It was a typical Manchester day as we drove north to my old University town. But a rainy day tinged with excitement at the invitation to listen to the University’s astrophysics professor, and particle physics researcher at the Large Hadron Collider (1) near Geneva, Switzerland, Brian Cox to speak on the subject of ‘A Scientist in the Media’.
Both of his BBC tv series have mesmerised – The Wonders of the Solar System and The Wonders of the Universe. And coming soon, a physicists take on The Wonders of Life. As Brian explains “It is what hydrogen atoms do when given 13.7 billion years”.
Astronomer, Carl Sagan was one of the first scientists of the television age. His award-winning 1980s series, Cosmos – A personal voyage, opens with the stirring words. “The cosmos is all it is, or ever was or ever will be. The contemplations of the cosmos stir us. There is a tingling in the spine, that catch in the voice. A faint sensation as if a distant memory of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries. The size and age of the cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth. Our future depends on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float like a speck of dust in the morning sky.” Underlining that science not just about creating a few smells and bangs, but a cultural endeavour to understand and shape our futures.
More recently Jim Al-Khalili’s (Professor of Physics, University of Surrey) BAFTA nominated series on Chemistry: A Volatile History and Alice Roberts’ (medical doctor, anthropologist and Professor at the University of Birmingham) The Incredible Human Journey have won widespread acclaim. Both series have powerful narratives. As testimony to their abilities, both have been appointed Professors in Public Engagement in Science by their respective Universities.
But the promotion of science predates the television age. The Royal Institution of Science has championed public interest in science for 200 years. Started by Michael Faraday in 1825, they are most famous for their Christmas Lectures. Situated in Albemarle Street in London, this is the site of the first one-way system – established to marshall gentry in their horse-drawn carriages to and from the Royal Institution.
But what has this all done for interest in science? It has been a difficult year for Universities, with overall applications for 2012 entry down by 7% vs 2011 (180k) to 2.37 million (2). Against the backdrop of up to £9,000 fees introduced this year this is hardly surprising.
Yet what about science specifically? University applications for sciences have held up better than the UK average for all subjects accounting for 33% of 2011 applications compared with 31% in 2010. Biological science applications are 4.4% (9k) lower while physical sciences are just 0.6% (546) lower and medicine and related sciences are 1% (4k) higher (2). Applications to the University of Manchester are 10% (5.3k) lower vs 2010.
Looking at another measure of public interest, the book best-seller lists; the hardback of Brian Cox’s The Wonders of The Universe sold over 100k copies in 2011. This was one of only two ‘science related books in the non-fiction hardback top 20, along with David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet (3). In addition, Amazon reported sales of telescopes were up 500% following the airing of Stargazing Live.
So what’s the report card on the marketing of science? Shows much promise; has successfully increased appeal to more than just spotty geeks.
The media, and television specifically, are powerful means to promote all subject-matter, products and services. And win hearts and minds. Use them if you can!
Universities can and should think like media brands to drive awareness, interest, and demand for their services. Their offerings comprise more than courses, but principles, beliefs and sheer force of personality to inspire and empower. Thus far overall 2011 University of Manchester application figures suggest ‘could do better’ but the 2012 Cockcroft Rutherford lecture is an example of the University at its best. Watch the lecture, be inspired by the answer to life the universe and everything – and the small blue dot that we call home. I hope that this blog-post makes a small contribution to the University’s aims!
(1) Built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator. It allows physicists to reproduce the conditions just after the ‘big-bang’ and advance understanding of the deepest laws of nature.
(2) UCAS 2011