Telly can make science pants

August 4, 2006

When Kevin Fong found himself in a car park with a semi-clad man squatting over a pop bottle, it dawned on him that embracing the media can be hazardous

I believe that the academic community has a duty to get its highbrow ideas out there for the enjoyment of all. I don't care how it gets done: exhibitions, radio or television - it all helps. Otherwise, it's like sitting on a collection of fine art that only a handful of anointed people around the world are ever allowed to view.

I would encourage anybody to have a go, but that's not to say that there's nothing to fear. The worlds of media and academia are a long way apart and when they meet they tend to collide violently: we have peer-reviewed abstracts, they have television listings; we have ethics committees and they think that "ethics" is a county not far from the East End of London.

Once upon a time, I presented a TV science programme, lured like a moth to that 15-minute fame flame. It was great fun: proper coffee that you didn't have to pay for, people powdering my brow to take the shine off, I even had my own autocue. That particular production company, it has to be said, was great and did try to cram in as much science fact as it thought the viewer could cope with; all of which may have lulled me into a false sense of security about telly.

But recently I found myself at an audition for another "popular science"

project and discovered the dark side of the media world. The company said that it was looking for presenters with a science background. I tried to explain that I wasn't a proper scientist, more a user of science, but they told me that didn't matter. When I got to the audition I was introduced to an attractive girl who was auditioning as a co-presenter. I thought I should try to chat before we kicked off, so I asked her about her science background. "I work in public relations usually," she said, "but I do have a biology A level." After that I felt less bad about my own amateur credentials.

Next, some bloke with a handheld camera handed me a script and a white coat and explained what they were trying for. They wanted to make something more edgy, something more avant-garde. They were trying to attract a late night, after-the-pubs-have-shut student audience. Alarm bells should have been ringing by now but still I played along.

It wasn't until 30 excruciating minutes later, when I found myself in the car park, cameras rolling, with a bloke dressed only in Y-fronts squatting over a shaken up bottle of lemonade (allegedly to demonstrate something to do with surface tension) that I realised that this might not be the blue-chip programme I was hoping for.

"Say the line, say the line!" said the cameraman as the bottle of drink fountained up to soak aforementioned Y-fronts. "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh," said Y-front bloke, "now that's what I call science!"

"Arrrrrrrrrrgh," I thought, "no, it bloody isn't." I limped back home to reflect on the experience and douse myself with an industrial-size can of shame repellent.

Presenting our ideas and the stuff that inspires us to the public is, in general, a good idea. We can't complain that nobody understands how important our work is and why it deserves more funding if we don't make the effort to communicate these things. But shaking hands with the media can be a double-edged sword and, contrary to popular belief, we all have plenty to lose, including our self-respect.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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