Growing up, science was always seen as a nerdy subject. If you liked science, the kind of science that didn’t revolve around setting fire to things in chemistry, then you were a bit weird. Then something changed. Science became cool.
The portrayal of science in the media first began to shift during the late 1990s and early 2000s. New technology such as CGI (Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Cavemen) and unique program formats (Rough Science) brought science to life in a way that had never been done before. Presenters such as Professor Alice Roberts, Dr Michael Mosley and Professor Brian Cox began to appear on our TV screens in the mid-2000s, and their enthusiasm for their subject areas was contagious.
All of a sudden, people were talking about the science seen on last night’s TV programme rather than what happened on EastEnders. They were talking about scientific theories (Bang Goes the Theory), the dissection of nature’s giants (Inside Nature’s Giants), and geology (Earth: the Power of the Planet). It was great.
Then in 2007 The Big Bang Theory started. This was a big thing. Scientists had never been main characters in this type of show before; we were normally just rolled in to do some quick DNA test in a crucial scene of a crime show. It made scientists mainstream in a way that we never were before. However, it divided the science community. Love or loathe The Big Bang Theory, it has done one thing for certain: it has made the public more aware of science and scientists.
Since then, the portrayal of science in media has gone from strength to strength, with more science programmes on TV and radio than ever before. 2015 is already shaping up to be another great year for science in the media.
This year the biographical film of Stephen Hawking’s life (The Theory of Everything) was released. The Theory of Everything, alongside The Imitation Game, a biography of the mathematician Alan Turing released in 2014, have several nominations in this year’s Oscars. OK, so these films mainly show the lives of these two men, but that doesn’t discount the fact that a film based on the life of a scientist probably wouldn’t have created as much of a buzz 10 years ago.
Meanwhile, in TV, the BBC has already been busily providing the nation with great new Horizon science programmes, such as What’s The Right Diet For You?, which takes ground-breaking new scientific research and puts it into a useable and relatable form for everyone. More science shows are expected across television channels later in the year.
Central to this rise of science on our screens is social media such as Facebook and Twitter, making science much more accessible for scientists and non-scientists alike. Scientists across the globe tweet every day, sharing their enthusiasm for the subject with others. They communicate with one another to showcase the latest research and articles, and keep each other up-to-date with information from the latest conferences.
More people than ever are blogging and even vlogging. The public’s perception of science and scientists is changing, and for the better. The public wants to know what we are doing, why, and how. We are now living in an age that makes sharing our knowledge with others easier than ever.
Finally, more science is hitting the headlines and becoming a featured item on both news channels and newspaper websites and papers. On 4 February 2015 the news that MPs had passed a law allowing the creation of babies using mitochondrial DNA from a donor hit the headlines. Twitter exploded with the news, sparking active debates across social media sites. Science journals also joined in, tweeting articles detailing the ‘science behind the theory’ for those who wanted more information.
In this way social media has helped to spread the news of science, and allow those outside the profession of science to become more involved and knowledgeable than before. Science is no longer in the background.
Despite this increase in science in the media, there still unfortunately seems to be a distinct lack of plant biology, with focus currently on medicinal science, chemistry and physics. However, it’s fair to say that there was a distinct lack of physics and chemistry until 2010 when programmes like Chemistry: a Volatile History and Wonders of the Solar System burst onto our screens.
Since then, there has been a complete shift in the perception of physics and chemistry, which had been commonly seen as boring, dry and difficult subjects. Nowhere can this change be seen more clearly than in Physics A-level student numbers. In 2011 it was reported that the number of students taking A-level physics had soared, with physics back in the top 10 most popular subjects for the first time in nearly 10 years. It is naive to dismiss the role that media had to play in this revival of physics, or to underestimate the power of social media.
For many years plant science has also had a somewhat less than favourable light cast on it, most likely due to the photosynthesis-heavy A-level syllabus, which, let’s be honest, was never going to inspire 16-18 year olds as much as learning about cancer, space or chemical combustion.
But it’s not too late for plant science to change its public perception, and to show others what all plant scientists know – that plants are great, and that there is definitely more to plants than photosynthesis!
The media presence of plant biologists is ever-growing, with great blogs such as Plant Scientists as well as this one, and many, many active plant biology tweeters out there, such as @PlantSciNews, @plantsciences, and @plantbiology to name just a few.
Rest assured, the time of plant biology is near, and when it comes plant scientists will take the world by storm!
Erica is a John Innes Centre PhD student. She tweets as @EricaHawkins16.
Featured image: the science presenters Alice Roberts (Isabelle/Flickr), Brian Cox (John Roling/Flickr), Maggie Aderin-Pocock (The Institute of Physics/Flickr) and Greg Foot (Andy Miah/Flickr).