Scientists want cash for answers. They shouldn't get itby Annabel Gillings / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in July 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
British scientists are legendary for great creativity and even greater failure to exploit their ideas commercially. The jet engine (Frank Whittle), the computer (Alan Turing) and radar (Harry Boot) were all begotten of Bri-tish minds but only commercially realised abroad. Some scientists are finally starting to cash in on their expertise. This time, I wish they would not. What these scientists are offering is not an invention; they are not exporting new scientific equipment or unveiling a miracle cure. Instead, they are selling their knowledge- to the media. “You realise you’ll have to pay to talk to me” are words I first heard six months ago from a scientist I was calling for preliminary research for a television documentary. These are not the words I have come to expect from scientists offered the chance to publicise their work. I put it down to bad temper-and imagined the scientist in question had just opened his gas, electricity and telephone bills all at once. But it happened again with a different scientist. And again. And to colleagues. Like a mirror-image Tory MP, some scientists are now demanding cash for answers. The scientists I contacted were not the media-weary superstars of the science scene, such as Steve Jones or Stephen Hawking. Nor were they scientists guarding financially or politically sensitive material which needed to be kept out of the public eye. They were academic researchers simply keen to make a fast buck out of the growing media and public interest in high science. Science-fact and fiction-is a blooming creative endeavour. Star Trek, The X-Files and their umpteen spin-offs whet the public’s appetite. Astounding scientific achievements such as the (possible) discovery of life on Mars and the cloning of Dolly allow fact to do battle with fantasy. The result? More documentaries such as The Sci Files and The Net are appearing on television, while science and technology supplements are expanding features of every national newspaper. The demand for stories is immense-and this is a good thing. Yet to be asked to pay cash for background information is extraordinary. It goes against the grain of the crusade within science to demystify the subject and open it out to a wider audience. When asked to pay, my first reaction was one of disbelief, then bafflement. How could I pay? Do they take Visa? How do they charge? By the byte or by the second? What should I put on my expenses form? “?50-real gems”? And what if they were not real gems? If I do not like an answer, can I take it back for a refund, or exchange it for a better one? How would I know whether the information was worth paying for until I had heard it? Frustrated, I took the obvious option-I found a “free” scientist. It is easy to see why scientists might feel they should charge brain-picking fees. Both cash and time are now short in universities. What is more, other professionals such as lawyers and accountants charge for their brain time, so why shouldn’t scientists? The journalist’s intention is to take information from scientists into the public domain, in many cases benefiting the scientist in question or at least the field of inquiry. For the majority of scientists whose funding comes from public bodies, such as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council, there is, surely, a duty to communicate the findings of that research back to the public. (This is especially true for basic research which has no immediate application and so generates no wealth or enterprise to feed back to the taxpayer who funds it.) Most universities now recognise this duty and endorse it as a matter of policy. A Committee for the Public Understanding of Science (run by the Royal Society, Royal Institution and the British Asso- ciation for the Advancement of Science) was set up in 1985 and supplies grants to support the communication of science to the public. An increased emphasis on communication to the public was further recommended by the Wolfendale report commissioned by the Office of Science and Technology in 1995. Moreover, the fact that Richard Dawkins holds the new professorship for the public understanding of science at Oxford is a good sign that universities have made a serious effort to this end. Beyond value to the universities themselves, there is also a question of keeping the public informed and up to date with “scientific progress.” If the public at large loses interest in science, then there is a danger that support for funding the sciences might wane. After all, if documentaries such as Horizon and Equinox switched their subject matter from science to the Spice Girls, most people would not start paying for scientific information from other sources to compensate. But for the time being, while scientific information is free, few journalists will be willing to pay for it. Discouraging scientists from selling their research to the media is not a matter of evangelising science or demonising the scientific entrepreneur-simply that the public should be able to hear about work that is done in their name.