Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Science Communication in 20th Century Europe

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Projekte | Science Communication in 20th Century Europe | The BBC, Scientific Intellectuals and the British Public, 1930-1950

The BBC, Scientific Intellectuals and the British Public, 1930-1950

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Ralph Desmarais (Imperial College, London, United Kingdom)


Key Research Results


  • Overriding Consideration: As a monopoly medium throughout the study period, the BBC was able to exercise control of science content; yet it was constrained by its Charter remit to provide a balance of  views where controversy existed, and to both educate and entertain its domestic listeners.  Implications followed.
  • ‘Defence of science’ theme: promoted by the BBC producers and scientist-contributors alike
  • BBC rebuffed repeated attempts by elements of the scientific community to secure control/influence over science programming content.  Its institutional independence and its producers’ professional professional autonomy were deemed paramount.  
  • The diversity of science talks’ content and themes over the study period had many causes; eg:
  • a  reflection both of producers’ responses to shifting social and political circumstances
  • individual producer’s differing styles of programming and preferred speakers
  • evolving government guidelines on listeners’ educational needs (eg. 1928 Hadow Report)
  • permanent tension between competing aims; eg. stressing ‘pure’ versus ‘applied’ science’; scientific method versus results; education versus entertainment, etc.
  • 1930s and wartime BBC science programming did not conform to historical understandings of the British social-relations-of-science (SRS) movement.   Ideology-laden radio talks by leftist radical scientists, prominent in the early thirties, ceased by 1936—well before the popular front and SRS movements were at their peak.
  • Mary Adams’ 1936 departure from Talks was a turning point
  • BBC refused to accept BA’s SRS Division advisory proposals during the war
  • Evidence from BBC science talks supports David Edgerton’s argument that scientific intellectuals did not engage with the real relations of science and war; and, with few exceptions, the BBC was equally complicit in this silence.
  • BBC radio was a key enabling medium in helping to create and promote ‘scientific intellectuals’.  Examples include Gerald Heard and Julian Huxley before 1945, and Jacob Bronowski in the early postwar era. 
  • CP Snow’s ‘two cultures’ thesis is not an appropriate analytical tool for the early history of BBC science and scientists .


Open Questions


  • Comparative European historiography evaluating impact of independent monopoly radio and mixed commercial/state radio environments in relation to science programming, stakeholders, etc.
  • Projections of national identity/culture through science programming
  • National/Reith Lectures –many scientist speakers
  • C.P. Snow’s two-cultures; British ‘declinism’
  • We have a limited historical understanding of the contributions by scientific intellectuals to the BBC’s cold war propaganda initiatives---especially on BBC Foreign Services.  This despite considerable historical research on BBC, IRD and anti-Soviet propaganda.
  • Lysenko; Soviet peace initiatives (cf. the British Peace Committee); Congress for Cultural Freedom
  • BBC and the Bomb
  • Including international control of atomic energy; British bomb development; nuclear reactor debates, etc.
  • European peace movements; Pugwash
  • Manhattan Project, Hiroshima and historical revisionism
  • Use of the BBC by scientific intellectuals politically-divided by cold war science
  • Significance of the BBC Listener journal in relation to other print media has not been historicised
  • Educational talks on science have not been historicised;  Education was a separate BBC department (from 1927) and provided programming for Schools and Adult Education; sought to comply with Hadow Report (1928) which addressed science education in detail; many scientist-broadcasters in Talks also scripted/delivered talks for Education.
  • Science content of Features [dramas, documentaries] has not been historicised
  • There is, however, published and unpublished scholarship on the Department history in general terms
  • BBC Third Programme (stress on elite culture): most comprehensive histories have focussed on the arts and humanities; we lack a proper intersecting history of science content and reception.
  • Questions to be addressed include: impact of talks content on its listenership, many of whom belonged to the nation’s elite cultural and political classes;  how ‘science’ was framed in a cold war climate shaped by rival political ideologies and threat of the bomb .
  • Cf. 1947 ‘Atomic Week’; 1946 ‘Challenge of Our Time’ series


Further Reading

BBC and Science
  • Bowler, Peter, Science for all: the popularization of science in early twentieth-century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  • Desmarais, Ralph, ‘Promoting Science: The BBC, scientists, and the British public, 1930-1945’, (MA Dissertation, University of London, 2004)
  • Desmarais, Ralph.  ‘Science, Scientific Intellectuals and British Culture in The Early Atomic Age, 1945-1956’. (Unpublished PhD dissertation, Imperial College London, 2010)
  • Desmarais, Ralph. ‘Jacob Bronowski: A Humanist Intellectual for an Atomic Age, 1946-1956’, British Journal for the History of Science, 2012 forthcoming.
  • Jones, Alan. ‘Speaking of science: BBC science broadcasting and its critics, 1923–64’  (Unpublished PhD dissertation: UCL, 2010)
  • Jones, Alan, ‘Mary Adams and the producer’s role in early BBC science broadcasts’, Public Understanding of Science, 2012 forthcoming.
  • Falby, Alison. "Gerald Heard (1889-1971) and British Intellectual Culture between the Wars." Unpublished Ph.D., University of Oxford, 2000.
  • Friday, J. (1975) ‘The Braggs and Broadcasting’, Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, vol 47,pp. 59–85
Radio and Science
  • Gregory, J., and S. Miller. Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility. (New York: Perseus Books, 1998).
  • Irwin, A., and (ed.) B. Wynne. Misunderstanding Science? The Public Reconstruction of Science and Technology. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)
  • La Follette, Marcel. Science on the air : popularizers and personalities on radio and early television. (London: University of Chicago Press, 2008)  [Note: concerns US media]
  • Miller, Steve. Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility. (New York: Plenum Press, 1998).
  • Werskey, Gary. The Visible College : A Collective Biography of British Scientists And. Free Association, 1988).
  • Anker, Peder. Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895-1945 (London: Harvard University Press, 2001)
  • McGucken, William. Scientists, Society and State. The Social Relations of Science Movement in Great Britain, 1931-1947. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1984).
  • Broks, Peter. Media Science before the Great War. (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1996).
  • Jones, Greta. Science, Politics, and the Cold War (London: Routledge, 1988).



