Iain Murray: Science is the new sex, so don your lab coat and sell

Scientists get a bad press; people perceive them to be eccentric and out of touch. Well, judging by a PR event last week, most of you would be right, says Iain Murray

Without wishing to be disrespectful, it seems reasonable to assume that most readers of Marketing Week know more about sex than science. It is, after all, axiomatic that sex sells; with science one is on less sure ground. True, there was “vorsprung durch technik”, there was “designed by computer made by robot”, and every shopping bag has been stuffed with magical new ingredients since the discovery of soap. But pressed to explain the advantages of “now with added polypropylene” most marketing brains would freeze.

It’s time for change. The buzz about town is that science is the new sex. If so, to be of the fullest commercial use it must become part of the language and understanding of marketing.

Do not imagine that will be easy. The scale of the task became plain last week at the annual science-meets-the-media party organised by the Royal Society and The Daily Telegraph. It fell to that paper’s Nicole Martin to report the event, and since her account reads something like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with no shortage of talking rabbits, grinning cats, and, of course, mad hatters, it makes thoughtful reading for those about to wade into science’s deeper end.

Champagne in hand she first encounters Adam Hart-Davis and notes with a keen eye that the “genial television presenter” has swapped his trademark cycling shorts for a dicky bow and a colourful waistcoat. “Science is sexy, absolutely sexy,” he hollers.

Fired by these words, the eminent embryologist Professor Lewis Wolpert joins the conversation, struggling to catch his breath as he roars: “Most people think that scientists are not real people, just emotional cripples.” And that is because most people never see a real scientist.

Pressing into the throng in search of real people, Nicole wisely slips past Dr Raj Persaud, “the ubiquitous television shrink”, and bumps into Jeremy Webb, editor of the New Scientist and “not one for mincing his words”.

He does not disappoint. “Most scientists don’t want to talk to the media or can’t talk to them. Most scientists don’t have many social skills,” he says. Note that he neither hollers nor booms; only people lacking social skills do that.

Nicole, sensing that her prejudices about scientists were true, suddenly spots a shock of pink hair in the crowd. What? Can it be true? Is it the Queen of Hearts? No, it is Dr Susan Blackmore, a young, feisty female scientist and visiting lecturer at the University of West England. She is entertaining onlookers on the subject of consciousness.

“I am totally obsessed by it,” she booms, waving her arms enthusiastically. (By now Nicole is used to booming, but if she thought it very horrid, she was too polite to say so.)

“What is consciousness?,” yells the pink-haired, arm-waving enthusiast, feistily. “It’s these questions that make a scientist. I mean, here we are in a room, but what is really here?”

It was all a bit unreal, like an unbirthday party, so Nicole swiftly moves on. “I asked another female guest what her passion was,” she recalls. “GM foods? Astronomy? Perhaps the brain?”

No, none of those. “I’m doing research into the vagina,” says Catherine Blackledge in a disappointingly modulated sort of way. Had she caught the mood and hollered at the top of her voice, she might have attracted a crowd of onlookers to rival those of Dr Blackmore, assuming the pink-haired whirlwind was really there. In the room. Whatever a room was.

Nicole doesn’t tell us much about Ms Blackledge. Only that she will be discussing orgasms at the forthcoming Cheltenham Science Festival, which is probably enough to be getting on with.

“Yes, I’m writing a book about the vagina,” she confirms, lest anyone should doubt her resolve. “I’m looking at art, language and history, all in the context of the vagina.”

Hasn’t she missed out something, namely science? She might profitably spare a moment to examine the steam-engined locomotive’s historic journey from Stockton to Darlington in the context of the vagina.

“I discovered my vagina from a very early age,” she persists. “I might be British, but I’m definitely not prudish.”

“As the party was in full swing,” says Nicole, changing the subject, but only slightly, since Catherine’s unabashed enthusiasm for her pudendum is precisely the sort of thing to make a social gathering hum, “there were a couple of confirmed sightings of Lady Archer making one of her few public appearances since her husband was jailed. “I find my science colleagues are not really interested in my personal life,” Archer says in clipped tones. Which only goes to show what a dull, uncurious lot they must be be.

“As we spoke,” says Nicole, “I spotted Trevor Bayliss, the eccentric inventor. He was holding forth his latest creation: his electric shoes, which he chose to wear for the occasion.” Eccentric, or what?

Nicole butts in. What is so special about a pair of nondescript desert boots? They’ve got a pocket on the side, he explains, for carrying a mobile phone. “As I walk along, I apply a load to my foot which creates electricity into my phone so it recharges.”

It would be nice to report that at this point Nicole rubbed her eyes and woke up. But it was true, all true.

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