We still need scientists on Question Time

Not too long ago, Martin Robbins of the Lay Scientist blog pointed out an interesting fact about the BBC’s Question Time programme: that since the 2010 general election, there have only been two scientists on the panel. Expected? Unusual? Compare it to 13 comedians over the same period, and 2 appearances by Katie Hopkins, whose only claim to fame is… erm… someone drop me a line in the comments; I have no fucking clue why Katie Hopkins is worthy of people listening to her.

But now, a few months after that, the observation has filtered its way into Points of View.

Though first, a quick jargon buster – UK readers can skip this:

  • Question Time – A BBC politics-themed panel show where a selection of public figures answer topical questions from an audience while David Dimbleby tries to keep order. Apart from the token “light-hearted” question that usually ends it, this show is Serious Business. It’s the show Simon Foster is prepping for at the beginning of In The Loop before Malcolm Tucker extremely politely informs him he’s no longer invited.
  • Points of View – The show where the BBC’s dirty laundry gets aired in public in the form of viewer comments (originally via letter, then telephone and now increasingly via email or video submission) that call out why the BBC are currently sucking at everything ever. Usually mundane and banal as all hell because these comments are quite literally a hair’s breadth above YouTube comments, but hey, few if any for-profit media will do this.

So the question of scientists was brought up on PoV, and the QT producers responded. The executive editor responded thusly (you may be able to catch it on iPlayer, luckily Question Time is the very first thing in the show.):

“Question Time” regularly bids for a number of prominent scientists and guests with a scientific background. However, many scientists do not wish to discuss issues outside their individual field, or express their political views. The nature of the programme also means we do not know which questions we will be discussing in advance so we can never guarantee to scientists that their area of expertise will come up in the programme.

Perhaps they have regularly looked for scientists and the scientists refused. However, I have to doubt that the producer tried very hard, or encouraged scientists, or made it the most accessible format for them. We absolutely have no shortage of public intellectuals in STEM fields willing to vent their spleen on politics. Dawkins has done the BBC’s HardTalk and Newsnight before and is prone to firing his mouth off (I’m not condoning him as an ideal candidate, just that he’s a candidate who clearly is interested in talking outside his field of expertise) and Cox has done a fair share of 10 O’Clock Live performances and causing stirs over Twitter.

Many scientists are very much into their politics and not without good reason. We’re embedded in politics daily, and will forever be stuck with political principles, laws and edicts whether we like them or not.

For a quick instance, the effects Scottish independence on research collaboration between a future independent Scotland and England, and its effect on higher education funding, is a massively complex issue. It’s also potentially devastating, yet something that not all politicians are in a position to discuss in detail… because few even realise it exists as an issue. Yet it is a core issue for those in EaStCHEM, some of whom I had a lengthy discussion with on this very topic a few months ago. As we approach the referendum on the subject, the odds of independence being broached on Question Time will approach certainty – and to not have someone with vested interest in higher education and inter-university collaboration there to put this forward would be just plain negligent towards the BBC’s duty to inform the public.

But why might scientists not, even if offered, choose to accept an invitation to sit on a panel?

Thanks to the general side-lining of their political opinions in the mainstream, scientists are akin to any other minority group – prone to being made uncomfortable and likely to not bother even trying purely because of the dominance and attitude of the majority. Our ability to interact with the political sphere is diminished both by the nature of science (being a all-consuming occupation) and the hostility generally held towards evidence-based approaches by mainstream politics and political media. Such political candidates and political journalists appearing are all ideologically lead, and potential science-based panellists need reassurance that taking an evidence-based approach isn’t going to be shouted down for saying something unpopular. Not that such views are unpopular; there is evidently a strong demand for such people from those at the intersection of science and politics (the BBC even saw fit to respond to it on Points of View, so evidently recognise it as legitimate criticism) and there are evidently scientists who are very politically savvy. Martin Robbins was one of a handful of scientists who assessed each main party for the Guardian in the run-up to the 2010 election and the result was one of the most informative pre-election pieces written.

We need more of a drive to get these experts heard in the mainstream political sphere and to give them the confidence to speak outside their area of expertise if needed. This is something that needs to come from producers who need to start clamouring harder for these people, rather than making half-hearted attempts to reach qualified scientists and then make a far bigger deal out of their celebrity-du-jour.

While the programme might not be able to control the exact questions asked – a format that is a double-edged sword favouring spontaneity and a degree of sincerity over thorough and informed answers – it’s still reasonable to at least predict the topics that might come up. Education is almost a certainty every time. Energy policies and environment can be predicted based on what is in the news that week. Had a natural disaster recently? Climate change will pop up. New policy introduced on higher education funding? Christ-on-a-jetbike that’s a sure thing!

Or you know what? Just fucking risk it.

See what insight they can give thanks to their backgrounds; after all, this is why journalists, authors, comedians, presenters or I-don’t-know-why-you’re-famous-types get invited on. This is what makes the second part of the response given on Points of View so galling: if you can’t guarantee the questions that are asked, then you’re really not getting in panellists because of their specific expertise, but because of the experience their background confers on them. In that case any scientist is going to have just as much to say as any MP. All Question Time panellists, by the nature of the format, are going to be out of their depth.

Perhaps scientists could offer a new evidence-based insight that would otherwise be lost in sea of table-banging rhetoric. Or give an opinion based on being actual university-level educators. So what if you have a chemist on there and nothing chemical gets brought up? So what if there’s an evolutionary biologist on there and they only discuss climate change? They invite Melanie Philips and Peter Hitchens on regularly and “how can you be an obnoxious right-wing twat?” is pretty much never asked.

Just get the scientists on there and let them be heard. We can fill in the details later.

Addendum: I’ve spotted the Change.org petition on this making the rounds on Facebook and whatnot. It’s a nice idea, but now pretty much redundant given the response shown on PoV. Merely asking for it again is, frankly, just  petulant. What we need to focus on is a) why the BBC should try harder to attract scientists, and b) suggestions about how this can be brought about.


3 thoughts on “We still need scientists on Question Time

Go on, derp away...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s