Last week while at the NISE Net network-wide meeting, I was fortunate enough to see a preview of part of NOVA’s forthcoming series Making Stuff. The series focuses on the wonders of modern materials science. But rather than coming away enthralled by the ingenuity of scientists, I found myself breaking out in a cold sweat as I watched something that set my science-engagement alarm-bells ringing: New York Times tech reporter and host David Pogue enthusing about splicing spider genes into a goat so it produces silk protein-containing milk, then glibly drinking the milk while joking about transforming into Spider Man.

I was sitting there thinking, “You start with a spider – not everyone’s favorite creature.  And you genetically cross it with a goat – dangerous territory at the best of times.  Then you show a middle aged dude drinking the modified milk from a transgenic animal and having a laugh about it.  And all this without any hint of a question over the wisdom or ramifications of what’s going on?  Man, this is going to go down well!”

But then, after some reflection, I wondered whether I was over-reacting – maybe I’m just over-sensitized to the challenges of grappling with the opportunities and challenges presented by new technologies.  There was also a chance that I had missed something in the delivery – some of the dialogue was admittedly missing in the preview.

So I decided to post last week’s poll on the spider-goat story, just to get a sense of how others might respond to this story line.

The results were surprising, and suggested that NOVA weren’t as far off the mark as I suspected.

Unfortunately, with only 67 votes and a self-selecting pool of respondents, the data are a bit iffy to say the least.  But they do suggest that a fair number of readers (28%) approved of the milk-drinking jocular approach to communicating this research.

However, the majority of the votes (54%) were for a balanced response.

Interestingly, only 2 people responded negatively to the story.

To be honest, this clip still disturbed me – although the producers emphasized to me that this wasn’t necessarily the final sequence that will be aired.  It seemed to hark back to an era of science communication that is more akin to science promotion, with little room for dialogue or engagement.  And to my over-sensitized perceptions, it came across as dismissive of concerns over the ramifications of emerging technologies.

But given people’s response to the question I asked last week, I’m willing to concede that NOVA and David Pogue might be doing a better job here than I initially judged of exploring materials science in this series in an accessible way.

The proof of the pudding of course will be in the eating – Making Stuff debuts on PBS in the US on January 19 2011.

[The goat-spiders silk story has been around for a decade or so by the way, but was given a new lease of life earlier this year through this piece from the NSF]

Andrew Maynard