BBC Scientific Programming Advisers: Formal Groups and Individuals

Pre 1939:

  • General Advisory Council (including Lord Rutherford, FRS; Sir William Bragg, FRS)
  • Talks Advisory Committee (including Julian Huxley, FRS)
  • both suspended in wartime


  • from 1941 Two advisers (domestic and foreign broadcasts) imposed by Ministry of Information
  • from 1942 Ex officio advice from Royal Society Secretaries (A.V. Hill, FRS and A.C. Egerton, FRS)

Post 1945:

  • 1945 General Advisory Council reinstated (included Lawrence Bragg, FRS; Mark Oliphant, FRS)
  • 1950 Sir Henry Dale, FRS is appointed BBC Science Adviser (2 year trial)
  • experiment deemed a failure and not repeated
  • 1964 Science Consultative Group established (disbanded in 1990s)
  • 8 scientist members included Sir Lawrence Bragg, FRS and Herman Bondi, FRS
  • met twice-yearly; reviewed recent science broadcasts and future plans
  • Limited impact (Cf. Alan Jones (2010))
BBC Science Talks – Principal Speakers (1930-1952)



No. Broadcasts*

Univ. Education


Andrade, E.N. Da C. (1887-1971)


LON (physics)

Physicist (Acad.)

Baker, John R. (1900-1984)


OX (science)

Zoologist (Acad.)

Bernal, J.D. (1901-1971)


CAMB (physics)

Physicist (Acad.)

Bronowski, Jacob (1908-1974)


CAMB (maths)

Scientific Civil Servant

Dale, Henry (1875-1968)


CAMB (physiol)

Physiologist (Acad.)

Haldane, J.B.S. (1892-1964)


OX (biochem)

Geneticist (Acad.)

Haslett, A.W. (1906-1969)


CAMB (science)


Heard, Gerald (1889-1971)


OX (history)


Hoyle, Fred (1915-2001)


CAMB (maths)

Astronomer (Acad.)

Huxley, Julian (1887-1975)


OX (zool)


Jeans, Sir James (1877-1946)


CAMB (maths)

Astronomer (Acad.)

Levy, Hyman (1889-1975)


EDBRGH (maths)

Mathematician (Acad.)

Lodge, Sir Oliver (1851-1940)


GLAS (physics)

Physicist (Acad.)

Polanyi, Michael (1891-1976)


BERLIN (chem)

Philosopher (Acad.)

Ritchie, A.D. (1891-1967)


CAMB biochem)

Philosopher (Acad.)

Russell, Bertrand (1872-1970)


CAMB (maths)

Philosopher (Acad.)

Russell, A.S. (n/a)



Chemist (Acad.)

Thomson, Sir George P. (1892-1975)


CAMB (physics)

Physicist (Acad.)

Waddington, C.H. (1905-1975)


CAMB (geol)

Geneticist (Acad.)

Young, John Zachary (1907-1997)


OX (zool)

Biologist (Acad.)

*Sources: Radio Times; The Times; The Listener; BBC Written Archives.


Key British Science Organisations
  • Royal Society (RS)
  • British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA)
  • BA Division for Social Relations of Science (BA SRS)
  • Association of Scientific Workers (AScW)
  • Atomic Scientists’ Association (ASA)
  • Society for Freedom in Science (SFS)


BBC Science Talks on Domestic Radio 1930-1945








Source: Desmarais (2004)


  • Percentage of BBC output as Talks averaged about 10% in the period 1930-1942 [Sources: Briggs (1995 vol.2), pp. 34–5; Cardiff (1983), p. 379; cited in Jones (2010)]
  • Percentage of Talks devoted to science was highly variable ranging from ca. 15% in the early 1930s to ca. 5% during the early 1940s.


‘Service talks’ series were early 1930s’ popular science talks relating science to ‘industry and the home’, and distinct from narrowly educational or science-and-society talks. Mary Adams described them as talks  designed ‘to provide the listener with a background of information and a sense of the all pervading character of information and officialdom’.  Examples include ‘Modern Wonders of Science’ (1930); ‘This Surprising World’ (1931, 1932); and ‘Science in the Making’.  Most were scripted and broadcast by the writer Gerald Heard.