Bin the Boffin

Speaking personally, I hate the label ‘boffin’. Maybe once upon a time it was seen as a positive, but not any more. The Institute of Physics is running a ‘Ban the Boffin’ campaign, as part of their Limit Less campaign to open up Physics to a wider part of society. Their pamphlet says

“A 2022 IOP-commissioned survey of 1,000 11-17-year-olds and 1,514 adults (18+) shows that the term conjures up a deeply stereotypical image of what a scientist ‘should’ look like.

When asked to describe what a boffin looks like in three words, respondents painted a clear picture: glasses, geeky, nerdy, male, white coat, serious, bald and posh. More than ten times as many survey respondents thought that the term boffin described a man than a woman.”

This use of the word can therefore be seen as totally antithetical to any attempt to broaden the appeal of Physics. It isn’t surprising the IOP wants to ‘bin’ it.

The origin of the word isn’t entirely clear, with Wikipedia giving various, unproven historical possibilities, but also citing a reference from the Oxford English Dictionary dating back to a Times article in 1945 where apparently the term was applied to researchers at the Royal Signals Research Establishment (RSRE) at Malvern

“A band of scientific men who performed their wartime wonders at Malvern and apparently called themselves “the boffins”.”

Note the use of the word ‘men’, as presumably they all were, despite women beginning to weave their way into military research, but usually beneath the radar (excuse the pun).

Despite not being a man, I have my own unhappy memories of being deemed a boffin. This occurred when a press release trying to explain what colloids were went sadly wrong, with a tabloid headline of ‘Boffins get £3M to study lumpy custard’, when lumpy custard had merely been mentioned in the release as an example of small particles (ie colloidal particles) sticking together. It most certainly was not what the research was all about. I don’t suppose the journalist had bothered to check what sex the lead researcher was, more intent on what they no doubt thought was a good (if inaccurate as it turned out) story.

Me and the media did not get off to a good start on this and other fronts – but that was before I had had media training. I cannot tell if that is correlation or causation. My 2010 interview on Desert Island Discs shows I had progressed to some degree of confidence when handling the media because, when my interlocutor, Kirsty Young, threw the story of lumpy custard into the mix – not a story that I had mentioned in my pre-interview talk with the programme’s researcher – although my jaw metaphorically dropped, and I said something like ‘oh you got hold of that’, I didn’t immediately collapse in a small stuttering heap.

To me, as presumably both the IOP collectively and many of those they interviewed about the word, the use of the word boffin is done to make us ‘other’.  To make us somewhat odd in a way that science – familiar to all from school – and scientist do not convey so easily. And then, they can laugh at us at being so odd and different, and they don’t have to pay so much attention to what we say as scientists. There are other somewhat pejorative words out there, such as geek (possibly faded a bit from common phraseology) and nerd, neither of which I would prefer. Richard Jones wrote a fascinating piece on his blog on the origins of the word geek several years ago now, but it certainly stuck in my mind. He objected, apart from anything else, to the use of the word as a shorthand for a particular kind of identity politics. Boffin could presumably be used in the same way, but it certainly isn’t usually used in a way that is likely to attract the typical schoolchild to think that is what they aspire to be, and particularly for girls given its strong male overtones.

Creating an image of an adult scientist/engineer/designer (all likely to be covered by the word boffin in common parlance) that is unattractive is exactly the kind of stereotyping I object to so strongly, as I’ve spelled out in my book Not Just for the Boys: Why we need more women in science. It applies to labels such as boffin, nerd or geek; it applies to imagery of men in white coats with sticking up hair and holding a test tube about to explode; and it applies to the messaging of what are male and female subjects. If you read my book, you’ll see I worry about such gendering of disciplines for boys (typically put off studying languages or Psychology as subjects at school) as for girls being steered away from Physics or Computing.

Our society has work to do in treating scientists as normal, be they male or female, not some peculiar tribe. I’m right behind the IOP in wanting to Bin the Boffin.


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