Tickets for ‘rockstar’ particle physicist Professor Brian Cox’s Auckland show went on sale this week. With seats priced from $90 to $215, are big popular science shows fostering elitism?

Super scientists, assemble!

New Zealand has been blessed by visits from four big names in science this year already, and is set to play host to a fifth in November. It started in February with an Auckland show from my personal hero, David Attenborough. Then, we had theoretical physicist and mathematician, Brian Greene also speaking in Auckland, in March. Conservation advocate and primatologist Jane Goodall toured the country in June, presenting shows in four major cities; Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin.

Jane Goodall delivering a lecture. Photo: whiteafrican/ Flickr / CC-BY-2.0

Dr Goodall was closely followed by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who blew through Auckland and Christchurch with his “cosmic perspective” tour in July. As we hurtle through the second half of the year, people are getting excited about Brian Cox’s “evening of scientific phenomena” show in Auckland in November. Well, those who can afford it are. The thing these events have in common is a hefty price point, not least Professor Cox.

Rockstar prices

A quick comparison of ticket prices across these events shows that seeing uber famous scientists is no small financial undertaking. For comparison, consider ticket prices for Lorde’s upcoming tour, or a ticket to see the All Blacks play Australia.

The cost of science speakers

All prices exclusive of booking fees and credit card charges *Price varies slightly based on venue – prices based on Wellington and Dunedin shows **Prices based on August fixture at Forsyth Barr stadium, Dunedin

Essentially, for all but the lowest price tickets, it’s cheaper to see the All Blacks than to see David Attenborough, Brian Cox or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Especially for families. The lack of student or child tickets for David Attenborough and Prof. Cox’s show means a family of four would have to pay at least $380/$360 to see these lectures respectively. Not great if you’re trying to get the kids into science. And that’s before all the “admin” fees charged by the ticketing company.

One could argue that the fact that people are prepared to pay big ticket prices to see scientists is a good thing. People are as excited about science as they are about sports or actual rockstars! And yes, it should be more expensive to see Jane Goodall than Lorde. Goodall’s career spans decades while Lorde only broke onto the music scene relatively recently.

Encouraging elitism

This is all arguably true, but science is already seen as stuffy and elitist. It can’t afford to be even more so. Many of us are busy trying to connect with the general public. We want to cast off notions of aloof superiority and white coats. Rockstar scientist also bust out of such stereotypes, but most Kiwis can’t afford to see them do it. Surely this leaves the audience at one of these shows consisting mainly of relatively wealthy and relatively well-educated folk who are already science fans? There’s nothing wrong with these people enjoying these shows, but it leaves an important audience out in the cold.

Lorde reacts to news that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s tickets are more expensive than hers.

All the people mentioned above are extremely clever scientists, and gifted communicators. They have presumably worked very hard to get to the point where they can charge this much for lectures. And it’s unlikely they’re the ones setting the prices – the promoters and organisers will figure all that out. Some of them may even be putting ticket profits back into conservation or education initiatives. While I can’t imagine paying $329 to meet anyone, ever (especially not for 45 mins with 99 other people), this obviously appeals to some people. But there’s no denying that a starting price point of around $80-90 will put off those who are sci-curious as opposed to fully fledged science fans.

Free science available

What these high prices highlight extremely well is the value of all the free science engagement available in New Zealand. Groups like Allan Wilson at Otago University and the Royal Society of New Zealand do a great job organising free public science lectures across multiple cities in New Zealand. Over the past few years, these groups (and others) have brought leading scientists and science presenters from all over the world to talk to New Zealanders about their work, and tickets are almost always free (or very low cost). Scientific conference organisers have also caught on. The recent Genetics Society of Australasia meeting in Dunedin in July had a free public talk from a visiting scientist every evening.

It is wonderful that superstar scientists are making the trip to New Zealand. It would be even more wonderful to see them allocate more seats for concessions (or any, in the case of Prof. Cox and, I’m sad to say, Sir David) and offer family friendly prices. In the meantime, we should be getting the word out to encourage as wide and diverse a range of Kiwis as possible to make the most of all the amazing free science events that are already here.

This post was originally published on the NZ science site Sciblogs. It is republished with permission.


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