The Best Science Programming on PBS

If the administration’s proposed budget becomes a reality, local public broadcasts will be hit the hardest by a complete gutting of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. What shows does PBS produce, and why are they important?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #231

The U.S. presidential administration recently released a proposed budget of $1.5 trillion for 2018 which includes cutting the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities all by 100%.  The requested budget from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in part funds the Public Broadcasting Service or PBS, is $446 million or <0.03 % of the White House’s total proposed budget.

If the administration’s proposed budget becomes a reality, local public broadcasts will be hit the hardest by a complete gutting of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. However, national programming, including that from PBS, will be forced to rely more heavily on other funding. Since ~90% of the requested budget would have gone directly to public television or radio station and associated programming grants, let’s take a look at some of the best (free!) science shows that PBS has to offer.

Cosmos and Bill Nye the Science Guy

The top 2 ranked PBS shows of all time, regardless of topic, are both science shows, namely Bill Nye the Science Guy and the original Cosmos series.

Bill Nye the Science Guy, which ran from 1993 to 1998, focused on the exploration of the science of the everyday by Bill Nye’s television scientist persona and was popular among children and adults alike. The ~100 episodes of the show featured at-home experiments for viewers, more in depth demonstrations done by experts, and, of course, celebrity guest stars. The show emphasized the use of hands-on experiments, fun visuals, and humor to explore science in an entertaining way. Although the show is no longer running, you can see many full clips on his YouTube channel.

The original Cosmos series, called Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, was a 1980s television series written in part by Astronomer Carl Sagan and the Emmy and Peabody award winning writer Ann Druyan (who also happened to be Carl Sagan’s wife). The series was based on Sagan’s book Cosmos and is thought to have inspired a whole generation of scientists with its stunning visuals and unique perspective on humanity’s place in the universe. The series eloquently and clearly articulated the importance of studying the cosmos, as exemplified by Sagan’s famous quote “We are all star stuff.”

Cosmos is the most widely watched PBS program and has aired in 60 countries to more than half a billion people. Although the series is now more than 30 years old, you can still find episodes on streaming sites like hulu and YouTube, as well as for sale on Amazon.  The series was also recently updated in 2014 by Astronomer Neil de Grasse Tyson who hosted a follow-up series called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey which includes episodes called ‘The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth’ and ‘A Sky Full of Ghosts’. Although the series won 4 Emmys and a Peabody Award in the Education category, there has been no confirmation on a second season.


The currently airing Nova has one main goal: making science exciting for an adult audience. Nova is the longest-running U.S. science television series and has been shown in over 100 countries. Topics range from the body, the brain, and evolution, to military espionage and ancient worlds. Episodes are freely available on YouTube, as well as Nova’s website, including recent looks at what makes scientific experimentation true and reliable, as well as why trains crash and the secret lives of ants. You can also follow Nova on Twitter @novapbs.


If the administration’s proposed budget becomes a reality, local public broadcasts will be hit the hardest by a complete gutting of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 

The also currently airing Nature series on PBS explores the environment and the animals with whom we share our planet. Full episodes can be found on their website, including a five part series that disguised animatronic cameras as animals to spy on previously unseen animal behavior in the wild. There are also recent episodes dedicated to Yosemite, rare giraffes, and the wildlife of the Congo.  

PBS Kids

PBS also has a lot to offer as far as scientifically educational programming written specifically for kids. Ready Jet Go! follows an alien named Jet Propulsion and his family as they explore human customs here on Earth. Episodes include interstitial segments from Astronomer Amy Mainzer, who was the Deputy Project Scientist for NASA’s WISE mission , as well as the Principal Investigator for its followup NEOWISE mission. In other words, we have mostly Amy to thank for our running tally of known near Earth asteroids.

Other STEM-focused PBS kids shows include Dinosaur Train and the previously airing Sid the Science Kid. My preschooler also can’t get enough of Peg + Cat, a show about a young girl and her cat who solve problems with math.  In addition to television programming, pbskids.org also has a variety of games that kids can play online to learn about dinosaurs, counting, patterns, and how to become an inventor.

The proposed budget cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting not only put programs like these at risk, but also likely prevent the development of future programs that teach viewers—from adults to kids—about science in a fun, engaging way.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com

Image courtesy of shutterstock

Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.