Wanted: Science for the masses

Visiting Australian science journalist Robyn Williams, is convinced that the public needs to know more about what they do.

robyn williams 311 (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
robyn williams 311
(photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
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.
Williams 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 president Prof.
Hanoch Gutfreund, a world-renowned expert on Albert Einstein who disseminates popular science by lecturing on trains and in other public locations.
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 Treasures.
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.
Williams 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 Cory.
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 it.”
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.”
THERE ARE 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 blue.”
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 clubs.
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 scientists.
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.
In 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 $1.13 billion, the corporation provides TV, radio, online and mobile services throughout metropolitan and regional Australia, as well as overseas through the Australia Network and Radio Australia.
“The traditional media are challenged,” said Williams. “They don’t really understand the new media,” but are trying to adapt.” His ABC opened a 24-hour news channel without investing more money, so things are spread even more thinly.
“Instead of reporters doing one report, they do many.
Another problem is that “the people who run the media are too obsessed with gadgets. But ideas in science are at least as important.”
He added that Australia is fortunate to have a Science Media Center – an independent, non-profit service that provides journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. The Australian center says it aims to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. To set it up, science advocates chose a dynamic young business and media mogul. “He didn't know anything about science. He got friends in industry boardrooms to put in big money for establishing a science media center. We raised AUS$ 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 Williams.
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 stuff.”
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 University.
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.”
“We should clone Robyn,” Gutfreund joked.