Of Scientists, by Scientists, for the People

As the pace of scientific discovery continues at breakneck speed, the gap widens between the public's and scientists' understanding of science. And, with research revealing that barely half of U.S. high school seniors meet even basic science requirements,1 the prospects for the situation improving in the near future appear bleak. The myriad scientific findings in the last decade have stimulated and increased media coverage, but the lament among scientists about the media, says Nobel laureate Sir

Jan 7, 2002
A. J. S. Rayl
As the pace of scientific discovery continues at breakneck speed, the gap widens between the public's and scientists' understanding of science. And, with research revealing that barely half of U.S. high school seniors meet even basic science requirements,1 the prospects for the situation improving in the near future appear bleak.

The myriad scientific findings in the last decade have stimulated and increased media coverage, but the lament among scientists about the media, says Nobel laureate Sir Harold W. Kroto, is the same: "They just don't get it right." More than seven years ago, Kroto decided to do something about filling the gap.

"Most of the decisions about what science is shown on television are made by nonscientists who are more interested in form than content. There is an assumption there that people can assess the place and importance of scientific culture without understanding it. And that is a disturbing aberration," Kroto asserts.

Kroto reaches into his briefcase, pulls out a laptop, and sets it on the table at a popular beachside cafe in Santa Barbara, Calif. He finds a file on his desktop and clicks. A C-SPAN videoclip of U.S. Sen. Trent Lott speaking before a group of students begins to roll:

The camera zooms in on a high-school student standing at a microphone who asks, "What advice do you have for students following a career path to becoming a senator?"

Lott begins, "First of all I would encourage you to take maximum advantage of your educational opportunities. We live in a great country, and we have a great educational system. It's not perfect ... When I was a student, you had to take four years of science and four years of math—a waste of my time, a waste of the teacher's time and a waste of space. I took physics—for what?"

The students in the audience cheer. As the camera pans across the sea of applauding students, it also captures the dumbfounded expression on one girl. "He milked that [response] out of those students," Kroto charges.

"Uh-oh, every physics teacher in America is out to lynch me," Lott continues, chuckling. "Physics is great ... but if you want to be a lawyer and you know that's where you're headed, maybe you would be better off taking an economics course or computer course, a typing course—or music, for heaven's sake, because it's good for the soul ...."

To The Point

"So my point is to get real science out there with real scientists who know the issues so politicians and people can be informed, and so that children can become inspired," Kroto says. "Many of us do work hard, very hard [to increase the] public understanding of science, but we need to be met halfway by everyone, including politicians."

Kroto, along with Richard E. Smalley and Robert F. Curl Jr., of Rice University, introduced the world to fullerenes and buckyballs back in the mid-1980s. These previously unknown forms of the element carbon opened a new branch of chemistry with implications in astrochemistry, physics, superconductivity and materials science—and secured them a shared Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1996.2

Courtesy of the Vega Science Trust

Teaching the Young: A "buckyball" workshop in Glasgow at the British Association Festival of Science was a popular Vega event.

Since then—in addition to receiving numerous other honors, teaching at the University of Sussex, directing children's workshops around the world, and being knighted by the Queen of England—Kroto and his small crew at the Vega Science Trust have been creating and producing a variety of science television programs about scientists, with scientists, and for the people, all the while lobbying for a dedicated science channel in the United Kingdom.

A graphic artist at heart, Kroto has made impressive headway in the highly competitive world of British network television, and now he's preparing to go global by launching his Science with Scientists shows worldwide on the Internet. Kroto's mission is to get science into the mainstream.

As Kroto sees it, educating people and politicians about science is one of the most important cultural imperatives confronting Homo sapiens. "I've been trying to get scientists to communicate directly to the public," says Kroto, "because my view is that politicians are actually screwing things up and making some very bad decisions because they don't understand science—and neither do most people."

Although getting science on network TV is akin to finding a free lunch in the universe, the medium remains the ideal for science—"powerful ... because explanation often needs visual information," Kroto points out. "If such a forum existed in prime time and had been easily accessible [to the populace in the United Kingdom], it would have enabled us to avoid the BSE catastrophe. And that kind of informed programming would help us avoid similar errors in the future."

Doing It Right

The idea for Vega actually came to Kroto when he was invited to give a lecture at the Royal Institution. Kroto decided to have the occasion recorded professionally. When he hooked up with BBC producer Patrick Reams, Kroto discovered "it was going to be a nontrivial exercise" costing a "very expensive" £14,000.

