Science on television in Wales (when did you last see…?)

Angela Graham ponders the non-existence of science on Welsh television when it is plentiful in other media

“Is there any?” is the response I tend to get when I mention this subject. Indeed it is hard to think of Welsh-produced Science programming over the last twenty-five years which is neither Natural History nor Ecology. When did you last see, not news items, but programmes on ITV Wales, BBC Wales or S4C that dealt with other aspects of science? Medicine gets a look in though usually as part of a sociological package.

Is there no science in Wales? Is that why it doesn’t reach our screens?

Is the audience incapable of understanding science? BBC Wales does provide an excellent weekly radio series, Science Café “exploring the science and technology stories making the headlines, and the latest in Welsh scientific research”. So, clearly, there is science going on and the audience can understand even without pictures to help. Yet there is no televisual equivalent.

Perhaps science just isn’t popular with the audience. Hardly the case, given the success of network shows such as Stargazing Live and Bang Goes The Theory.

It is S4C which last year ended a very lengthy dearth of Welsh-language science programming by screening Corff Cymru , a series that blended archaeology and physiology. A second series is currently shooting, this time about the senses and the brain. This year the channel showed Dibendraw, serious science for an early evening mid-week family viewing slot. That is bravery of the highest degree in telly terms. Yet the series has just been re-commissioned.

Or perhaps the Welsh don’t see themselves as a nation of scientists and therefore don’t mind hardly ever seeing themselves as scientists on TV.

And it isn’t that television is no longer the go-to medium for knowledge about science. An IPSOS Mori poll shows that the public gets the majority of its knowledge about scientific advances from television.

Does the absence of science on Welsh TV matter? An Inquiry report of October 2013 commissioned by the Science Advisory Council for Wales states that the future of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in Wales depends on increasing the talent pool which would lead to “new companies, and a strong skills base to attract further STEM employers to Wales”. It calls for “A scientifically engaged and equipped society in Wales so that all citizens can make informed decisions for themselves and their community.”

The report goes on:

“At every meeting of the Science Advisory Council for Wales (SACW) we hear of world-class work going on in industries and universities in Wales. Advances, the Welsh publication which showcases research and developments in science, engineering and technology, is full of success stories, reported in plain English, but the publication is aimed at industry and university staff primarily. This work does not seem to reach the general public through the media. The BBC Radio Wales programme Science Café’ deals with new research in Wales but we are not aware of any television programmes that do so. … We think a greater awareness might boost the future supply of scientists by encouraging interest in science careers and uptake of STEM subjects.”

So is it the fear of a numerically small audience for a ‘regional’ show that puts commissioners off? And to what extent should they shoulder the burden of encouraging interest in science as a career?

The relationship between science and the British public is not static. It reflects ideology as well as influencing it. It is intimately linked to our social experience. The relation between science and the moving image changes too. In film the emphasis early in the last century was on applied science, often with state institutions or commercial enterprises as funders. The Thirties also presented science as the cure for social problems.

The BBC became a major mediator of science to the public. In the fifties the stress was on the benefits of technology and of bringing the viewer ‘into the lab’. The Cold War foregrounded the negative potential of science but also the possibility that technology would revolutionise society for the better. Gradually the idea of Science as a Culture in itself gained ground and, more recently, the notion that science could (should?) be fun. Holding that Culture to account, critiquing it, happens infrequently on contemporary TV.

Timothy Boon, historian of science broadcasting attempts to sum up the current trend,

“The majority of the science television that we have today… either… parallels science by revealing the natural world in quasi-scientific terms or else it represents the technological promise of scientific research. It has neither the focus on the culture of science typical of 1960s television, nor the passionate commitment to social improvement of the social relations of science model, nor yet the sceptical overview of Crucible or Pandora’s Box.”1

It is important that we realise how science is being mediated to us now, in our time. But here, in Wales perhaps we are at a more basic stage, trying to work out what can be expected from the TV service for a nation which is linked to a UK-wide network. Is ITV Wales in this debate, given that it sees itself as already going beyond its obligations in the service it offers? The channel’s CEO, Phil Henfry, in the recent RTS AGM, said that in order to grow ITV’s spend in Wales, “Come with ideas!” and he claimed that there is “an appetite” to make network product.

For BBC Wales maybe the feeling is that the Corporation gives science a good deal on the network where volume of viewers can attract adequate budgets, and that, in an era in which even the Director General acknowledges that English language provision for Wales has suffered an ‘erosion’, the BBC here has enough to do making up lost ground never mind plugging a gap that has spanned a generation already. Or maybe not.

To bring scientists, TV producers and commissioners together to examine aspirations and challenges about science and TV in Wales I’ve initiated an event under the auspices of the Royal Television Society, Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Culture and Science Made Simple.

