This old dog thrives on new tricks

Everyone’s favourite science show is turning 40, and Robyn Williams has been there every step of the way. He talks about its great past and forecasts a brilliant future – science funding allowing. Cartoon by Matt Golding

Yes, it will be 40 years this August since I started The Science Show on ABC Radio, and I’m still doing it. Is this odd behaviour? (I’m reminded of my obsessive border collies who learned a neat trick when young and repeated it endlessly – am I the same?) In fact, the program very nearly died after five months. Cuts, you see. The Science Show has always struggled with cuts.

This one came at the end of 1975. I’d begun the show in Vancouver, at a huge Pacific Science Congress, replete with superstars like Thor Heyerdahl, Herman Kahn the futurologist and Lord Ritchie Calder the British energy expert. I had no long-term plans for the program, beyond ticking over week by week and maybe looking for a locum to do it when I wanted a change. Then came the Dismissal, followed by the election that Malcolm Fraser won resoundingly.

Lab coat, Matthew Golding

Lab coat, Matthew Golding

Around that time I had been invited, out of the blue, to apply for a new ABC job in London: talks officer with a free rein. Who could resist? I applied and got it. As usual, following a federal Coalition win the first thing they did was cut the ABC budget. My London job was the first to go. So did hope of locums. So, on I continued with The Science Show.

At first, the response to the show was jaundiced. “Here comes the lead-balloon brigade,” muttered one ABC manager, who preferred the cracked classical records they used to play at midday on Saturdays. Luckily, that week I’d done something on air that excited the audience and the mail turned up in large boxes. “Care to help me sort the fan mail?” I asked the cynic. He looked at the pile and stuttered.

That’s been the story throughout: science and medicine were always enormously popular with audiences, and still are. Now we have at least six science programs – All in the Mind, Health Report, Body Sphere, etc. – in the top 20 podcasts of all combined networks, not just Radio National. The last ratings I checked for Catalyst was (for five cities) over 725,000, which translates to well over a million for the rest of Australia, even before you add repeats, downloads and overseas sales.

But apart from the subject matter, there are the production values. I was lucky to land in the part of the ABC where standards were (and are) very high indeed. We edit, we polish, we edit again, we tell stories. We have an open door to all comers (unlike the Brits and Americans) that ensures a variety of voice and style. This density of material is clearly what the downloading public wants. Yes, I know youth is supposed to have an attention span of seven minutes and The Science Show is an hour long, but when you look at series for TV by HBO, popular American radio shows like This American Life and RadioLab, they are also at least an hour. People stay with substance; people leave chatter.

Another myth is the case of the inarticulate boffin. Some are hopeless. But so are some catatonic lawyers, wooden politicians and flaky film stars. But scientists? Brian Cox, Simon Singh and my nephew Ben Goldacre talk to crowds of 8000 plus. In Oz, Paul Davies, Brian Schmidt and Fiona Stanley will fill large halls. And now the younger scientists have become simply magnificent.

My evidence? We have just finished auditioning the five under-40 candidates – young scientists who are joining the ABC Science Unit to contribute to shows as part of the 40-year celebrations. I have to say that their performances were utterly brilliant. Our tough independent judging panel could hardly believe what they were hearing. The fact is that Three Minute Thesis Competitions and other efforts in our universities have trained, advised and nurtured science communication like never before. I now put on a PhD nearly every week, a 20-, 21- or 22-year-old who is so articulate and passionate in their brief talk. And this not only aids fluency, it also refines their intellectual understanding of their science and how it relates.

No wonder our programs thrive. We can barely keep up with the ideas and the talent.

This, just at a time when science is losing its government support and youngsters, as well as senior scientists, are losing jobs. It is a tragedy. Especially when you realise how much wealth (45-60 per cent of GDP) is created by innovation based on science and technology R&D at our universities and CSIRO. Are they actually thinking in Canberra?

So what about those cuts that have shaped us from the beginning? Well, I suspect quite a few will be astounded that The Science Show has no reporters or researchers. David Fisher, the only other member of the ‘team’, has his work cut out assembling websites, transcripts, edits, pods, links – as well as the other programs he does, such as Naked Scientist. So we rely on the many willing freelancers, colleagues and students who provide their assistance.

Among the heroic freelancers is Sharon Carleton, who once used her late husband Richard’s 60 Minutes frequent flyer points to fly to London to interview Prince Charles for us. Then there’s Pauline Newman, now a professor of communication at Arizona State, who will drop everything (as she did in February in the USA) when we need help. And there is Stephanie Pradier, a physics student from Melbourne, whom we dragooned into interviewing Steve Chu, President Obama’s energy secretary and Nobel laureate.

It’s called rat-cunning-improvisation. It means we are always sounding different but within high levels of reporting and production. And this seems to be what audiences around the world like.

Yes, it is a surprise to be 40, but what it really means is that science in Australia is thriving spectacularly, most young researchers are potential journos and, combined with Citizen Science, we could have a glorious brain-based revolution on our hands.

Canberra, please don’t ruin this promise.

Robyn Williams is a science journalist, broadcaster and a National Living Treasure (1987).  Matt Golding is the Creative Director at Nous Ideas, Visual Corporate Communication and cartoonist for The Sunday Age.