Science and Public Service Broadcasting

– in Westminster Hall at 1:00 pm on 4th September 2012.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 1:00 pm, 4th September 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and a pleasure to have the opportunity to discuss the important but oft-neglected subject of science and public service broadcasting. By “science”, I also mean engineering. I must declare an interest. For 23 years before coming into Parliament, I worked as a professional engineer, so the representation of science and engineering on the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Channel Five is of some personal interest to me.

The Minister will be pleased to know that I shall not simply ask him to account for the representation of science and engineering. I shall set out their importance to our economy and culture and mention the role of public sector broadcasting and the general great contribution it is making to the popularisation of science and engineering, and discuss how it could do better.

Like many people, I was inspired by Danny Boyle’s wonderful Olympics opening ceremony, which brought to life the importance of science and the industrial revolution in our history. If it is possible, I was even more pleased watching the Paralympics opening ceremony, which Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society, said highlighted

“the achievement of human will in overcoming the adversity of disability and tackling the difficult problems of science.”

Science and engineering are an important part of our economic prosperity, especially now we are seeking to rebalance our economy, get out of a double-dip recession made in Downing street and at the same time address that grave legacy of the first industrial revolution: climate change. Research compiled by Josh Lerner of the Harvard Business School, looking at the last 100 years of growth in various economies, suggests that only 15% of growth in any economy can be accounted for by increasing inputs. That means that 85% of growth in economic output must come from innovation. Science and engineering drive innovation; without them, we will lose our place as a leading economy. Other countries know this. Some 1.5 million science and engineering students graduated from Chinese universities in 2006 alone. In the UK, more young people chose to study fine art than physics. Fine art is a fine choice, but so is physics.

In its 2009 review, Ofcom set out the purpose of public service broadcasting and said that it should stimulate our interest in and knowledge of arts, science, history and other topics through content that is accessible and can encourage informal learning. Ofcom said that public service broadcasting should be high quality, innovative, challenging and engaging. In addition, Channel 4 is required to support and stimulate well-informed debate on a wide range of subjects. I hope the Minister will say whether he believes that those criteria have been met in regard to science.

There are great strengths in our public service broadcasting science coverage, which has improved considerably over the past 10 years. We no longer see so much of the Q format. Q was the gadget man in the 007 films and all too often in the past science programming consisted of a man with a gadget explaining why it would get some Bond wannabe out of a tricky situation. Now on BBC radio we have the “The Infinite Monkey

Cage”, “Saving Species” and “The Life Scientific” to name just three. BBC television has given us the “Secret History of…”. “Bang Goes the Theory”, “Stargazing” and “Frozen Planet”. “Horizon” continues to offer great science specials, such as “To Infinity and Beyond”, which discussed the science of endless time and space—something politicians have a particular problem grasping. Channel 4 also has a wide range of science programming, from “The Science of Seeing Again” with Katie Piper to “Brave New World with Stephen Hawking” and one of my favourites, “Dambusters: Building the Bouncing Bomb”.

Ofcom’s most recent survey, published in June, did not reflect general satisfaction, with 65% of respondents thinking that showing interesting programmes about history, sciences or the arts was important but only 46% saying that the public service broadcasting channels were doing that. The level of satisfaction varied highly: 71% for BBC 2, which is excellent; but a worrying 26% for Channel Five. The fact that science is lumped in with the arts and history makes it hard to see precisely where the problem is. Equally, it is difficult to get hard figures on the percentage of commissioned programmes on science and the viewing figures associated with them. I am not aware of any specialist programming aimed specifically at children. Perhaps the Minister could respond to those two points.

Although there is much to be proud of, there is still much to do. I watch and listen to science and engineering programmes with both a personal and professional interest, and I believe that there is one significant weakness. The BBC and Channel 4 have separate science programming, so if people want to watch science and engineering programmes—if they are already interested in infinity, arctic wildlife or how the bouncing bomb was designed, for example—they know exactly where to go. Science programming is heavily signposted, ensuring that those who do not already have an interest in science and engineering can easily avoid it. The Olympic and Paralympic opening ceremonies managed to integrate those subjects successfully, but public service broadcasters have not integrated science and engineering into general programming that can be enjoyed by all. I am afraid that the public service broadcasters have created high-quality, well-resourced science ghettos.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons), Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons)

My hon. Friend may have visited the Royal Society exhibition on broadcasting science. It is interesting to note that the challenge she describes goes back to the beginnings of broadcasting in the 1920s. I should like the House to set up a working group to work with broadcasters and examine that challenge, because it has been around for a long time. My hon. Friend has raised an important point.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point, and I pay tribute to his work as Chair of the Select Committee on Science and Technology. I have not yet visited the Royal Society to see that exhibition.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Excellent; I shall attend. Working together with broadcasters to address this subject is an excellent idea. I am by no means suggesting that the fault—such fault as there is—lies entirely with the broadcasters.

