Science on Television in Wales

Posted by: Angela Graham

Science on Television in Wales “Is there any?” was one response I received when I mentioned that I am organising an event at JOMEC on this topic (June 5th) with the Royal Television Society. Indeed it is hard to think of Welsh-produced Science programming which is neither Natural History nor Ecology. When did you last see programmes on ITV Wales, BBC Wales or S4C that dealt in any depth with other aspects of science?

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

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.  “You’ve got Doctor Who”, I was told, in a reference to the BBC‘s Cardiff-based production. “There’s lots of science in that.” My retort was that the Doctor is a Scot, so that doesn’t count.

But, childish repartee aside, you might have seen S4C’s 5-part series, ‘Dibendraw’, screened early this year. This series ended a very lengthy dearth of Welsh-language science programming and launched into 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.

BBC Wales does provide an excellent weekly radio series, Science Cafe “exploring the science and technology stories making the headlines, and the latest in Welsh scientific research” so it can’t be that the audience is incapable of understanding science. They even understand it 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.

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.” It is uncompromising in its belief that the media have a role to play in reaching one of the two essential ‘audiences’ for science.

“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. “

It goes on to issue a very interesting invitation:

“We have recently learned that there are researchers with an interest in science communication in the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, and suggest that they may be able to help us to discover how to work more effectively with the media to report on science and scientists more, and even develop new series.”

I teach documentary production techniques at JOMEC to trainee journalists on the International Journalism Masters and to science graduates doing the MSc in Science Media and Communication, a degree on which Cardiff School of Social Sciences and JOMEC collaborate.

Science documentaries are among the most visually stunning in the genre. A science producer recently complained to me of the difficulties in finding science graduates who are trained documentarists. Cardiff University is one of only a few British universities which aims to offer the necessary basic training. How many people know that?