Back in May 2009, Science Debate and the New York Academy of Science collaborated in putting together a conference by the name of A ticket1Dangerous Divide: The Two Cultures in the 21st Century’, which is described at the linked website as follows:

On May 9, 2009, the New York Academy of Sciences’ Science & the City program hosted a daylong symposium in honor of the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s influential lecture on the “two cultures.” Whereas Snow focused on a gap of understanding between scientists and literary intellectuals, speakers at the Academy spotlighted a troubling gulf between the scientific community today and the general public. Because science and technology are critical tools for responding to many of society’s most troubling problems, participants argued that this lack of understanding is having dangerous consequences.

Panellists at the symposium focused on the historical context of the two cultures divide, barriers to effective science communication, ways in which lack of public understanding of science is affecting politics, and ways to improve science education and science citizenship. Topics discussed included challenges in making science relevant to nonscientists, institutional pressures that are making good science journalism more difficult, practical ways to engage politicians on scientific issues, and recommendations for ways to improve science education and public understanding of science. Speakers stressed that professional scientists have an important role to play in explaining what they do and why it should be important to those outside the scientific community.

Further down on the same page is are notes describing each of the presentations that are now available to watch free online,  which can be accessed by hitting the ‘media’ tab at the top of the page, or indeed by clicking this link.

So far I’ve only had time to watch one entire presentation, that being ‘Science Communication‘ which features guest speakers Robert Keating (Discover magazine), Paula Apsell (NOVA, WGBH), Ira Flatow (NPR Science Friday), Andrew Revkin (The New York Times/Dot Earth), Carl Zimmer (Science Writer/The Loom).

This talk, including questions from the audience, lasts almost exactly one hour, and addresses the ongoing problems of how science can better communicate with the general public, through various media such as broadcast news, the printed Press (comprising newspapers and magazines), TV documentaries, and of course, the blogosphere.

Rather than analyse the entire presentation, or the ways in which science writers need to be given far more scope and opportunity to communicate with the general public, I’m just going to zero in on one area and add a brief thought or two on how TV science documentaries could and should reach a far greater audience. With the increasing reliance of the public on online resources to source science news and debate, it seems clear that much more effort needs to be made in ensuring that as many science documentaries as possible should be made available online, rather than being mostly restricted to the TV.

We live in a digital age whereby tens, if not hundreds of millions of people worldwide have access to high speed internet, the ideal medium for broadcasting documentaries in their entirety, and at resolutions high enough to compete with a TV. Yet finding much in the way of in-depth and informative science documentaries online is difficult, largely because of the way in which the TV industry is regulated, but mostly because of the stranglehold that advertisers have. Although TV has the outward appearance of being a medium which shows programmes interspersed with adverts, the opposite is actually true – the programmes are merely filler between those adverts.

So despite the fact that many of the TV documentary channels have excellent websites, the potential viewer can only see brief teasers of a few minutes’ duration at most, forcing the viewer to move from the computer to the TV – as long as they happen to live in the same country in which the show is being presented. There is no way for someone in a different country to visit a website, pay a couple of bucks/ or agree to have ads included, and watch the documentary of their choice online, there and then.

Which most often means that viewers outside the US have no access to science documentaries until or unless the shows are syndicated out across the world at a later date – meaning that a potentially vast audience will miss out on some of the best science communication on offer. A similar situation exists in Britain, where the BBC have a long history of producing outstanding documentaries – which can only be seen by TV license holders residing in the UK. This again means that only a very small percentage of potentially interested viewers will get to see up-to date and ground-breaking research portrayed in documentaries, all because of out-dated and out-moded ideas which hold that most TV content of quality should only be available on a regional basis.

So my generalistic suggestions would be for the TV advertisers and their client companies to wake up and get with the real world – literally and metaphorically, by plugging into the internet. They should be showing exactly the same TV content (including their dreary ads which could be tailored on a regional or national basis as required), or allowing for online subscription to documentary channels so that people like me in Europe would be able to access sources such as NOVA, Discovery, National Geographic Channel etc, while US residents would be able to access documentaries from the BBC, Channel 4 and others.

Although that’s a solution heavily biased towards English speakers living in the West, there are already ways of making such content understandable to speakers of other languages – in Europe for example where many US shows are broadcast with a dubbed local language, there are remote controls which allow the viewer to switch to another language, a technology which should in the future be enhanced to include more languages and be available for online TV abroad.

This wouldn’t work for all TV content of course, but as far as the dissemination of science and trying to solve problems such as energy alternatives and global warming is concerned, the more access the global public has to well made and informative TV documentaries, the greater the chances of spreading the word and finding solutions, especially at local levels. It’s clear we cannot rely on governments alone for good advice or guidance, but clear and coherent education in the guise of unbiased documentaries might go a long way towards allowing the public to circumnavigate selfish and exploitative regimes who would prefer to keep themselves in office by restricting what we know and how we come to know it.

Moreover it would be extremely interesting for western viewers to be able to access science documentaries made in places like Africa, India and Asia, where again, we might get to see documentaries detailing the effects climate change is having in those regions and what ideas and initiatives are  being undertaken by people there.

In fact I have little doubt that in 20 or 30 years’ time this technology will be c0mmonplace, but I don’t think we should be waiting that long – there are very many serious problems which need addressing right now, and it would be far better for us all to have a global audience acquainted with science, and the ways in which it can and must be used to help solve those problems, rather than a few select target audiences here in the West. As is noted in the presentation, not all the public are going to suddenly start reading PLoS or PubMed every day, but there is nevertheless a a great deal of public interest in science and how it affects our lives and surroundings, now and into the future. This is partly evidenced by the fact that science podcasts at iTunes are in high demand and accordingly downloaded in their millions, but for reasons that are not understood, advertisers have thus far shown no interest in utilising such a resource.

iTunes currently makes little effort to include science documentaries in their visual content available for purchase – there are some very good series available like ‘South Pacific’ as well as most of the David Attenborough collection, and the ‘Walking With Monsters’/’Beasts’/’Cavemen’ series, (all BBC productions), but precious little besides, Apple preferring instead to concentrate on popular entertainment. However, they do at least provide plenty of  free audio content with iTunes U, and that at least is a major step in the right direction.

I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to watch or review the other videos online at NYAS, but they should all be of interest to readers here, as should the website Science Debate, run by Shawn Otto – it was Science Debate 2008 which prompted the two presidential candidates to address science in their campaigns, and to find out how Obama and McCain responded to a set of 14 questions, plus a ton of other information, a visit to the site is advised.

image: from another Two Cultures event copyright (another) Tim Jones, Zoonomian blog.