Does Plant Science need a Sagan or Sheldon?

Here’s a slow reaction to a post at ASPB Plant Science Blog by Ian Street, Communicating Plant Science in the Digital Age. It’s taking me a while to respond, because I think it’s a good post – but I don’t quite agree with it. However, every time I think I’ve worked out why I don’t agree with it, I find I don’t agree with myself either.

In the original post, Ian Street holds up Neil deGrasse Tyson as an example of someone who is an excellent communicator and points out there’s no plant science equivalent. Here I start to feel a bit of a weasel. In terms of audience and fame he’s right. However, if you’re looking for people who can communicate plant science in an exciting way, there are plenty of researchers who could do a similar job to Tyson, given the opportunity. I think there are plenty of good communicators in botany, but they don’t have the audience.

I can see why not having a Plant Tyson is a problem, but I’ve not been sure that broadcasting is the answer. I don’t think astronomy is popular because Tyson is a good communicator. I think it’s the opposite way round. Tyson is such a good communicator because Astronomy is so popular. That might sound odd, but imagine if Tyson decided he’d had enough and was retiring to Tahiti, would Astronomy cease to be popular?

No. There’s a demand for astronomical talking heads. There’s someone almost as good who could do the job. The demand for popular astronomy means there’s almost certainly a pool of talented communicators that the media could draw upon. Tyson is at the top of a competitive field. There are plenty of talented plant science communicators, but lack of demand means we con’t see them so much.

I think a top plant science broadcaster lies at the end of the road to making botany more popular, it’s not part of the journey itself.

Sheldon Cooper

Is CBS’s Sheldon Cooper the face of Science in the 2010s?

That works as far as it goes, but elsewhere I think Ian Street proves me wrong and gives an example where broadcasting does work. He mentions The Big Bang Theory that, love it or hate it, humanises physicists.

In the UK it’s been credited with an increase in the number of physics students. For a similar effect see archaeology and Indiana Jones. You can’t learn physics from The Big Bang Theory any more than you can pass a course in archaeology with Indiana Jones – but the lack of facts hasn’t prevented them from changing how people value their respective sciences.

Street also points out the importance of using comedy to take the edge of hard science. I think he’s hit on a key point there. It’s not simply a matter of making plant sciences prestigious, you also need to make them likeable. Yesterday we had a post on a genetically engineered plant that might help fight Ebola. It’s a huge tragedy where plant science could make a major contribution to saving lives. But I’m also willing to bet that anti-vaxxers will decide it’s a secret Monsanto project.

In a perfect world Hollywood would solve the image problem for us, but that’s not a practical solution. So instead of aiming for mass audiences, it might be more reasonable to look to the small things people can do. Ian Street says that popularising science is a core part of scientists’ mission. This may be a culture difference, but in the UK it is emphatically not. The only things that matter are scientific publications. Departments make positive noises about outreach, but when it comes to assessments time spent doing Outreach can be viewed as Time Not Working.

If outreach success is all-or-nothing, then in this situation the vast majority of results are going to be nothing. If there were support for small victories, then hopes need not rest or a Sagan nor a Sheldon. Avoiding investing in a few personalities could have benefits. Not least, because it means scientists don’t have to just look like me, they can look like you and your neighbour too.

Quite how this is going to be put in place is difficult, but I think what Ian Street and the ASPB’s Digital Futures Initiative might well be a stepping stone to support for many plant scientists. Another event to cheer is Kevin Folta, who’ll be doing a Reddit AMA this afternoon.

About Alun Salt

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?

5 thoughts on “Does Plant Science need a Sagan or Sheldon?

  1. Nalini Nadkarni’s TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/nalini_nadkani_on_conserving_the_canopy points to another many-small-victory path to bioscience outreach and communication: find the culture shapers and invite them to participate. One reason i think this is going to be far more effective is that media is segmenting: i do not believe the impact of TV shows is nearly as substantial as it was thirty years ago.

    Games are a huge industry, cutting into the previous entertainment share held by TV. I wonder about (apparently) highly popular games like farmville and plants vs zombies which had no bioscience content, and other games (i am not a gamer) that used evolution…. Are there game companies looking for fresh ideas where bio-concepts could be made more visible?

    just brainstorming over lunch…..

  2. I agree James Wong is good, and there are plenty of others.

    I like Springwatch a lot. It’s mostly fur and feathers but they do make a point of producing a substantial plant item once a week. I think last series they covered poppy germination, without any reference to animals in a seven-minute slot. As a wedge for plant science in front of a primed audience, it’s excellent stuff.

    I’m sorry to say I don’t watch the One Show, so I’ll have to look out for Marty Jopson.

  3. I’ve been listening to BBC R4’s Plants: from roots to riches series, and while I was glad to hear that it was happening, I now find myself hoping that it doesn’t actually put a lid on all future explorations of botany. “We tried that, didn’t work,” I can hear management saying.

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