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Science, Maths & Technology

The Curse of the OWBWB

Updated Wednesday 24th October 2007

How can science shake off the "old white bloke with beard" image and be more attractive to young people?

It is not much of a secret that science has a bit of an image problem. When school children are asked to draw a scientist the majority all draw a white guy with frazzled hair peeking through thick dark rimmed glasses (sometimes safety glasses) and proudly enshrouded in the mandatory white lab coat. I remember doing this in secondary school and even though I knew I wanted to do something within science I still drew that exact image. To further demonstrate this to myself I used the near sentient search engine that is Google and checked the webs images using ‘Scientist’ as the search string. The exact same image was the first result, closely followed by an image of a mad scientist.

Charles Darwin Creative commons image Icon Photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron used under a Creative Commons Licence under Creative-Commons license
Charles Darwin

Maybe this is an unfair representation of the scientific community in the present day but flicking through any science text book the OWBWB (Old White Bloke With Beard) can always be found. This is not to be ungrateful of the exceedingly impressive OWBWBs that showed us all how it should be done. The foundations of most of our current knowledge and research sprang from the work of an OWBWB, be it Leonardo Da Vinci, James Clerk Maxwell, Hippocrates, Albert Einstein (I’m including moustaches for this discussion) or any number of others. The cleanly shaven Isaac Newton is a notable exception but I personally believe this is due to an inability of growing such impressive facial fluff and is perhaps one of the reasons he was so grumpy.

This early representation has filtered through generations and we now have an indelible link between ‘scientist’ and the evolved form of the original OWBWB. While the above fleeting account makes light of the present situation concerning people’s perception it is tragically creating a barrier to people considering science within schools. I’m not suggesting that this is the sole reason for declining science numbers but it is clear that the community recognizes it is not helping and is investing significant resources in tackling the problem.

Research groups now have dedicated media liaisons to prepare press statements and disseminate results of research into user friendly sound bites. The excitement of larger projects such as the Large Hadron Collider coming together at CERN also showcases the cutting edge of research and beautifully demonstrates that the time of solitary confinement of scientists to a dusty black board has been disregarded in favour of teams and power lunches. The imagery may no longer hold as much romanticism but it is clear the era of the OWBWB’s dominance has passed.

Individuals within scientific institutions are also contributing where they can to Outreach (a buzz word for reaching out to the public to explain exactly what we do in a more open and accessible way). Some people do this via a website such as the excellent BadAstronomy site by Phil Plait (made famous by its comprehensive arguments debunking the Moon Hoax) and others who visit and interact directly with school children at various levels of education. One such government supported initiative is the SEA (Science and Engineering Ambassadors) program who are always on the lookout to spread the good word.

In this increasingly visually stimulating, multi coloured, technological world it appears scientists are obtaining more of a coherent voice. Results and research are being reported well (some hiccups are to be expected) and the unity demonstrated in presenting the dangers of climate change and the opposition  of teaching creationism in science lessons ends up reflecting well on the overall perception of scientists everywhere. While student numbers are down in general science they are in fact on the way up in space sciences (a little atleast) and other more specialized fields. An optimist could conclude we are starting to see the benefits of this committed effort and we will start to see a resurgent interest across the board in the coming years. I really do hope so since we have such an impressive legacy, still punch above our weight as a nation in international research and have so many talented people in all stages of their careers.

Still I can’t help thinking I am perhaps part of the problem. Despite signing on to become a SEA (to help change peoples perceptions) late last week I found one of the best lecturers I had at university looked older than grandfather Time, sported a white beard thickly stained from pipe smoke and had the same opticians prescription as a mole. Also I am a white male which one day will be old and already has a deep unyielding desire to grow a beard ... Ohwell.

**My apologies to Marie Curie for completely ignoring her important contribution in understanding radioactivity. I was being very unscientific and ignored her since she did not fit into the nice and neat OWBWB box.**


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