It is not often that a campaign launched by a scientific learned society finds itself featured on the front page of the Daily Star. But that is what happened, not once, but twice over the past year when the paper responded to a call from the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World, for the media in the UK and Ireland to “Bin the boffin”. The campaign aims to persuade journalists to stop using the outdated slang term “boffin” as a catch-all to describe any scientist, technician, researcher or expert who happens to be the subject of their coverage.
As boffin is mostly a term used by the red-top tabloids, we initially directed our call towards them (although it is worth mentioning there are other offenders – the Economist is also rather fond of the term, for example). The impact of the campaign was greater than we could have hoped. There was a quick win when the editor of the Daily Mirror clarified that the word should not be used by its reporters, while the Daily Star ran a defence of the word on its front page and continues to use it. Only the Sun refused to engage.
We believe that boffin is a lousy way to talk about scientists. The term has negative impacts – it is poorly understood, strongly associated with the male gender and is confusing. When we surveyed our members last year, they told us that the term was unhelpful and inaccurate, with younger members stating it actively puts them off science. To be clear, the IOP isn’t seeking to ban the word. If a pub quiz team, say, wants to be called “Brilliant boffins” that’s fine and if scientists don’t mind the word, then we would consider that a matter of personal taste.
Doubling down The Daily Star response to the IOP “Bin the boffin” campaign was to use the word boffin prominently on its front page – twice in specific reference to the campaign. (Courtesy: Daily Star. Reused with permission)
But when it comes to reporting important discoveries, trends in science, breakthroughs and new techniques, we believe the media should use something more accurate, such as “scientist”. It’s worth recalling that in the early 19th century the term “scientist” was considered by the British press as an ugly Americanism, with a preference instead for “man of science”, which goes to show that times and language can and do change – often for the better.
Our good-humoured call to bin the boffin is intended to start a conversation about how the media portrays scientists and science. This has already had an impact, with follow-up interviews on national radio where we could make broader points about how media stereotypes shape perceptions. By raising concerns about that one word, we also had the chance to talk, for example, about the way stock photos are used, with their tendency to focus on single, heroic scientists, rather than teams, which further cements the tendency to assume that physicists are likely to be white men. The campaign is also designed to draw attention to the IOP’s new guidelines on science reporting, which otherwise might have gone under the radar.
Hopefully, this effort can help increase the diversity of the scientific population. We all know that physics has a representation and equity problem. It is why the IOP launched its Limit Less campaign, of which the boffin-binning initiative is a part, to break down the prejudice and stereotypes that leave too many young people with misconceptions about what physics is. The campaign works with schools, educators, parents, opinion-formers and politicians to create an environment where the message every young person hears is that physics is for you; people like you study physics and you can do well and thrive.
The IOP represents, supports and celebrates members as well as fosters their career development and offers networking opportunities, awards and lectures. We get involved in these issues because we have a duty of care for the future of our community of physicists. It is why we argue for greater government resources for R&D as well as for the UK to rejoin the Europe Union’s Horizon Europe scheme and why we continue to raise the issue of the shortage of physics teachers in our schools. But research funding, extra teachers, generous grant funding packages and national plans can only get you so far. We also need a pipeline of bright, engaged young people from all backgrounds and life experiences, who see physics as the right choice for them and choose science as a way to make a mark on the world.
When young people are deterred from studying physics, which still happens far too often, they are missing out on the many benefits it brings. They are denied the opportunity to explore how their world works and to contribute to shaping the future as informed citizens, as well as losing the opportunity to play a role in the technological and scientific challenges of our age.
That’s why we will continue to campaign and why we will ask, politely but firmly, for the media to “Bin the boffin”.
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