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Yes, we get the joke, but ‘boffin’ still needs to go

29 March 2023

By Rachel Youngman, IOP Deputy Chief Executive

 


Keen tabloid watchers will have spotted the excitable reaction from the Daily Star to our campaign on the media reporting of science this week.

Our call to the tabloids to stop using the word ‘boffin’ as a catch-all term to describe scientists, experts and all assorted clever or qualified people was given the full treatment.

‘Boffins: Don’t call us Boffins’ ran the front-page headline. And the Star followed up with a trenchant defence of the word ‘boffin’ in all of its questionable glory, complete with a readers’ campaign to ‘Save the Boffin.’

But it is a conversation we are proud to be having and some knock-about from the red-tops won’t stop us having it.

Our survey of 1,000 young people and more than 1,500 adults found that ‘boffin’ is a confusing and heavily gendered term which could be putting people off studying science.

This is at a time when pretty much everyone agrees that we have a desperate need to recruit more scientists. Even the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee in its report last week called for action that truly ‘moves the dial’ on encouraging a more diverse set of people to study physics, further maths and computing.

Well, we think the media can help turn that dial a notch or two, and both our research and our experience working with young people has told us that language like ‘boffin’ makes science feel oddball, alien and unfamiliar. We believe our scientists deserve better and we think our young people need a more accurate picture of what being a scientist involves.

In describing today’s physicists, and encouraging tomorrow’s, the IOP believes it is important to recognise that negative stereotypes in the media can discourage and deter young people from studying physics and contribute to the lack of diversity in the physics community. Journalists can play a big part in changing this. 

We have also published today our media guidelines, which are designed to tackle negative images which can easily become embedded in the minds of those trusting their favoured media outlets, potentially reinforcing stereotypes and perpetuating untrue representations of certain groups of people. 

We will continue to argue our case for media reporting of science that is fun, lively and engaging but that doesn’t resort to outdated caricatures and stereotypes which should be despatched to the twilight home for hackneyed tabloid jargon.

It is high time to Bin the Boffin. Please back our Limit Less campaign on social media by following @PhysicsNews and retweeting your sightings of the word ‘Boffin’ in the wild.