Kroto, however, was pleased with the result. When his longtime friend, Harvard University chemistry professor William Klemperer announced his impending arrival to lecture some weeks later, Kroto set about raising funds to record "the best lecturer I've heard, second I think only to Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize in physics, 1965)." Then it hit him—why not begin an archive of lectures and substantial interviews with renowned scientists and science professors?

By 1994, Kroto and Reams got serious and set up the Vega Science Trust, registering it in the United Kingdom as a charity. Funding has forever been a challenge, but with contributions and support from the Office of Science and Technology, the Kohn Foundation, Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and corporations such as Hewlett Packard and Sony U.K., among others, Kroto has kept the cameras rolling and the ideas for new formats coming.

With the full support of Peter Day, the Royal Institution's director, Kroto, who chairs the trust, managed "on a very, very tight budget" to record 12 of "the world's great science communicators."

Courtesy of the Vega Science Trust

Sir Harold W. Kroto

At the same time, Kroto's vision was expanding. "We always dreamt of having a series of [roundtable] debates on a controversial topic with scientists who are not only real experts but who are prepared to discuss and develop ideas." Vega hired a crew studied in the Hollywood technique of moving the camera to inject action into what would otherwise be a static scene of people talking. "It was the camera from The Shining," he acknowledges.

During the last five years, the Vega line-up has grown to include such programs as:

  • The Next Big Thing (co-produced with the Open University [OU]), a series that covers contemporary science and technology issues of immediate public concern.
  • Face to Face, an in-depth interview show featuring renowned scientists such as Sir John Cornforth and Sir Fred Sanger.
  • Reflections on Science, a series that offers world-class scientists a forum to communicate ideas, discoveries, and concerns with a "motivated" TV audience.
  • Snapshots, a series that profiles a day-in-the-life and the life-in-a-day of a young scientist or engineer.

Vega campaigned for five years for a Science Night on TV. Then in 2000, the BBC, with OU, instituted its own and asked that Vega be represented on the editorial board. Now, a three-hour Science Night airs weekly on the BBC—from 12:30 to 3:30 a.m. Even with that horrendous timeslot, "we are drawing an audience of 100,000 to 300,000," he notes.

To date, the Vega Science Trust has produced some 54 programs—"38 of which have been shown on BBC2," beams Kroto. It is a noteworthy achievement, especially considering that the Trust is a small operation, with film crews and editors outsourced. Most remarkably, however, is that Kroto has managed to do it all on a budget just under $1 million (US)—which might cover the cost of two well-produced PBS specials in the United States. "Now that a three-year grant from Britain's Office of Science and Technology has run out," he confesses, "we need to find new funding."

On To The Internet

Vega Science Trust fully intends to stay the commercial TV course, says Kroto, but he is well aware that commercial television has its limitations, because programming is ultimately based on advertising revenue. Not surprisingly, he has turned much of his energy now to the Internet, where envisions www.vega.org.uk could become a virtual global classroom.

"The printing press was the first revolution in the democratization of public education because for the first time, you could write a book and publish it," he says. "The Internet is the second. Individuals can now make programs and have them accessed, and the scientific community can for the first time communicate without the media interfering and misrepresenting science. For the first time, there's a distribution medium that hasn't been there before."

Vega has been taking steps to send out a steady stream of science on the Web. Last summer, Kroto experimented by streaming a children's science workshop live from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he has a visiting professorship. Despite some speed bumps and glitches, it worked.

Kroto hopes other scientists will become inspired and begin recording—"decently"—interviews with renowned scientists and professors in their regions. He's more than enthusiastic about the possibility that the Vega Science Trust Web site could expand its horizons beyond its own productions and become a sort of science clearinghouse. "But at the moment," he says, "We're a thorn in the flesh of the system, because we're saying to people 'Look what you can do.'"

Kroto is slated to receive the prestigious 2001 Michael Faraday Award Jan. 29 from the Royal Society for furthering public communication of science, engineering, and technology in the United Kingdom. That day, coinciding with his lecture, Vega plans to launch its new Internet science channel.

A.J.S. Rayl (ajsrayl@loop.com) is a contributing editor.

1. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, "The Nation's Report Card: Science 2000," Nov. 2001, www.nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/science/results/

2. H.W. Kroto et al., "C-60—Buckminster fullerene," Nature, 318:162-3, 1985. (Cited in more than 3,785 papers, according to the Web of Science, ISI, Philadelphia)