Scientists want cash for answers. They shouldn't get itby Annabel Gillings / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
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…