Between 2008 and 2017 there has been a 72% increase in applications to study physics at university. Some have attributed or linked this to the “Brian Cox effect”, suggesting that the popular physics professor has increased visibility and appetite for the subject. While it is undeniable that Prof Cox is a tremendously popular and successful presenter, linking this to university applications is problematic.
The 72% increase in physics applications coincided with a 112% increase in engineering, 60% in mathematics and applications to study games development has risen over 400% in the past five years alone. Are these due to celebrity? Who do we credit for the 12,000 additional engineering applications? The trend is not confined to the physical sciences anthropology, sociology and politics all saw rises of 157, 93 and 94 percent respectively.
There are three main problems linking celebrity to life choices without compelling evidence.
It devalues the work of the STEM engagement community by attributing a cultural success to one individual. To credit a celebrity or a documentary with widespread culture change negates much of the important work which is carried out without fanfare. The success and celebrity that can be built around science is perhaps just one of the culminations of a wider engagement agenda which has worked for years to make STEM more open, accessible and attractive.
It reduces the complexity of inspiration, engagement and career choice to the simplicity of exposure to a three-part documentary. Life directions, subject choices, career paths are complex decisions often formed over years with friends, family, culture and background often playing key roles. To suggest that major life decisions of a country can be altered by a single, one sided communication project is to drastically oversimplify.
It removes responsibility from the STEM community, suggesting that we only need one poster-person to carry the engagement torch instead of a holistic community effort. It is not up to David Attenborough to clean the oceans, it's not Lesley Yellowlees' responsibility to fill chemistry lecture theaters or Maggie Aderin-Pocock job to ensure we have a new generation of cosmologists. These efforts are larger than individuals. Each person working in science and engagement needs to play their part. If we want STEM to be an open, inclusive and welcoming place then it has to be holistic - classrooms, media, festivals, community partners, cultural bodies and more all working in concert to produce deep and widespread change.
We don’t need a new science superstar but instead need to encourage, celebrate and support the hundreds and thousands of people working to produce a culture of truly engaging and accessible science.