By Fiona Fox
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.
On Monday evening I learned that my friend Professor Sir Colin Blakemore had died. I knew it was coming after getting the devastating news of his diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease last summer, but still feel inordinately sad, and was relieved the next morning to see that my first meeting was with a group of science press officers who had worked closely with Colin. We abandoned our agenda as we shared stories about him – many very funny, all brimming with our affection for him. But more than anything, our reminiscing focussed on examples of his bravery and courage.
He was mostly known for his bravery on animal research. When I set up the Science Media Centre in 2002, Colin was one of only a handful of scientists who was willing to speak out in the media despite a campaign of intimidation levelled at him and his young family by animal rights extremists. Colin was very isolated at a time when most universities and research institutes actively discouraged openness on animal research, some even removing references from animal models.
Colin’s courage on this issue was ultimately infectious. Professor John Stein, a fellow academic at Oxford who had always kept his head down on the issue, told The Sunday Times in 2006 how he and his wife had decided he could no longer stay silent and watch his friend and colleague be singled out by “these terrorists”. Colin became the de facto leader of a campaign for openness on this issue, and I was so pleased some years later when Understanding Animal Research (UAR) invited me to present him with the very first award for openness on animal research.
So comfortable with the media, Colin was a nightmare for his press officers. One admitted confiscating his mobile phone for two days to stop him talking directly to journalists. Not long after his appointment as CEO of the Medical Research Council (MRC), I woke up to hear Colin on the Today programme threatening to resign his new post. A newspaper had found a letter revealing that he had been passed over for an honour because of his support for vivisection. Now, he was live on Radio 4 saying that unless a member of government came out to back him and express the government’s support for the use of animals in medical research, he would resign. A few hours later, a government spokesperson issued a statement declaring government support for animal research and did a round of back-to-back media interviews publicising it. I called Carolan Davidge, the MRC’s head of media, to congratulate her on her genius media strategy. There was a silence on the line before she said, “Fiona we knew nothing about it until we heard him on the radio”. Less a brilliantly choreographed PR strategy, more a bold, possibly reckless, instant response from Colin.
Nor was Colin’s bravery reserved for the issue of animal research. Simon Wilde, one of Colin’s former press officers, remembers Colin’s refusal to back down and let the MRC get sidelined in the big upheaval that the Cooksey review made to the UK’s medical research landscape. Without his harrying and lobbying, the MRC could have been subsumed into NIHR, or had its status massively downgraded. Instead, the council ended up getting considerable extra funding.
Colin once told me that around about this time, a civil servant friend called him to report that a minister was seen furiously stamping up and down the corridor outside her office, demanding that Colin be sacked as head of the MRC after a media interview in which he criticised government. She told Colin everyone was silent as they listened to a nervous senior civil servant explaining that the MRC was not a government organisation and as such, the minister technically could not sack him. It sounded like a scene straight out of Yes Minister. The contrast between Colin’s outspoken defence of medical research and the emasculation of the Research Councils today as a result of their proximity to government is striking, and something that saddened Colin.
Colin’s courage was based on principles and integrity not fashion, and if he felt an area of science was being unfairly attacked, he would wade in, however unpopular that made him. One of these issues was the row over research into ME/CFS which has seen a small group of outspoken activists campaigning to discredit a body of good-quality MRC-funded evidence. Colin proactively wrote pieces defending the integrity of the research in news outlets and, unlike many who chose to stay silent, has spoken out since. Most recently, he spoke to a Reuters journalist investigating a claim that a journal had capitulated to pressure to withdraw a study, warning that patients would be the losers: “That could mean that patients with this very serious condition are denied access to treatments that might help them, and which evidence suggests can help some of them.”
Colin was one of those rare scientists whose love of science was matched by his love of the media. He was president of the Association of British Science Writers and stood apart from some of his contemporaries who often displayed a pompous disdain for mainstream news science coverage. In contrast, Colin was friends with many science journalists and always the life and soul of the SMC’s annual science and media parties. Much loved by John Humphrys and the rest of the Today team, he once had a bet with me about what date he would make his 70th appearance on the programme.
