If you ask me

Our double bill under discussion this week: making technology entertaining and predicting the future economy.

Entertaining technology

Why can't they bring back 'Tomorrow's World'? What about an engineering 'soap'? What's happened to the meaty science documentary?

These are the questions people frequently ask as soon as I tell them that my work involves 'bridging the gap' between scientists and engineers and the world of scriptwriters, dramatists and TV broadcasting.

The government is working to set a new strategy for the UK, to foster a society which is excited by science, values its importance, feels confident in its use and has a representative and well-qualified scientific workforce.

My own organisation, PAWS (Public Awareness of Science and Engineering), recently held a workshop, linked to a Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills review of public engagement with science. Participants, including some of the UK's best TV writers, producers and directors, met to discuss the changing role of television and new media with regard to science and society.

The Daily Telegraph has reported that forensic investigation based dramas like 'Silent Witness' and 'CSI' have more influence on the educational agenda of universities than government or industry. Malcolm Wicks, when science minister, suggested using programmes such as 'Doctor Who' to kick-start science lessons in a more imaginative way, and Cambridge University has been trying to plant stories in TV soaps to attract students from all social classes.

We need to communicate the challenge and excitement of science and engineering to the wider community in a more effective way. It is clear that TV and new media play a crucial role. At the DIUS workshop there was general agreement that encouraging the viewer to participate is vital and that a multi-platform approach offers the best opportunity for communicating science and engineering, particularly to younger audiences. However, producers emphasise that all work must succeed as entertainment.

The various forms of new media may offer the most powerful way of reaching the over-16s - an age group who would rather lose their TVs than their computers. Today's teenagers are used to being entertained in bite-sized chunks. Productions for mobile phones, iPods, and social networking sites such as MySpace, are increasingly important methods of communication with this target audience.

For best outcomes, the excitement of scientific discovery and engineering achievement must be made more accessible to arts-based media. The heart of the PAWS agenda is, therefore, to provide writers with better access to the world of science and engineering through idea-sparking evenings, visits to sites of scientific or engineering interest, specialist talks, script-development packages and a range of other activities.

Each year, EuroPAWS, the European arm of the organisation, runs a two-day festival screening TV programmes from around Europe that draw on science and technology. In 2008, in recognition of the growing importance of the environment agenda, we decided to focus on this subject in TV and new media. Categories included drama and documentary, and new media productions such as Web, iPod etc. Thirty productions, which one leading jury member described as 'exceptionally good', were screened.

At the EuroPAWS awards evening held at the IET on 24 November, we celebrated this cream of European output with the MIDAS Prizes. I am sure that those who attended would agree that the programme extracts screened were informative, original and indeed entertaining.

Dr Andrew Millington is director of PAWS/EuroPAWS

Why we're all Robert Peston now

As I write, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is finishing his pre-budget report, outlining a stimulus package designed to avoid a lengthy recession. The golden rule, that the government will only borrow to finance investment over the economic cycle, turns out to be made of gilt. Gordon has jilted Prudence, but left Alistair to explain why.

It's all the fault of greedy bankers, unwise lending, unrealistic borrowing, weak regulation, Alan Greenspan's interest rate cuts after the 11 September attacks - take your pick. Despite the best efforts of Robert Peston, the BBC's redoubtable business editor, it's hard to untangle the root causes of this mess. And it's not just me: senior people at Siemens Financial Services, which manages Siemens' money, told the Financial Times in October that they didn't invest in structured credit products, such as CDOs, because they didn't understand them.

It's the lack of trust created by this uncertainty that will be the killer for the global economy. If you can't understand a company's exposure to risk then you're not going to lend to it now or, worse, lend to it again.

According to ratings agency Standard and Poor's, the European telecoms sector holds $113bn of loan facilities that will be due for renewal over the next three years. Much of it is 'investment grade' debt, apparently, which would make refinancing easier - if only those ratings still had the credibility with which they started the year.

Those companies that can refinance their loans will find it more expensive to do so, as lenders charge more for risk. Others may scramble for vital working capital. Those who don't need new finance will still face increased risks - for example, that they won't be paid for the work they do. Companies that have been prudent enough to sign up for revolving credit lines (renewable overdraft facilities to you and me) could face another dilemma. If they call on those lines of credit, which are meant for this kind of emergency, they may undermine the viability of the banks providing them, which are facing their own funding crisis.

What will this mean for the communications industry? The introduction of nascent standards such as wireless USB will be delayed as developers go under, consumer demand retreats and marketing budgets decline. Large capital projects will stop in a world where even the most highly regarded companies can't raise money. Companies with strong business models but short-term funding gaps may find themselves in shotgun marriages with unlikely partners such as Asian governments and Russian entrepreneurs. Companies with weak business models will go under. And companies without business models will be strangled at birth (more than one dotcom has been auctioned on eBay recently).

How will this play out over the next 18 months? We'll have to wait and see. But for now your guess, as well as mine, is as good as anyone's - including that of the BBC's Robert Peston.

Luke Collins, communications editor

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