Boffin – good or bad?

Driving at Friday lunchtime, I was listening to a radio programme that, in between playing music, has discussions on topical issues. Guests are invited to present two diametrically opposite views and then the audience contribute their comments. The variety of views described and their tone always fascinates me. It makes you wonder how any large group of people can ever reach a consensus. Generally, the subjects raised in the programme cover a couple of serious issues and a lighter topic. In my opinion, the latter is often deliberately composed to appear bipartisan.

On this particular Friday, the Institute of Physics’ (IOP) ‘Bin the Boffin’ campaign was discussed, with a representative from the IOP presenting the rationale behind the campaign to stop using the word ‘boffin’ and a broadcaster putting the case for its continued use. Details of the IOP campaign can be found at: It is a campaign to get the red top tabloid newspapers to stop using the word when referring to scientists or experts. 
The Daily Mirror has agreed to do so but, at the time of writing, others have not. The IOP presented the results of a survey they conducted, which showed that the term is viewed as referring to men more than women and a large proportion of young people aged between 18 and 24 considered the word an insult.

The comments read out on the show indicated that some, often older, people are happy to be referred to as a boffin, but some of them said it was used against them in a derogatory way at school, reinforcing the response of the young people above. The survey showed that the young are put off considering a career in science and physics by the use of the term. This is something that needs to be addressed if we are going to encourage people to take up science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, increase diversity and fill the skills gap.

There are various definitions of the word ‘boffin’. In a dictionary from 1989 it just states ‘scientist’. An internet search throws up more detail: a scientist engaged in research; a scientist or technician or engineer or other person engaged in research and development; a scientist who is considered to know a lot about science and not to be interested in other things(!); and a person who has extensive skill or knowledge in a particular field. There is a consensus that it is a British term and some sources describe it as slang.

In my mind, the word boffin is an old-fashioned term that conjures up an Einstein-like caricature: male, large forehead, unruly hair, white lab coat and possibly glasses. This may say a lot about me, but it comes from my experience of the word being used and illustrated in a negative way. So, I can understand the IOP’s motivation for their campaign but I think that maybe they have implemented the wrong tactic. I feel it may be better to redefine ‘boffin’ in people’s minds and make it something to aspire to by promoting contemporary boffins. The word ‘geek’ has been used in a similar vein to offin in the past, but recently I have noticed people proudly admitting that they are geeks and, with the preponderance of technology in everyday life, being geekish is now a benefit.

It is a challenge for us all to counter the negative boffin narrative in order to encourage people into science and engineering. It is not as if there are not enough diverse role models to promote. I have related a small number of examples in previous issues of NDT News: Hazel Hill in August 2020; Suzanne Simard and Temple Grandin in June 2022. The question is how is this best presented to people?
BINDT does a good job in the promotion of STEM activities and apprenticeships. Are you willing to help? Do you have ideas of what else to do?

One lesson to take on board from the ‘Bin the Boffin’ story is that language has a big impact on how we perceive the world. Last month, the final paragraph of this column included the sentence: ‘Likewise, relying on intuition can lead to blunders if it is based on subjective prejudices.’ I related my subjective prejudice regarding the word boffin, which I would argue came from a wider societal prejudice. Changing the latter is not easy but we should try.     

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Jacobs or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX, UK. Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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