Opinion polls have shown that people are very interested in medical and other
scientific subjects. Then why, asks veteran Australian science journalist Robyn
Williams, are there so few such programs – especially in the world’s electronic
media? Williams, who was born in 1944 in Wales, works for the Australian
Broadcasting Corporation (ABC, not to be confused with the American Broadcasting
Company in the US), which is the country’s independent public broadcaster. His
reporting has been so extensive and of such high quality that he is the only
journalist to have been made a fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences; he
has also received several honorary doctorates from universities.
was in Israel recently for the first time in 20 years – hosted by an anonymous
Israeli donor – and conducted interviews with about 20 of the brightest
researchers at Hebrew University.
He was also invited as a guest speaker
at a workshop on science policy of the Israel Academy of Sciences and
Humanities, at the initiative of Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s former
Hanoch Gutfreund, a world-renowned expert on Albert
Einstein who disseminates popular science by lecturing on trains and in other
Among the audience at the academy events were leading
scientists and local science correspondents.
GUTFREUND introduced him as
having been voted in as one of Australia’s Living Natural
Making scientific discoveries and reporting on them are
“equally important,” continued the HU professor, as public knowledge and support
of science are vital. “It has to be done intelligently, systematically and with
understanding of the importance of science. There are many controversial things
on the scientific agenda, such as cloning, climate change and genetic
engineering, that have to be presented fairly, Gutfreund said.
noted that the Israeli and Australian academies of science have at least one
thing in common: Israel’s is headed by a woman – a Weizmann Institute of Science
immunologist (and co-developer of the multiple sclerosis drug Copaxone), and so
is its Australian counterpart, by leading cancer researcher Prof. Suzanne
Arnon commented that in the beginning of her scientific career, she
was “most afraid of being interviewed by a journalist. I was afraid that what
was being quoted was not what I said – and afterwards, there would be no way to
correct it. I thought it would do damage. I asked to check the copy just for
facts, but they refused. But now I have experience and know how to handle
In Australia, the UK and many other Western countries, science is
increasingly under attack, said Williams, who became a journalist back in 1972
and admits he didn’t know much about the field despite his bachelor of science
degree (with honors) from the University of London. When reporting about the
early US National Aeronautics and Space Administration manned flights to the
moon, when asked why space vehicles were coated with what looked like aluminum
foil, he once answered: “to protect them against corrosion,” even though he
realized later that this was ridiculous.
Today, he feels “the whole of
science being discredited.” Among the issues that arouse the most controversy
are genetic engineering of food, global warming and stem-cell research. But
Israelis, noted Gutfreund and Arnon, have a much more positive view of science,
new medical technologies that save lives and gadgets that make life more
comfortable and interesting. Some of the exceptions involve religious beliefs
such as evolution, they said.
The Internet, with its blogs and
“anybody-is-anexpert” philosophy, has resulted in a lot of scientific scams and
the transmission of nonsense, said Williams. “People don’t have to have a radio
or TV anymore, or sit down at a fixed time to listen or watch. Anybody can say
anything and claim to be better than any professor. There is blatant nonsense in
public discourse, simple ignorance and false information given for personal
gain,” he continued.
“A real goal is to stoke the fires of cable radio,
websites and the like. They don’t often weigh evidence and facts.” This puts
scientists “in a street fight... and on the defensive.”
At the beginning
of his career, Williams was not above giving information about “fossil beer
cans” and other hoaxes, but for many years, with science under attack, he is
much more careful. “I rarely tell jokes about science anymore.”
three kinds of people who disseminate science, said Williams. “First, there is
the educator/performer, who tells you why something is so and tries to intrigue
people about what they had never thought about, such as why the sky is
Then there are the gurus like Carl Sagan, Jane Goodall, David
Attenborough, Susan Greenfield and Isaac Asimov, who have big ideas and want to
explain them. “They write books.”
“And finally, there are the science
journalists like me.” Looking at science reporting around the world, he
continued: “one finds a tremendous shortage of programs like mine.” That is not
because they have low ratings. “I don’t believe we are doing a narrow public
service and that almost no one is interested.
Our ABC radio and TV
programs would not have lasted all these years if they were not popular. But
commercial media want high ratings, and to do science reporting... well, you
need a critical mass of money and manpower.”
His manner provides hints
that when he was at the University of London, he was active in acting
He even made guest appearances in the BBC series The Goodies,
Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Doctor Who.
Williams emigrated to
Australia and joined ABC’s science unit, where after three years of
behind-thescenes production and interviewing, he began hosting the award-winning
Science Show, a one-hour sciencebased radio interview now in its 35th year.
Later, he began to host Ockham’s Razor, a 15-minute radio show in which he
introduced a leading scientist or personality who expounded from a prepared text
on a topic of his or her choice, with a view to making the subject accessible to
the public. In a later show called Conversation, Williams actually interviewed
The science journalist also narrated an ABC-TV science
series called Nature of Australia and appeared in World Safari with David
Attenborough. He also persuaded the ABC and Australian Museum to establish the
Eureka Awards for Excellence in Science Communication and Innovation.
the meantime, he also wrote 10 books, including three that are part of the
high-school curriculum, and an autobiography titled And Now For Something
Completely Different sponsored by a Reuters Fellowship at Oxford University.
Although he never applied for Australian citizenship, he was made an Honorary
Member of the Order of Australia in 1988.
Popularly known as “Aunty,” ABC
was founded in 1929 as the Australian Broadcasting Company and became a
state-owned corporation in 1932. With a total annual budget of AUS $1.13
billion, the corporation provides TV, radio, online and mobile services
throughout metropolitan and regional Australia, as well as overseas through the
Australia Network and Radio Australia.
“The traditional media are
challenged,” said Williams. “They don’t really understand the new media,” but
are trying to adapt.” His ABC opened a 24-hour news channel without investing
more money, so things are spread even more thinly.
“Instead of reporters
doing one report, they do many.
Another problem is that “the people who
run the media are too obsessed with gadgets. But ideas in science are at least
He added that Australia is fortunate to have a Science
Media Center – an independent, non-profit service that provides journalists
direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. The Australian center
says it aims to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by
improving links between the media and the scientific community. To set it up,
science advocates chose a dynamic young business and media mogul. “He didn't
know anything about science. He got friends in industry boardrooms to put in big
money for establishing a science media center. We raised AUS$ 21 million in a
few months. A number of staff members were hired and computers bought. New
Zealand, Japan and Britain have done this. You could do this here too,” said
Even after all these decades, “basic research can be explained
as a story. For example, people who routinely use credit cards are fascinated to
hear that some time ago, a man received a Nobel Prize for his work on lasers
that made it possible for such magnetic cards to work. People love the real
Williams is “still fascinated by science. There are loads of
compelling reasons to report science; it is a great intellectual challenge. You
don’t have to be a scientist to do it. It isn’t a strange culture. You have to
explain the world around you in people’s common language.”
He added that
he “listened to people like Hanoch Gutfreund, whom I interviewed at Hebrew
Science is exciting in Jerusalem as well as around the
world.” There is “nothing different about Australia,” he said. “It has a great
scientific history and the Great Barrier Reef, but every country – including
Israel – has something to say about itself. Science here is so good.”
should clone Robyn,” Gutfreund joked.