is a mix of practising scientists and enthusiastic amateurs.

‘When the world of science was smaller it was sufficient for eminent scientists to communicate once a year,’ says Roberts.

‘These days, with the range of scientific journals and a growing conference circuit, no-one is going to hold back on publishing their research until the next annual meeting of the British Association.’

As a result, many of the papers published at the week-long festival have been heard at other conferences, or published, in varying forms, in other journals.

But it is the first time many of them will have had an airing in the general media. So the most successful, in media terms, are those with some spin: a clear angle and a snappy headline, written to appeal to a non-technical audience.

Unlike the grey-bearded academics who would have attended British Association meetings in the last century, today’s audiences are mainly non-experts. While there will be a smattering of academics, many people in the audience will be pensioners, or students – as the meetings are usually held on university campuses.

At a typical day during the science festival only 2,000-3,000 people will attend, and this crowd will look thin on the ground as there are often several speakers on at the same time at various locations in the conference centre.

‘It is an incredibly small audience bearing in mind the number of people involved in all these disciplines,’ admits Roberts. ‘And the organisers find it hard at times to drum up enough people to make an audience that merits some of the eminent international speakers.’

To remedy this, fewer presentations will be run simultaneously, and universities are being encouraged to pay groups of students to attend the festival, to boost the numbers.

However, Roberts says the size of the attendance will not determine the event’s success. ‘There may only be a few thousand people at the meetings, but there could be 10 million who hear about it through the press, television or radio.’

This larger public matters to the British Association. Its mission to generate public interest and understanding in science is not just aimed at creating an enlightened population. It is designed to create support for science and technology in universities that will influence Government policy in the long term.

‘You could say we get the politicians we deserve. If screwing up universities is seen as a popular thing to do, then we get politicians who will do all in their power to screw up universities,’ he says.

‘But if science gains in popularity among the voters, this can have an indirect political effect that will be beneficial to Britain in the long run.’

This time last year, Roberts was an outspoken critic of cuts in education funding under the Conservative administration, when he accused ministers of ineptitude and dishonesty.

This year he says he is holding fire until it becomes clear what the Labour Government plans to do about higher education funding.

‘For now I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. At least they recognise the seriousness of the situation.

‘The Tories did enormous damage to university funding over 17 years,’ he says. ‘But if the Dearing report is implemented, and his proposals to slow the rate of funding cuts are accepted, then that would be the best step forward for British science and technology for 20 years.’