I recently got the devastating news that my friend and mentor Professor Sir Colin Blakemore has returned to Oxford from Hong Kong with some neurological symptoms that subsequently have received a diagnosis of ALS/MND. Colin and friends invited me and Tracey Brown of Sense about Science to speak on Colin’s science and society work at a Festschrift to celebrate his huge contribution to science on Friday 6th August. Unfortunately I was on annual leave but Tracey incorporated some of my thoughts into her talk, and Tracey and Colin agreed I could post it here on my blog.
– Fiona Fox
This is a guest post by Tracey Brown, Director of Sense About Science. It is taken from a speech she gave.
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.
Today’s speakers have celebrated Colin’s contribution to science. I’m emphasizing Colin’s role in the movement that grew around science and society issues this past twenty years – the terrain of public discussion, media reporting and policy use of science.
I am anxious to pull out what I feel might get lost in the general hurrah for science and society and science communication – and must not.
To review a 20-year collaboration with Colin Blakemore is to review the significant history of the science and society relationship, and its most challenging issues and progressive moments.
There is no way to fit even the most creative successes into a 15-minute talk, and certainly not one that should reference work with others and before that time.
My science and society journey with Colin has taken us through neuroscience quackery, the MMR controversy, and the portrayal of research on contested issues such as GMOs and stem cells. It has included drafting of the Principles of Independent Scientific Advice, a version of which was added to the Ministerial Code by David Cameron in 2010; and campaigns such as AllTrials – with hundreds of thousands of patients, doctors and researchers, which changed international rules on trial reporting – and the Ask for Evidence campaign where he joined the launch cast with illusionist Derren Brown and other popular figures. At my instigation we worked together as founding judges of the John Maddox prize. At his, as Commissioners on the UK Drug Policy Commission.
You will recognise a lot of Colin in the mission and modus operandi of Sense about Science:
We equip people to ask good questions; equip researchers to answer them in human; and mobilise both to advocate for transparent use of evidence and a healthy public space to discuss research.
He has been just as strong an influence in the activities of the Science Media Centre and an early illustration for them of ‘what good looks like’, and of course in Understanding Animal Research, the Association of British Science Writers, the BA and others.
Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre, who was really disappointed not to be able to get here today, has asked me to include some of her reflections and she makes a similar point:
“With life at the SMC getting a little calmer than in previous years, I took a sabbatical in the summer of 2019 to write a book about the big science media stories I have been involved with. Then the biggest story of all came along and the book was put on ice. But I remember clearly sitting in a cottage in Donegal wondering whether the publisher would object to too many references to one scientist. Whereas most scientists pop up in the relevant chapter to them, Colin appears in almost all of them.”
Actually many things stood out in the shifts in society’s relationship with science and Colin’s role in them would make talks all of their own, some with funny stories.
But I have picked three. And they’re rather earnest.
It was in 1989 that Colin won the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday award for his work to involve the public in science. Those were the days pre-BSE, when few imagined that the science and society relationship would become so troubled and complex, that the end of deference would find research and medicine ill equipped to know what to put in its place.
It was in 1992 – 1992! – back when people did speaking not dialogue – that he joined with Les Ward, an anti-vivisectionist, to form the Boyd group – for the open exchange of views and issues of concern, chaired by the medical ethicist Kenneth Boyd. Involvement in that was a damascene moment for some scientists. After three years of learning to talk to each other the biologist Patrick Bateson declared to the Royal Society “It can be done”.
In 2009, following a string of problems with political interference in the work of independent scientific advisory groups, the Home Secretary sacked David Nutt, chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and it was clear that the very principle of independent scientific advice advocated by the Phillips Inquiry into BSE, was severely damaged. That Sunday night, I was in a three-way email exchange with Colin and the MP Evan Harris, drafting the principles that should underpin use of independent advisors. Simultaneously, Evan and I were exchanging text messages remarking on how strong Colin’s support for this approach was and how articulate his edits were.
I then discovered that it was in a speech at the then British Association for the Advancement of Science, as it was then, in 1998 that Colin had already set out,
“The wider need for independent scientific advice, and the importance of embedding science at the heart of government” as number one on the list of challenges for the new millennium.
