Q&A with Alice Roberts
We speak to the new president of the Association for Science Education
Source: Mike Alsford/Rex
Alice Roberts, professor of public engagement in science at the University of Birmingham, is a clinical anatomist and presenter on TV programmes including Time Team, Coast and The Incredible Human Journey. In January she became president of the Association for Science Education.
Where and when were you born?
I was born in Bristol in the old Bristol Maternity Hospital in 1973.
How has this shaped you?
I still live close to Bristol and feel very connected to this area. I studied just over the Severn Estuary in Cardiff, so South Wales feels like home too. I can see the Welsh coast and hills from where I live.
What are your plans for the ASE presidency?
I’d like to see links between schools and universities growing stronger. I’m also on a bit of a mission to remove the teaching of creationism as a science in schools. The Department for Education is clear that creationism shouldn’t be taught in science lessons. But, rather strangely I think, this principle isn’t extended to independent schools or to learning outside the classroom.
Have you had a eureka moment?
Nothing that earth-shaking. But, like anyone interested in science, I’ve had many of those penny-dropping moments when you suddenly make connections and the world becomes more understandable. Actually, that’s what I love about science: it feels like you’re on a continuous path towards enlightenment, even if you know you’re never going to get there!
What would you say to scientists who have no interest in their work reaching Joe Bloggs?
Try it – you may be pleasantly surprised. I’ve heard plenty of colleagues say they’ve found public engagement to be personally enriching, sometimes scientifically challenging, even helping to spark new ideas. I have never heard anyone say it wasn’t worthwhile.
You’re part of a small but growing group of academics best known for their TV work. Is there much camaraderie between you?
Yes there is. There’s plenty of good-humoured banter about important issues such as “Which is better? Physics or biology?”, often played out on Twitter. But there’s also something tying us together in terms of a common aim to bring science to the wide audiences that television reaches, and, I think, to show other academics that working with broadcast media doesn’t have to be scary, or indeed fluffy. Distilling ideas to make them accessible, and weaving narrative into science, is not the same thing as “dumbing down”.
Are there enough female scientists on TV?
No! But there aren’t enough female scientists either: only 17 per cent of science professors are women, so TV producers have a smallish pool to draw from, whether they’re looking for contributors or presenters. But they have a responsibility to make sure there is diversity, because role models are important.
Does Mary Beard’s experience of abuse on social media suggest there is still a sexist attitude to female presenters?
Of course, but I think sexism is rife in our society much more generally. Part of the problem is that career structures still reflect a society where one partner in a family stays at home to care for children. But a big part of it comes down to sexist attitudes and biases.
Does it matter that so much of public understanding of science is channelled through a few people with strong media profiles?
I see it the other way: the BBC in particular seems to have moved away from celebrities presenting science towards academics with broad expertise in various areas of science. I think this has been an established form in the humanities, and it’s important. It means that presenters actually know what they’re talking about.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t worry about the future so much. Focus on the present.
What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
The increase in student fees has been a big change, and having been heavily involved in widening participation during my time at the University of Bristol, I was very concerned that this would impact very negatively on the diversity of our student population. But last year’s Ucas figures showed a substantial rise in entry rates for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It shows that – alongside a sensible repayment scheme – universities’ efforts at raising aspirations and widening participation have worked. But there’s still more work to do.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
At the age of five, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I answered: “A horse.” By 11, my answer had changed to: “A doctor.”
What’s your biggest regret?
I try to live life without regrets. But I do wish I’d studied a modern language at school.
You’ve helped dig up bodies from many different places. Is there somewhere other than a cemetery you would like to be buried?
I’d like to be buried in a woodland, in a Bronze Age-style cist burial, with a small pottery beaker – to confuse archaeologists of the future.