* * *

1. Timothy Boon: Science, Society and Documentary in The Documentary Film Book, 2013 ed. Brian Winston

Angela Graham is a TV producer who teaches documentary-making part-time on the MSc in Science, Media and Communication at Cardiff University. Tonight's event will be held at 7pm at Cardiff University School of Journalism. (

13 thoughts on “Science on television in Wales (when did you last see…?)

  1. Good article and I wish the author every success in promoting science. As a bioscientist trained in biochemistry and with a PhD from the Tenovus Institute in cancer research and a long career (abroad) in pharmaceuticals, I would obviously like to see more Media coverage that might encourage new and enthusiastic participants in such a vital endeavour.
    Most of us (in Life Sciences) are still portrayed in the Media as Frankensteins, animal torturers, ‘mad boffins’ genetic engineers of zombies and in large parts of the US as ‘unGodly’ Satanists. On TV the predominant visuals seem to be of white coated (always clean?!) earnest young ladies filling microtiter plates with coloured (usually pink) liquids next to the mandatory flickering bunsen burner! Scenarios which are so far removed from reality as to be ludicrous!
    Ninety nine percent of science is pretty boring slog work I must admit and most of us don’t have ‘brains the size of a planet’ to quote Douglas Adams or the ermm… sexiness of Brian Cox and the communication skills of Dara O Briain. However, there is science on TV (not in Wales though as admitted above) and it is often done well. The main concern is that if you are any good (as a scientist) you will want to go (as I did and most others have done and still do) to centres of excellence in places and countries far removed from Wales in order to pursue the ‘cutting edge’. I knew that ‘coming back to Wales’ would be the death of my scientific career but that was my choice. I don’t know, but the perception of Wales in the International community of scientists may still be the same. I hope that changes and the exciting advances that are being made in Welsh universities get a better profile. Nevertheless, the most advanced work (and best paid!) is now still being done in big corporations like Glaxo, Monsanto etc. Universities in Wales may have some bright brains but don’t have any where near the necessary resources to finance the advanced research that is done in the ‘military industrial complexes’.

  2. Careful Angela! You are in danger of making this a place where important issues are discussed. When’s the next article calling for a reactionary, unresearched and ill-thought through transfer of powers to the Assembly going to be posted? Or perhaps yet another on the Welsh language?

  3. I don’t care where my TV science comes from or which channel I watch it on – the idea that it needs to come from Wales is illogical. But, then, Wales is starting to look like the world capital of illogical which may be why it struggles to attract top class scientists and struggles to build a STEM-based modern industrial base…

    But I can see plenty of science-based kids leaving for Unis in England and I would struggle to think of any who came back!

  4. I wonder if this is a matter of a lost generation, both in science and the media as well as how others expect science to be perceived.

    When I was reading my first degree (Liverpool, 1978-81) and my Doc (Oxford, 1981-84, and yes I did go to Jesus) the only thing worse than science was engineering. I understand from the stories of my friends’ children that now a clean cut engineering undergraduate (of either sex) now has to spend a fair amount of their time fending off advances from potential other halves because everybody knows engineers are not just sexy but they actually have something to contribute as well as the minor issue of the decent career path.

    The overall science – sexy- savvy coefficient has also gone through the roof (not of course quantifiable in a regression, let alone a T or Chi squared) and so C S Lewis’ ‘two cultures’ view as science as somehow unfulfilled and regressive is at last receding.

    The problem is the scientific illiteracy amongst for example the media and politicians. None of those I knew at Oxford who are currently MPs ventured beyond PPE, history or at a push, geography. You may draw your own conclusions about the ‘degree’ (or less) of scientific savvy amongst the media.

    I am an eternal optimist and I do believe that the changes I have seen in the past three decades will in time influence the media and I hope politicians and policy makers.

    And Wales? Well, a small poor country on the edge of a damp island needs to have its stories set in context. Yes, as has been pointed out by Chris Jones, the scope for their being a conveyor belt of big easy earth-shaking stories are limited. We do have in our wonderful institutes (along with those who
    work abroad) a lot of twists, insights and nuances.

    Science is not just about eureka moments. Look at evolution. Since Darwin and Wallace presented their 1858 paper, relating evolution to the world as we know it has been a compellingly incremental process.

    So forget the big stuff and focus on Welsh scientists who can make the esoteric more enjoyably exoteric and can illustrate how their work is making its mark in the global world of ‘making a significant contribution to human understanding’

  5. Pragmatism and realism about science and tv (which I think are what those who have commented so far are advocating) were in good supply at last night’s event, Science on TV in Wales. These are two qualities that I value highly as I haven’t got the time or the energy in my life to do without them. Doing without them, or denigrating them, wastes everyone’s time and energy.

    The cutting edge of research, in this or that academic field, may not be in Wales or anywhere near it. If that is a fact then one faces it and each academic, or would-be academic, makes a personal choice about it. However there are other aspects of academic life too, including service to the public, and academic success is not only about personal achievement, it is (among many things) also about being a presence in a particular community, in a particular country, in a particular civil structure.

