Sunday, 10 October 2010

Why aren’t we Hungary for science?

Following what could be the most substantial environmental disaster for the next decade, why weren’t the papers quick to pick up on its potential effects or, more importantly, its actual fallout? Politics, probably.

Less than a week ago a reservoir in Hungary, not too close to the capital Budapest, which contained a huge amount of toxic material, burst its banks and spread across the western part of the country. The coverage didn’t focus too heavily on the damage that was done (4 dead within a few minutes), but more the graphic pictures of a red-sludge covered countryside, because that’s eerie and something that people here could grasp as we too have fields that have been flooded when rivers burst their banks, and that the deluge may reach the Danube and accordingly affect other countries.

The other countries, though, were not in Western Europe, as the Danube doesn’t flow that way from Hungary, and the material didn’t flow directly into the river as the subsurface flow, through the soil over a long period of time, as is most common, would be the manner in which more of the toxic stuff will begin to poison fishes. (Fish have already been falling out of the tributaries, but they don't have a big fishing industry in Hungary so it's not a big issue, despite being one of the few things that people immediately visualise after these sorts of disasters. Their farming, however, will be seriously troubled as the soil is unlikely to be able to produce much over the next few years.)

That’s not to say that the coverage was perhaps insignificant; page 31 in the Metro and page 35 in the Daily Mail, for example, on Friday was exactly what you might expect of it. However, given that Hungary will require a lot of investment from the EU to cover the costs of the damage, one would have thought the Mail in particular would have bumped it up the agenda.

But it coincided, unfortunately, with some major domestic politics (it was Party Conference fortnight), some miners in Chile finally getting their escape tunnel built, the Commonwealth Games and, perhaps more importantly, X-Factor and the hot topic of Gamu’s potential deportation. I can guarantee you that in ten years time this Hungary thing will still be an issue, at least for more people than will have been affected by the other things.

Is it because we don’t want to hear about science at the moment? We’re as interested as ever, and it’s the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary, we had the Nobel prizes this week (3 British-based winners), Kew Gardens is producing a definitive guide to the world’s plants, institutes across the globe are collaborating to survey the ocean species and we continue to strive for the ultimate ‘make me better without giving me an erection...necessarily’ pill. But these are not going to take the front page. Instead, thanks to The Times, the science we have spread across our papers is more about cuts to scientific research.

But no one hears about the research. Either the media’s not deeming it ‘in the public interest’ ahead of stories involving celebrities and their viewpoints on shoes, or the scientists aren’t selling their findings well enough. Perhaps that’s just because no one’s doing anything exciting. And, at the end of the day, when the media is there to make money as much as it is to get the crux of the story, if the truth is boring then why will people buy into it?