Research Intelligence - Turn on, tune in and make waves

Academics with a hankering to shine on radio now have their opportunity. Paul Jump reports

September 8, 2011

The scholarly signal is strong: the New Generation Thinkers scheme will bring fresh voices to Radio 3's Night Waves programme

When the 10 winners were announced of a scheme run by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and BBC Radio 3 to find "the next generation of public intellectuals", scientists, non-academics and newspaper columnists were quick to scoff.

Even Mary Beard, professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and a seasoned radio contributor, took issue with such grandiose language, telling Times Higher Education that "the great thing about radio is that it doesn't make stars".

But according to Matthew Dodd, head of speech at Radio 3, the ambitions of the New Generation Thinkers scheme were always much more humble: to unearth new academic contributors to Night Waves, the station's "flagship arts and ideas programme", which returns to the schedules next week.

The programme's producers wanted to expand their roster beyond the "established names" and to meet academics at much earlier stages of their careers: within eight years of the award of their PhDs or within six years of their first academic posts.

And although applicants were initially slow to come forward, they were not short in number.

"By 5pm on the day applications closed we had just over 400," said Jake Gilmore, communications manager at the AHRC and one of the scheme's coordinators. "By midnight we had 1,060."

Hopefuls were required to submit both a short essay on their own research and a review of a work of art or cultural event.

Mr Gilmore and Mr Dodd both praised the high calibre of applicants, but eventually succeeded in whittling them down to 57. These were split into four smaller groups and invited to the Radio 3 studios for auditions.

This process, which the press gleefully depicted as an "X Factor for academics", first required participants to write a short script about their own research, which they then presented to the group.

"It didn't matter what university you came from or, pretty much, what your research area was. What mattered was your authorial voice in talking about your obscure piece of research (so that) everybody in the room afterwards was asking lots of questions and wanted to know more," Mr Gilmore said.

David Petts, lecturer in archaeology at Durham University, described delivering his presentation on the commercialisation of British archaeology as "hair-raising".

But he added that everyone he had spoken to agreed that it had been much easier than the hour-long simulated round-table debate on the value of optimism - the second part of the audition - during which the academics had been required to take turns to defend each side of the argument and to chair the debate.

Philip Roscoe, lecturer in management at the University of St Andrews, whose specialist subject was how economics affects the moral landscape of internet dating, said this had been an "absolutely exhausting" experience, but "a real tester of how good you are when put on the spot".

According to Mr Gilmore, the 10 ultimately selected clearly stood out from the crowd. Five-minute presentations by each on their research have already been broadcast and many will also be invited to develop longer pieces, as well as contribute to the programme more generally on an ongoing basis.

The impact of impact

All the chosen academics assert that their colleagues have been supportive. According to Zoe Norridge, lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at the University of York, who spoke about cultural responses to the Rwandan Genocide, academic attitudes about the value of public engagement are "rapidly changing", due in part to the impact agenda.

"Public communication is becoming valued and cherished in a way it was not before. People are excited by impact and are pushing it as far as it can go," she said.

"To be recognised for making research relevant to the wider public is exciting and feels like an opportunity."

She was attracted by the chance to use the "intimacy" of radio to "communicate complex ideas in terms somebody washing up on a Wednesday evening can grasp and that make them want to hear more". But she also saw media work - which she hoped to keep doing - as part of "building a profile".

Dr Roscoe said academics had an important role in making people "stop and think about the world they are in" and welcomed the impact agenda as a way of leveraging institutional support for doing so.

"It is liberating that we are able to do this kind of thing and potentially gain house points for doing it successfully," he said.

Dr Petts also admitted to having been motivated "to a certain degree" by the impact agenda - although he thought it would be difficult to quantify the impact of "soft knowledge" such as increasing the public's historical understanding.

"The BBC can tell us listener numbers, but were they tuning in to listen to me or to Arianna Huffington?" he asked.

He also admitted that the relatively small audience of a Radio 3 programme broadcast at 10pm meant that any impact his broadcasts generated would be limited.

For this reason - and given the fact that Night Waves' remit is explicitly confined to the arts - Mr Gilmore was puzzled by the complaints about the exclusion of scientists from the scheme, particularly given that there had been several previous projects to search for science communicators.

However, he admitted that other research councils had been interested in the New Generation Thinkers project and said he would be surprised if they were not considering running similar schemes for researchers in their own areas.

The AHRC, for its part, has responded to the unexpected volume of applications by organising eight day-long workshops around the country in broadcast media for more than 300 of the failed applicants.

And both the research council and the BBC hope to rerun the entire scheme next year.

Mr Dodd said academics were welcome to contact Night Waves unilaterally to offer their services, but admitted that the producers struggled to cope with the volume of emails they received.

That, he said, was why a targeted scheme was so valuable.

He said the key to a good application demonstrated that the applicant had "broad cultural interests" and could write in an accessible way.

"If someone is a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and they review the new Mike Leigh film in a very interesting way, (it shows) that person is already thinking about how they can communicate ideas differently," he said.

Mr Dodd added that enthusiasm was also an important, and surprisingly rare, quality for potential radio contributors.

"I realise that sometimes we ring people out of the blue and it can be quite disconcerting, but we really want it to work and for them to be really good on air," he said.

Dr Roscoe, for one, is not short of enthusiasm, notwithstanding falling victim to a "good bit of backbiting" by The Daily Telegraph columnist Rowan Pelling.

"It is almost a badge of honour for a slightly leftish academic to be savaged in the Telegraph," he said. "I wasn't mentioned by name but my research was cited so I was very pleased about that. I circulated it to my colleagues and we all had a good laugh."

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