BBC science interviewers sometimes do get over-excited when the person on the other microphone is a woman. Indeed “expert” interviewees from the “other” gender are a rare sight on BBC programmes more generally. In four years worth of programmes on BBC Question Time, only 98 of the 362 panellists were women.
When you combine a woman who is also a senior scientist with that other legendary beast, the EU, it makes for cringeworthy listening. This was the case with University of Surrey professor Jim al-Khalili’s interview on The Life Scientific with Anne Glover, chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission—José Manuel Barroso. Though I wonder why Barroso’s name was never mentioned in the programme.
Glover has occupied this high profile and controversial post for four years, so you would think the interviewer would have plenty of material to talk about: how Europe struggles to create a joined-up scientific community; how Glover assesses her ability to influence EU politicians and her tireless efforts to create a network of national advisers, which is slowly starting to take off. Glover is also a vocal and passionate advocate of genetically modified technology.
The Life Scientific is meant to be as much about the person as his or her work, but Glover's deep-rooted passion for science could have been well explored by asking these questions. The fact that she won’t be continuing this role after May’s European elections could have provided space to ask these and other critical questions about her work. Has she really increased the profile of European science? Is there any lasting legacy, considering that the post may not be renewed under the next president?
But if you were looking for sharp insights, The Life Scientific was the wrong place. Instead the programme’s production team treats listeners to patronising anecdotes of Glover’s childhood (“Your parents must have supported you, right?”), interspersed with phone-ins from Glover’s colleagues, who gush over how fantastic she is, doing sciencey things that have to do with sparkly molecules.
al-Khalili calls Glover “the most influential scientist in Europe”, which even Glover would probably contest. “How do you get anything done in Europe,” he wonders, and the listener wonders, too. He was referring to the EU, of course and not “Europe”, which is a continent of 750 million people, and not the 500 million that we heard. In the same vein, al-Khalili asked Glover about how she copes with different stances on nuclear power in Germany and France. He ought to have known (or been briefed) that national policies are not her remit, nor are they the EU’s.
Barely troubled by al-Khalili’s questions, Glover sailed through it all. It was an easy interview for her, an occasion to repeat her well-worn, but still important, arguments for science, without having to justify or explain too much.
Underlying this interview was a whiff of disbelief that Glover had gone to work for the EU at all. Her continuous record of laboratory work at the University of Aberdeen was mentioned as if it were some sort of insurance for Glover to, one day, return to the safety of home, and not the perfectly normal arrangement for a scientific adviser, which is what it is.
The BBC might think that being lightweight about the EU and its work is en vogue in these increasingly Eurosceptic times for the UK. But in this instance it turned what could have otherwise been an engaging and insightful interview into shallow chatter.
Inga Vesper is news editor of Research Europe. Follow us on @ResearchEurope