Forget about searching for the next Brian Cox

In my crabbier moments I might use such a headline as an excuse to whinge about the current Brian Cox – award-winning megastar pop-science television presenter. But not right now, for I have a comment to make which follows from an article (or rather a few articles) in the latest issue of the journal Communicating Astronomy with the Public.

Science teacher, film maker and sometime Guardian scribbler Alom Shaha describes himself as an “evangelist” for science. While I flinch at the association with religious evangelism, Shaha uses the term in opposition to the more staid and establishment “science communicator”. We need to be proactive in our science communication efforts, but there is a downside to the hyperreality of TV science and its celebrity-obsessed community of hangers-on. Shaha says that classroom science teachers do more science communication than anyone else, and we neglect the development of school science education at our peril.

While acknowledging the power of new media channels such as Twitter and other social networks, my overall view of these new technologies is a tad cynical, and neither am I particularly enamoured of the glossier television documentaries. That said, we are currently blessed with some outstanding TV science programming.

Such cynicism might place me in the old school of science communication, and, given that my experience of the trade has so far been restricted largely to educational institutions and business-to-business journalism, there is some justification for this. But what really irks me about the latest communication fads is the excessive channeling of resources into what could so easily turn out to be transient media. Expensively produced and soon to be forgotten TV programmes, and obsessive compulsive twittering, are unimaginative and intrinsically conservative.

As for school teaching, Shaha is right, but governments and the gatekeepers of the profession make it difficult to join and inject new life into classroom science teaching. There may well be a shortage of science teachers, but rectifying this will require more than slick advertising targeted at recent and by implication young science graduates. There is also shoddy policymaking which fails to address the financial and domestic needs of those who might retrain as teachers. In my mid-thirties, with a research career in a field increasingly starved of funding, and with few opportunities for university lecturing and other science communication, I looked into becoming a school teacher, but soon abandoned the idea owing to financial and other obstacles placed in my way.

Alom Shaha wishes that more people would “aspire to become teachers instead of dreaming of becoming the next Brian Cox”. Maybe they would, if there were sufficient rewards and fewer unnecessary obstructions.

I shall return in due course to the other CAP Journal articles.