Saturday, 17 September 2011

From our Bradford correspondent

At 2am on Friday morning in a rather seedy Bradford nightclub, my part in the 2011 British Science Festival, and my media placement, came to an end. The festival staff and media fellows had invaded the place and virtually monopolised the dance floor, after a very enjoyable festival dinner in the grand Midland Hotel – they were partying hard after many months of hard work. (Already, the plans are well underway for the 2012 festival which will be in Aberdeen.)

The Green where we stayed
The festival began in earnest for the media at 7.30 on Monday morning, when science journalists assembled in the press centre at Student Central on the Bradford University campus – most clustered with their laptops around three sets of desks in one room, but the BBC had their own room. The Times, Guardian, Mail, Telegraph, Irish Times, Mirror, Independent, Press Association, Financial Times, Australia Broadcast Corporation, BBC and the Naked Scientist had sent people, plus eight media fellows (one unfortunately unable to come). With pastries, tea and coffee on tap, all we needed were some stories. The first press conference was at 8.00, and continued hourly until early afternoon. Although there were written press releases, useful for fact checking and getting names right, most of the interesting stuff came from the journalists’ questions.

Bradford Town Hall
And so the daily pattern became established. As the Times Higher does not do stories purely about science findings, I spent most of my time working in tandem with Martin Ince, who was reporting for the British Science Association online news. We alternated press conferences and wrote up stories in between. By coincidence, Martin had worked for Times Higher becoming deputy editor, until he left a few years ago. The seasoned journalists were mostly on their own, so worked relentlessly attending press conferences, doing a few interviews and writing up.

The papers might be very competitive, but ‘press pack’ is a good description - the journalists work almost as a team, discussing whether stories are worthwhile, what angle to take, the scientific details. It was explained to me that they all have a common enemy, the hungry news desk which must be fed, and that they tend to ‘follow the leader’ and file the same stories because they don’t want to be accused of missing something if it appears in a rival publication. I really can’t remember what the first press conference was about; after writing up a story, one’s memory seems to be wiped clean ready for the next one. A lot of stories make it to online news, but are squeezed out from the printed edition by other news; one major daily had two people in Bradford plus a media fellow, but only two festival stories had appeared in the paper by Thursday, I was told by a reliable source. By contrast, the Irish Times always covers science strongly and had about four printed stories a day.

Staying in the new student village, 'The Green' as the first occupants was interesting for me as it has the highest BREEAM score of any building in the world (95.05%), although there were some teething problems like bathroom lights staying on either for seconds or hours.

Although the majority of festival events were only a 5 minute walk away, I only attended one (on an alternative future for nuclear power using thorium reactors – watch this space) and most of the journalists were probably too busy to attend any. Rather surprisingly, they live in something of a media bubble, with material filtered through the press conferences, though they do get direct access to the scientists.

It was refreshing to be involved with a vast range of science again – geo-engineering using stratospheric balloons, communication in the brain, GM grasses to clean up toxic explosives, the psychology of overeating, plate tectonics, dark matter in the universe, to name a few.

The evenings passed in a blur of free bars and curries, which made the early start tough sometimes – by the end we were almost looking forward to returning to our day jobs.

On the last afternoon, Robert (Lord, Professor etc.) Winston was around, and Martin suggested we try to get a word. We went into the speakers’ lounge (probably off-limits to journalists in theory, but everyone was getting a bit demob happy by then). Lord Winston was standing munching an apple before going off to do a TV interview, but to my surprise agreed to a brief interview. We found a few chairs in the corner and he talked eloquently for about 10 minutes about the themes of his new book on science and society, “Bad ideas?...”, basically to improve the dialogue between science and the rest of society. This made up for missing David Willetts, who’d dropped in during the morning.

It's not all over yet though, as I hope to be working with the media people at the Royal Society in October for three days, and will be telling the research councils about my experiences in November.

But it’s back to work on Monday, with a different perspective on the media. I might even start a blog about energy...

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