The head of BBC Science, London Factual Productions, has highlighted the important role of traditional communication lines in reporting science and engineering to the public.

Speaking at the Royal Academy of Engineering on Tuesday (April 12), Andrew Cohen discussed the role of Twitter in the science media and how it is both a help and a hindrance to putting the important messages across.

At the PolicyNet debate titled How has the new media affected the quality of the science conversation?, Mr Cohen said: “If MMR happened today in the new media we find ourselves in, what would the result be? How would new media impact on that in terms of the science conversation? My guess, and it’s a guess only, is that new media would feed the panic, not quell it.”

He added: “Because of the explosion of communication lines, my feeling is that we need old-fashioned media and old-fashioned spokesmen more than ever before and I think the value of having people who can use the ‘personal’, have relationships with wide numbers of people and can cut through the massive amount of traffic would actually be very powerful.”

Also speaking in the debate was science writer and former New Scientist Editor Michael Kenward OBE.

Mr Kenward spoke of the rise of ‘churnalism’ and how good science news stories were being lost. He said: “Every day I receive hundreds of press releases, which didn’t used to happen. Most of them are completely inconsequential. Because there are so many of them, people feel the need to comment on them and report them, and this has led to churnalism.”

“Twitter is a great way of finding stuff from people I don’t really want to know about. I don’t want to know what you had for breakfast. Unfortunately, once in a hundred times, this person who is babbling says something that’s interesting and you may want to link up to.”

Both speakers in the debate - chaired by the Academy’s Communications Manager Jane Sutton - focused on the need for scientists and science related organisations to ensure accurate online content by contributing to frequently used sources such as Wikipedia, to update all web pages on a regular basis and ensure that the new media is treated as a connected web of information.

Andrew Cohen also spoke about the great power of platforms such as Twitter to deliver instant feedback on programmes, the rise of the iPlayer in allowing people to catch-up on programming they may have missed and the increasing importance of mobile apps. He added: “The new media and its ability to fuse traditional science and broadcasting is a very interesting area for us.

“Traditional websites are on the wane for us I think. The way science content is going to be consumed is far more interactive. I think we’ll see internet, television and apps being the future of narrative storytelling methods that we use in the next few years.”

Other topics covered in the hour-long session included the peer review process; the tendency for Twitter users to only follow who they identify with rather than a range of opinions; mixing of personal and professional lives online; and the question of quality over quantity.

Notes for editors

PolicyNet

PolicyNet provides a forum for discussion on all aspects of policy making within government, parliament and other organisations. Another facet is providing networking opportunities for policy staff from a range of (mostly scientific) organisations such as learned societies, research councils and think tanks. Past speakers include Jil Matheson, Phil Willis MP, Adam Afriyie MP and Sir David King. The next PolicyNet meeting will take place in July. For further information please contact  Katherine MacGregor  at The Royal Academy of Engineering.

The Royal Academy of Engineering

Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Ed Holmes on 0207 766 0655