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Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Situation normal in Geneva-super-mare

This year the BA Media Centre is housed in a dismal warren of down-at-heel buildings apparently belonging to the Department of Architecture. It is not, frankly, much of an advertisement. It is a hideous hodgepodge of Georgianesque brick townhouse, 1930s bunker and 1980s glass, a maze of doglegged passages designed to make anyone feel like an experimental rat.

The rats this year are a little depleted, since many science journalists have scurried off (or will shortly scurry off) to Geneva to witness on Wednesday the “turning on” of what one hapless subeditor has already mis-called the “Large Hardon Collider”. For this monument to the political influence gained by physics since their useful service during and after the last World War, is currently being readied for a completely phoney launch event.

Ted Nield finds a science story that gets his attention For on Wednesday the boffins at CERN will turn the machine on. Well, they will run a beam in it. They have done this before. Of course they have. They tested it, they didn’t smell burning and now they are ready to do it “for real” with an audience. But they will not be circulating two beams. No atoms will be smashed, and no bosons will be observed. Nor will a black hole that will eat up the Earth from the inside be created.

Even the lunatic opposition smacks of egregious PR fraud because the injunction, apparently sought by a maverick scientist fearing the end of the world to be nigh, played into the physics lobby’s hands. For no sooner was it out, than our good friends at the Institute of Physics put out a calming statement, designed to induce mass panic the world over. They said they had looked at the LHC very carefully, and come to the conclusion that it was safe and absolutely nothing to worry about. Oh Gawd help us everyone run for the hills. (But not the ones near Geneva.)

Still, here at the BA things are working as usual. The media, as always, have no time at all to stray outside the media centre. The BA Press Office is arranging press conferences to promote those stories they have chosen as being the most interesting from evidence supplied by those speakers who have prepared press papers. This is how the system works. This is how it has always worked and yes, this is the same rant I write every year.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the scientists who are supposed to supply the press papers. Many events boast releases that are not online (so therefore of restricted availability) - and which are frankly not much use anyway. This is probably because they were submitted late. But this is nothing.

Today the Festival programme boasts several sessions with almost zero accompanying press papers. This includes one, organised by the great Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory no less - only one of whose authors has submitted a press paper that I can find (Dr Lesley Rickards).

True, not all BA events stand a chance of media coverage and many are designed without any thought for it. Great swathes of the programme are, after all, peopled by robot dog-walkers and chemical volcanoes. Fair enough. But for those with some aspiration to attracting a wider audience, to organise a whole event without any attention to media releases is time and effort wasted and a ship spoiled for a ha’p’orth of tar. When will the message get through that the BA is not mainly about 50 people in a lecture theatre. It’s about the 500,000 people who at least might read the papers, and the millions who instead might be watching the telly. If a provider does not write a press paper, he or she stands absolutely no chance at all of getting a slice of that action. Not one bit.

So here, in Liverpool and Geneva, we are witnessing the two ends of the science PR leviathan, devouring itself before our eyes. On the one hand we have an orchestrated scientific PR non-event in Geneva, which will demand the attention of the global public during the middle part of this week. While here at the BA we have some great British science being explained to small numbers of the converted, in darkened lecture theatres, firmly hidden under a bushel of its own making.

Situation normal, then!