And anticipating another campaign two decades later, “Finally, in the spirit of openness that this government has espoused, the nature of advice and the way in which it is used should be made public, except in rare cases of risk to national security.”
But to return to Colin’s frank approach to animals in research, it was actually a considerably long time before other this adopted on other issues, and I think it continues to be threatened by patronising activity and a desire to cut the public out when the real decisions are being made.
The Boyd group showed what could be achieved acting in good faith and a genuine attempt to listen and figure out the underlying assumptions even in the most essentially polarised issues.
Colin was frustrated though that so many researchers shrugged the situation off as hopeless and retreated behind laboratory walls. This was something he quickly acted on as the new head of the Medical Research Council in 2003: His aim was to incentivise researchers to do it, to encourage them to take responsibility.
He also found good support with the advent of the SMC, where Fiona took on the challenge of helping and encouraging other researchers to join him, preventing their isolation and pressing for research institutions to come out. As she says, “I was new to science. I discovered that universities’ communications departments hid their animal research. Colin was already there. Fighting that lack of openness a decade before the rest of us.”
Which brings me to the second point.
In this Colin gave us, I would argue, the best example of breadth of responsibility balanced with humility about expertise.
Society wanted to talk about science, sometimes prompted by the hype or scare stories running in the press, or by the opposition of activists, campaign groups or politicians to frontier research, or because evidence was conflicting and stuff went wrong, and happened with human variant CJD, or just because the research world appeared to be breaking new barriers in its applications, such as the use of stem cells.
If it’s not your field don’t duck it – help people find the right questions and expertise. We all took much of our lead from his example in turning researchers toward equipping the public, journalists and politicians with sound information and good questions.
When I sought an audience with Colin on setting up sense about science.. he had this thing of sitting on his desk rather than behind it, in a way that made you feel that he was just as much seeking an audience with you… When I first went to see him, he pressed upon me that we should be willing to open up the harder issues, those furthest from the whizz bang wow of science communication. We should be unafraid of them and have higher expectations of what could be achieved.
It should be said that Colin was always rather good at the whizz bang wow of science too – he gave a lovely talk at Lund university quite recently on myths about our brains and it’s utterly captivating.
But the uniqueness of his contribution is felt more in my third point, which is;
He has always owned the disagreements, named the problems. He took up his post as chief executive of MRC on the heels of a highly critical Select Committee report, and began with a tour of 16 of the most critical universities.
“Faced with this roomful of disgruntled scientists, one might expect him cleverly to avoid the more uncomfortable moments in the MRC’s recent history, but he dwells on them.” wrote Anna Fazackerly in the Guardian at the time.
He doesn’t fear the disagreement, opens it up and explores it, and in this way shows greater confidence in his science than the shrill or arrogant could ever do. It stands in contrast to the deplatforming, ridiculing, ad hominem and attempts to control the public space that beset both researchers and the public now on so many subjects.
This is not to be confused with indulgence.
Colin has spoken clearly when people misrepresent research and evidence.
And equally clearly about its uncertainties.
He is plain about what he thinks is wrong.
As Fiona points out on the Tim Hunt affair: a case where “so many others in science told me privately that they knew Tim was the wrong poster boy for sexism in science but none-the-less they felt they had to ask for his resignation. Colin however resigned himself from his role as President of the Association of British Science Writers in protest at their failure to criticise the selective reporting of Tim’s comments in South Korea.”
True tolerance in public debate is that which recognises and acknowledges difference, sometimes deep and fundamental difference, and talks about it. With that, even heated and passionate disagreement can be respectful.
Colin has shown that when we do not believe the same things, we can still achieve something – shared improvements, elimination of misunderstanding, an agreement to deal in the facts even if our view of what to do about them is poles apart…
Colin Blakemore was a science and society innovator long before his time, he’ll be that long after this time. And Fiona and I and so many others can tell you, from the frontline of a very challenging time right now, that he’s given us so much of what we are drawing on to navigate the uncertainties and disagreements of the pandemic. We know that we will draw heavily on his example too in owning and exploring our disagreements to ensure that the science and society relationship comes out of this whole.
Could Colin have done all of this without the rest of us? I don’t know. But I do know that we couldn’t have done it without him.