Non-specialist science programming all too often displays a depressing lack of scientific literacy. I wrote to the outgoing director-general of the BBC, Mr Mark Thompson—the first of many letters—and the correspondence is on my website. I thought about reading it in all its Kafkaesque beauty, but I took pity on the Minister and decided that a summary would do. In a programme called “Foreign Bodies”, a BBC reporter said that there was a high proportion of Chinese students on engineering courses in the UK because engineering was more valuable in China. I pointed out that that was not the case: engineering is an excellent career choice for students concerned with material reward—I should know—as engineering degrees dominate the top 10 most well-paid graduate professions, with chemical engineering graduates earning the third highest wage in the UK on graduation at more than £27,000. As I said, in terms of UK plc, engineering is incredibly valuable.

What the journalist may have meant to say was that engineering was not as valued in this country, although that is certainly not the case in the north-east and in my constituency. That might be true for a certain section of the population and, perhaps, some of those people may find themselves commissioning public service broadcasting programming. Certainly only one member of the BBC Trust has a background in science or engineering, as against 11 humanists. In a famous 1959 lecture, the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow warned of the dangers of two cultures—science on the one hand, and the humanities on the other—and of the limitations that that would place on our society. Only last year, Google’s chair Eric Schmidt used his MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh festival to condemn the same gap. The UK, he said, was culturally divided into luvvies and boffins. Schmidt called for art, technology and science to be brought together—a call endorsed by popular TV scientist Brian Cox.

All too often, public service broadcasting programmes present science and engineering as boring, freakish, immensely difficult, or all three. I have lost count of the number of times that interviewers have said something such as, “So you thought about going into science but then you decided to do something creative instead.” I sometimes imagine how broadcasters would react if a reporter treated Shakespeare as they often treat science. Imagine a reporter saying, “I dropped Shakespeare when I was 12—it was just too difficult”, or “Oh, Shakespeare—I have to ask the kids to help me out with that.”

The consequences can be serious. The BBC’s approach to scientific balance seems to be culled straight from the world of politics, without any understanding of scientific method. Even though the vast majority of scientific evidence supports climate change, the BBC will put up one pro-climate change and one anti-climate change scientist and think that that constitutes balance. Equally, its general interest programmes will be chock-full of historians, artists, celebrities and journalists, but with few engineers or scientists.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons), Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons)

The point just made by my hon. Friend was central to the discussion of the Select Committee with Professor Steve Jones before his recently published review for the BBC Trust. I would welcome a response from the Minister about any discussions that he has had with the BBC about the implementation of recommendations on precisely the point made by my hon. Friend.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I will certainly leave time for the Minister to respond on that and other important points.

The general interest programmes of the public service broadcasters are chock-full of historians, artists, celebrities and journalists, but include few if any engineers or scientists. I wrote to “Woman’s Hour” to ask if it had interviewed as many women engineers this year as women sex workers. Unfortunately that information was not available, but an admittedly unscientific Google yielded more hits for “Woman’s Hour” coverage of prostitution than for science and engineering. The fact that only 6% of engineers in the UK are women, compared with 30% in Latvia, contributes to an environment in which half our scientific and engineering talent goes to waste.

To go back to my original example, the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and Paralympics proved that it is possible to show scientific themes to a general audience successfully. Further, they showed that non-scientists can successfully represent scientific themes alongside other ones. Surely public sector broadcasters can do so as well.

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I strongly support all that she has highlighted. In the spirit of what she has just discussed, the Royal Institution Christmas lectures are a fantastic example of bringing science to young people, and make it extremely interesting rather than focusing on celebrities. The BBC, however, has squeezed the lectures in recent years into a slot on BBC 3 and, bearing in mind that they are aimed at children, broadcast them at an obscure time of night.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important contribution. Had I more time, I would certainly highlight the many great efforts being made by learned institutions and campaigning groups. It is clearly not acceptable that a show aimed at children should be broadcast so late at night. I hope that we can all work together to ensure that such examples of good, mixed-interest, general broadcasting are more widely available.

