Bubbling Beakers and Bunsen Burners

The History and Politics of Science communication

Throughout my early years Id become conditioned into thinking that science was for the real odd boffins. Those unusual looking, mostly white men, in corduroy flared trousers, waving their arms in the air chattering about how wonderful a rock, plant or bubbling beaker of water was. TV programs like Tomorrow’s World, (BBC, 1965–2003) and Don’t Ask Me, ITV, (1974–78) which had a lead black presenter (quite rare for British TV at the time) Derek Griffiths, and the then terribly eccentric Dr Magnus Pyke.

Whilst he was well known for playing up to the mad scientist stereotype, he was to me one of the best demonstrators of the deficit model of science communication at the time.

Sci-Fi was also my window into science. Star Trek not only encouraged me to get interested in space, but showed the coming together of races, united through scientific discovery, a utopian dream. Further examination of this showed that aspects of race in Star Trek was more displaced rather than eradicated, (Ott & Aoki, 2001).

Hours of endless fun as a boy watching these two. And still do.

I grew up in mostly middle class white communities, learning science as a black teenager in the early 80s was pretty hit and miss hard to relate. Science teachers tended to be quite stoic in the way they delivered the subjects, favoring white boys who asked the right questions; Leaving myself, the other few ethnic minorities, and those with short attention spans, to sit at the back and prat around; Putting unlit Bunsen burners in the white boys Gola bags with the gas slightly on, and then lighting them with our zippos when we left class — our own demonstration of the Upstream Engagement model.

It’s heartening to know that the government began to understand the importance of science communication in 1985 with the Bodmer Report, which highlighted the aims for a formal science education system.

“Teaching should be coordinated and practical, drawing extensively on examples from everyday life and industry to make the science interesting and relevant to pupils’ present and future lives;” (The Royal Society, 1985).

Fast-forward to the emergence of 3D and VR, forging my involvement in the Contextual models of science communication. I took part in creating internet based 3D visualisation gaming models for use in public consultation in Urban regeneration. I worked on a pilot for Manchester City Council called Cityviewer (Reid, 2007) which enabled anyone to walkthrough certain areas of Manchester and view potential urban developments and plans in realtime, offering views of these developments from different locations and then comment on them.

Its success was limited to the public’s engagement with interaction in 3D environments. As Hansen and Kristensen (2004) put it: “Free-movement through a 3D scene like the popular flight simulators gives the most important benefit of Virtual Reality, but this is generally rather demanding concerning navigation skills”

In conclusion, we have a long way to go before science is communicated to all. As Miahs fourth model of engagement demonstrates its important not only to look at the benefits of scientific breakthroughs but also the ethics behind it, from the individual’s point of view, (Miah, 2017).


BBC (2010, 7 January). Tomorrow’s World: Mobile Phone 13 September 1979 — BBC. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vix6TMnj9vY

ITV (2017). Dont Ask Me — ITV — (1975) — Magnus Pyke . David Bellamy, Derek Griffiths. [video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4qQ16XjUMA [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].

Miah, A. (2017). Nanoethics, Science Communication, and a Fourth Model for Public Engagement. NanoEthics, 11(2),139–152.

Ott, B. and Aoki, E. (2001). Popular imagination and identity politics: Reading the future in Star Trek: The next generation. Western Journal of Communication, 65(4),.392–415.

Reid, D. (2017,27 April). Cityviewer DVD Edited for Portfoilio. [Video file] Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OX0GA_pjwRA

Hansen, S. H., & Kristensen, P. N. (2004). APPLYING INTERNET BASED 3D VISUALISATION AND PRIORITY GAMES IN PUBLIC CONSULTATION. Paper presented at Urban Data Management Symposium, 24th Urban Data Management Symposium, Chioggia, Italy. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267691442_APPLYING_INTERNET_BASED_3D_VISUALISATION_AND_PRIORITY_GAMES_IN_PUBLIC_CONSULTATION

The Royal Society (1985). The Public Understanding Of Science. [online] London: The Royal Society, p.17. Available at: https://royalsociety.org/~/media/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/1985/10700.pdf