    Are universities completely separate from primary schools, for instance? Have these nothing in common as places of learning? Or from secondary schools? Or do universities contribute nothing to public debate?

    This metaphor of cutting-edge, though valid to a high degree, is useless to describe the ‘feeding-back’ of knowledge and expertise into society, into business and into the democratic process. Wales is what it is and no country is served by failing to face the facts about itself; but neither is it served by declining what an attitude of pragmatic idealism has to offer. That is what nurses potential, in an atmosphere of rigour, shrewdness and optimism.

    It was evident in last night’s event how the panellists (whether scientist, commissioner or producer) were robustly pragmatic about their respective worlds and potential. It was that very pragmatism that made their passion credible. Because there was passion: for science, for the medium of tv, for serving the audience and the public. A debate such as this one allows an audience to realise that here are potential allies, seeing things from other perspectives, using other terms, and that in order to understand each other and achieve something practical we have to spend time together, issue challenges, listen to the rebuttals, have our eyes opened and move things on. When all that happens new possibilities come up.

    I hope to offer an article next week drawing on outcomes from the event.

  6. There was a series on S4C called ATOM aimed at young people and showing many practical demonstrations of scientific principles. I think it last aired around three to four years ago.

  7. Hmm..I question whether ‘doing science’ or even discovery is anything to do with academia. In the US when you get to a certain age you go into ‘academia’ to get away from the pressures of ‘doing science’ (and to sleep) . Universities are fine for teaching, writing academic papers and possibly motivating new generations of scientists but are not set up to do or are hopeless at, ‘real’ science. I am not ‘denigrating’ science in Wales or in the Media I’m just questioning whether there is any of significance or well paid enough or of sufficient ‘cutting edge’ to motivate young people. I don’t know but perhaps Ms Graham does and let her enlighten us.

  8. Angela,

    It is good that someone in the media in Wales is picking up on this challenge. We do need to ensure that we have a high level of scientific literacy in our society and the media can play a large role in that. Magazine style science is good for generating interest etc, something that’s need to increase engagement etc.

    I wanted to pick-up on Chris’ points etc a bit more,which I concu with in the main, but that will have to wait, because I was just staggered and a bit outraged to be honest at the example content of some science questions used in the PISA rankings. I have never queried the PISA tests before and thought I would try to google the test to get an idea of the types of questions that they are asking 15 year olds in Science. Here they are – from 2006 (there is a general theme here – has it changed?):

    Biodiversity, Buses, Cloning, Daylight, Semmelweis’ Diary, Climate Change, Flies, Calf Clones, Ozone, Corn, Fit for Drinking,Tooth Decay, Hot Work, Mousepox, Stickleback Behaviour, Tobacco Smoking, Starlight, Ultrasound, Lip Gloss, Evolution, Bread Dough, Transit of Venus, Health Risk?, Catalytic Converter, Major Surgery, Wind Farms.

    Can someone out there enlighten me on the current tests, because google only shows examples from 2006 and it would be nice to have more current information.

    We are basing our childrens’ education and much of our political debates on the results achieved in these tests. Any feedback from scientists in the IWA on this example content for the testing would be appreciated. I can’t use the words political science or social science, because they have already been coined for other things, but to me this smacks of Green Party science teaching. I empathise with greenpeace/Friends of the earth etc etc etc – I am as concerned about the environment as anyone else and particularly concerned about climate change, but to me PROPER science teaching is about far more than this. I hope our school curriculums are about a lot more than this – I’m asking the question, because I really don’t know what is or isn’t delivered, but we need to define the science we want our society to learn and how to deliver it, in our own way for the benefit of our society and economy.

    The PISA test examples are magazine style science topics for non-scientists – no-one is going to become a great scientist if the focus is too heavily weighted on these limited sorts of things – we need children who are trained in scientific disciplines and have high levels of scientific literacy, We need politicians and a society that understand science and have the bottle to stand up for the correct teaching of it. David Lloyd Jones was spot on stating that most of our politicians and media are basically scientifically illiterate (it’s not a Welsh phenomena either – I don’t see England being any better) – that has to change.

  9. I enjoyed the debate on 5th June.
    There must be space found on TV and Radio for Science programmes. I’m sure many have been inspired by Tomorrow’s World.

    Also I wanted to say don’t forget Maths:
    Anybody else remember Dr Who playing Tower of Hanoi game?
    And my daughter and I also used to record Through the Dragons Eye when she was at Primary so we could watch it together.

    On Radio I recommend backlist of interviews with contributors from all areas of science and mathematics at
    AND Rhys Phillips ‘Pythagoras Trousers’ has done something similar for Wales
    and should be more widely advertised.

  10. Yes, Maths. No intention to exclude it from this consideration – just goes to show how very wide the ‘scientific’ field is and how, once one starts to think about it, how every aspect of life is touched by science.
    The ideas are coming in thick and fast following last week’s event. Some sharing next week.

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