So many of the tributes to Colin have focused on his bravery, and I sense that we find Colin’s death harder to take because so few of us feel able to emulate his courage. When I heard about his diagnosis, I was in the finishing stages of writing my book on science in the media. I instantly knew who I would dedicate it to. That dedication reads:
“For Prof Sir Colin Blakemore, who personified everything I have come to hold dear in scientists: the excellence in his research; the firm belief that engagement with the media is central to being a great scientist; and the courage and bravery to defend science under attack, way before there was the strength in numbers to give him cover and support. The SMC is imbued with Colin’s values, and I am proud that we are one of his many legacies.”
I will leave you with one of the many lovely notes I received yesterday, this one from another former head of media at the MRC, John Davidson.
I’m so saddened to hear the news about Colin. I don’t really know where to start with how important a person he was to me. Here are some thoughts…
My own father was absolutely thrilled when I went to work for Colin in 2005. My dad had been a vet and moved to medical science (looking at the prospects of biotech companies). He was delighted I was working for Colin. And when my dad died early in 2006, Colin became a bit of a father figure to me. He was always kind, open, and actively enjoyed being with other people. When I first met him – in a job interview for the Chief Press Officer position at the MRC in the summer of 2005 at the offices at Park Crescent – I was really nervous in advance; just knowing that this titanic media performer and towering scientist and anti-terrorist was going to grill me. But he put me at ease immediately – with his open smile, warmth, and his genuine interest in what I was going to say. That was the thing, he really listened to people. Really wanted to engage. I liked him from the moment I saw him.
Don’t get me wrong – working closely with him, he was hilariously distractable and last-minute. He once called from a train, having got so involved in writing his remarks (at the last minute) that he missed his stop and went chuntering off down the line, powerless to escape his tardiness. But the thing is… he wouldn’t have thought to ask someone else to write his remarks (as any other CEO would do). He wanted to give his own words.
Sometimes, that last-minute focus got the better of him – but not often. His unpredictability was of course part of his greatness. My predecessor – Carolan – had once confiscated Colin’s phone to stop him talking to journalists unbriefed. I felt it more realistic to trust his instincts – which were strategically spot on, if tactically uncomfortable at times and downright annoying at others. “Oh, what’s he said now?” was the cry in the press office on a regular basis. But we always knew it would be okay because his instincts were so good.
He understood that public funding of science was far from guaranteed – that we needed to campaign for it. At a time when people wanted him to be quiet, or to tow a government line, or keep the airwaves clear for a different government agenda – instead, we needed to shout about science. Relentlessly. To find the stories and to publicise them. We think now that science investment is a no-brainer. Well, it wasn’t always like that. It was Colin’s almost single-handed approach to shouting about medical research that made it so difficult for science to be ignored. Then, of course – because he was strategically brilliant – the civil servants realised he was right, and then the politicians did too.
He understood that science had to move on too. He believed that research was a collaborative exercise; that scientists needed to work alongside other academics and be near hospitals where medical research would be realised. This was most difficult for him in his commitment to moving the flagship MRC institute – the National Institute for Medical Research – into London. This was deeply unpopular among many of the scientists based at Mill Hill. But it was the right move. It was this that eventually became the Francis Crick Institute.
I once drafted a piece for The Lancet for him on the economic benefits of medical research. I pulled something together that would be fine in a broadsheet newspaper, but not an international journal. He completely rewrote it, leaving perhaps a comma or two in place. He of course turned it into something brilliant… a cogent, full-throttle argument for the power of research. It was a great piece once he’d finished with it. And it was entirely his. But he absolutely insisted that I be put on the paper as a co-author. That was an acknowledgment and generosity that press officers do not expect. We like to be behind the scenes. But Colin had other ideas. It was generous and entirely unnecessary.
He loved working with the people around him. He loved joining us at the pub to argue and laugh and muck about and almost always end up dancing. And though he was one of us in many ways, we also were all keenly aware of how extraordinary he was; that he was one of a kind; and that he was fiercely, fiercely clever, in addition to all his other extraordinary qualities.
One of the last times I saw him was outside a shop at the top of Tottenham Court Road when we bumped into each other by chance. “How’s the dream team?” he asked – referring to the quite wonderfully talented group who had worked for him in comms at the MRC. They were of course all flourishing, and he was delighted. We all carry him with us every day, and I am so completely proud to have known him. Thank you, Colin.