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Science on TV: It’s enough just to excite

11 Oct, 2011

Some might dismiss TV coverage of science as ‘dumbed-down’.  A month spent at the BBC gave Rebecca Holmes a fresh perspective.

Unbridled excitement about new scientific breakthroughs is not the exclusive reserve of research scientists. Last month I was fortunate to spend four weeks working in science documentary development at the BBC – and I was struck by the enthusiasm and vast breadth of scientific knowledge on display.

The placement was organised by the BBC and the Wellcome Trust, with the purpose of facilitating communication and understanding between scientists and the broadcasting sector.

Although I worked primarily in science development (where initial ideas for documentaries are developed, prior to commissioning), I also had the opportunity to view a final edit, help out on a day of filming and get involved in more detailed research for commissioned programmes. It was a really exciting few weeks, with new ideas constantly batted back and forth, and many opportunities to share my thoughts and insights.

When I started, I believed that we, the viewers, could handle more science on TV – that TV programmes often over-simplified concepts and were too much about entertainment and not enough about content. I think this is a common sentiment amongst scientists. I changed my mind about this quite quickly.

It is great to have documentaries that delve into an area deeply, and explore complicated and controversial ideas (and the BBC certainly makes these types of programmes). However, I now strongly believe that it is just as important, if not more important, to stimulate enthusiasm for science in people who would not otherwise engage with science programmes. If all a TV programme does is make someone think, “Wow, science is cool” then that’s success enough. If, during the course of being entertained, people start to see how an understanding or appreciation of science can benefit them and society, all the better.

I left the BBC inspired by the enthusiasm and energy of researchers working in science television production, and eager to grab any further opportunities to work with them to help excite the world about science. However, I was most excited to return to the bench where I hope to play my own small part in unraveling the mysteries of the world around us. And now I know who to call should I have a breakthrough in the world of RNA biology…

Rebecca Holmes

Rebecca Holmes is a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow, currently based at the University of Edinburgh.

Image credit: Marcin Wichary on Flickr

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