I do not imagine the Minister can or should wave his hand and change the culture of our public service broadcasters. Public service broadcasters are independent of Government and should be. It is right, however, that they should be held accountable for their adherence to the purpose of public service broadcasting and to the broadcasting code. It is also right that we debate what is important in our culture and society. I want the Minister to make it clear that we need a public service broadcasting culture that integrates scientific literacy. He is an opinion leader in the area, so his thoughts will be influential.

The gap can be addressed in a number of ways. Since it was announced that I had secured the debate, suggestions have poured in, and include new guidelines on the reporting of science, to be drawn up by science journalists and used primarily by news editors and general reporters; media organisations taking on more science journalists and journalists with scientific training; access courses, so that scientists and engineers can convert into journalists; and, to pick up on a recent point, learned institutions such as the Institution of Engineering and Technology or the Royal Society sponsoring scholarships. Certainly engineers and scientists, as well as broadcasters, need to do more to integrate science and engineering into popular culture.

Those are only a few suggestions. I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge the importance of science and engineering to our culture, to our economy and to our public service broadcasting.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 1:17 pm, 4th September 2012

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, considering that you gave me an additional job in your introduction.

I am grateful for the chance to respond to an important debate that I would describe as unusual, albeit meaning to be complimentary. Chi Onwurah has raised an important subject that merits debate—it does not get debated often enough. I am also grateful for the contributions of Andrew Miller and my hon. Friend Alun Cairns.

I wish to be the first to congratulate my hon. Friend Maria Miller on her appointment as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport—I should now hold the record for being the first Member to mention the reshuffle in Hansard—and I also pay tribute to her predecessor, my right hon. Friend Mr Hunt. He was an excellent Secretary of State and it was a great privilege to work with him.

Although I am speaking as, in effect, the broadcasting Minister, the Minister for Universities and Science, or indeed an Education Minister, could have responded to the debate, given the points that the hon. Lady made. I hope that she will take some comfort from the fact that I represent a constituency that is stuffed with science. I am privileged to represent Harwell’s Rutherford Appleton laboratory, the Diamond synchrotron and many small and emerging businesses that base their success on the science that happens in my constituency. I hope that all hon. Members in the Chamber will join me on Wednesday afternoon when we celebrate the British contribution to the large hadron collider and the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. I am privileged to be sponsoring that event in my capacity as the constituency Member for Harwell.

Before I address some of the general points on public service broadcasting that were raised by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, it is worth noting that my right hon. Friends the Minister for Universities and Science and the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, were instrumental in setting up the new engineering prize that is sponsored by the Government, as well as being supported through private sponsorship. The Government hope that it will rank alongside the Nobel prize in terms of prestige and that it will raise the profile of engineering. Although some might regard that point as slightly ephemeral, I certainly do not—it is an important example of the emphasis that the Government place upon science. It also demonstrates where the Government agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central. It is important to raise the profile of science as a career and to praise and celebrate its triumphs in this country.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I, too, welcome the creation of the Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering, which was launched by all three party leaders. Far from regarding it as ephemeral, I think it is an important way to establish and promote the significance of engineering in this country and worldwide.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

Then we are as one on that point. The Science Minister was also instrumental in ensuring a freeze in our science budget which, again, is an issue close to my heart because of the importance of science in my constituency.

The hon. Lady talked about last year’s famous MacTaggart lecture by Eric Schmidt, who is now the chairman of Google. That speech was also close to my heart because, as she may be aware, one of my first acts as a Minister was to commission a report into skills for the computer science industry. That very good report was completely ignored by the Government until Eric Schmidt stood up and said that computer science teaching in our schools was not up to scratch and could be improved. Following that speech, I was pleased that the Government promised to redesign the computer science curriculum, so look out for Mr Schmidt’s name in the reshuffle because he clearly has a great deal of influence.

I turn now to the subject of our debate: science in the media and broadcasting. I was glad to hear the hon. Lady say that science broadcasting has improved, but clearly her reason for securing the debate is that there is room for further improvement. I will not rehearse all the science programmes that are on the BBC, as many have been mentioned, but they are numerous and continue to come on stream. For example, BBC 2 will be launching a science magazine show in the autumn, and BBC 1 will broadcast programmes such as “The Genius of Nature” and “Generation Earth”. We all know about the success of the kind of programmes that Brian Cox has made, and there are many others.

I note the hon. Lady’s concern that there are not enough science programmes for children. On a personal note—having young children, I am now an aficionado of children’s television—I can point her to “Nina and the Neurons”. This is perhaps an opportunity for me to thank BBC Scotland, because after a recent visit there, at my instigation, it kindly arranged for signed photographs of Nina to be sent to my children. For those worrying about whether that appears in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, the pictures are well within the value that is required, but they are priceless to my children. As I did not send a thank-you letter, I would like to thank BBC Scotland in Hansard.

We have not spoken about other public service broadcasters. I do not know how well ITV is doing, but my officials have come up with“The Alan Titchmarsh Show”, “This Morning”, and “Daybreak” as examples of science coverage on ITV, so there might be room for improvement. Channel 4 has “Brave New World with Stephen Hawking” as part of its scientific coverage. It is important to note that broadcasting science is one of the requirements that public service broadcasters must fulfil under the Communications Act 2003, which is currently being reviewed, as the hon. Lady knows. I will ensure that science is kept at the forefront of our thinking as the review proceeds.

I would also like to mention some foreign broadcasters that broadcast here, such as the Discovery channel. In a few days, we will be announcing record figures for inward investment in this country, and it is worth noting the contribution that foreign broadcasters make to science programming here.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons), Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons)

One simple thing that could really help would be to ask the BBC directly what it is doing to ensure that the recommendations of Professor Jones are adopted, and that progress is maintained over time.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central pointed out, the BBC is independent of the Government. Ministers must be careful about how far they stray into being seen as influencing or directing the way in which the BBC programmes. I am sure, however, that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston can approach the new director-general directly to ask how he intends to take forward the BBC Trust’s report, which, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, was undertaken by Professor Steve Jones, the emeritus professor of genetics at University college London. The BBC’s science coverage was praised in that report, which noted that science was well embedded in programming and on a diversity of platforms. It is also important to note that the BBC’s science coverage was commended by a number of external scientific bodies, and it says in my notes that “Woman’s Hour” was also praised. The report raised some concerns and made recommendations on how the BBC could improve its science coverage, and the BBC Trust and BBC executives have responded to them. A key recommendation that was taken forward in January 2012 was the appointment of a science editor, who is David Shukman.

Another important report that is relevant to our debate was set up by the previous Government. It was produced in January 2010 by the science and the media expert group, which is chaired by Dr Fiona Fox, the chair of the Science Media Centre. The report outlined a number of actions and recommendations with the aim of supporting the accurate reporting of science and fostering an environment in which engaging science programmes can be made. Specifically on broadcasting, it found that more than two thirds of people had watched a science programme on television in the years previously and that almost one in five had listened to one on the radio. It concluded:

“Those heralding the death of broadcast science are clearly premature…Whatever the medium and however they are commissioned, science programmes will continue to be a significant part of the public’s engagement with science”.

As I said earlier, the hon. Lady has raised an important issue through this debate. Being mindful of the independence of broadcasters, it is not for Ministers to dictate their day-to-day schedules. I am sure that every Member in the Chamber would like to be director-general of the BBC for a day and to shape its programming according to their passions. However, it is important that all hon. Members feel that they can contribute to the debate and engage with relevant broadcasters to raise concerns, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan did with his well-made point about the Christmas lectures, which I remember growing up with.

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan

I pay tribute to the way in which my hon. Friend has responded to this important debate. He is absolutely right that it is not the job of any politician to dictate what the BBC should be doing, but does he agree that the role of a public service broadcaster should not be always to chase ratings with light entertainment programmes? Such programmes could well be provided for through the private sector, and issues such as science should be focused on more, given that public money is being used.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

My hon. Friend invites me to fall into the trap that I said no Minister should fall into, so I think that a period of silence from me on that point would be appropriate. All I will say is that every hon. Member can engage with this ongoing debate. We should be proud of our science heritage and the science that is happening now in this country. As a constituency MP, I am certainly aware that we are one of the foremost science nations in the world.

Finally, speaking as a Culture Minister, I am pleased that more people are talking about the link between the arts and the sciences. Again, the hon. Lady was right that we cannot have a society divided between boffins and artists. They are two sides of the same coin, and both flourish when they work together.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I thank hon. Members for taking part in that interesting and important debate.