I met my future husband at a protest outside BBC Broadcasting House in 1989, called to mark the first anniversary of the broadcast ban on Sinn Fein. He was a charismatic socialist republican from West Belfast and I was a young political activist. Defending the democratic rights of Sinn Fein (or ‘Sinn Fein/IRA’ as the UK media described them) was not exactly a popular cause in London at that time and this guy had good reason to feel he had met a kindred spirit. Fast forward some 20 years and he now openly despairs at my evolution from rebel to respectable and suffice it to say that news of getting an honour with the words British Empire in the title has not gone down well with him indoors.
Nor, despite my new found respectability, have I ever been a fan of the royals. Unlike David Colquhoun, I struggled to care much about the Royal Society recently letting Prince Andrew into the fold (as Paul Nurse said: “the clue is in the title”) but I have always found the scientific establishment’s love-in with the royals one of its less inspiring qualities. I was rather pleased when a friendly civil servant revealed that he had removed my name from an invitation list to a Buckingham Palace garden party, knowing that I would rather stick pins in my eyes.
So all things considered you would be forgiven for thinking that when a letter arrived offering me an OBE I would just tick the decline box and never mention it again.
But it seems I have found it within myself to accept, so here are my reasons:
Because the recognition comes not from the royals or the state but from science; it was scientists who wanted to recognise me and the award is for my services to science. That feels good for a girl who didn’t take a single science subject at O level but has fallen in love with the whole scientific enterprise. If I have substituted science for political idealism that is partly because some of what appeals to me about revolutionaries I now find in science, including grand ambitions for a better world and a positive vision of progress.
I also accepted it because I think this gong can only be interpreted as a vote in favour of scientists speaking out. I’m sure my critics will say I got it for cosying up to the scientific establishment, but that would miss the point about what the SMC represents. This Centre has pioneered the need for more scientists to engage with the really messy, contentious and politicised science stories. The words ‘safe’ or ‘easy option’ do not exist in the SMC’s vocabulary and in some ways the SMC has been a thorn in the side of those in government, industry and scientific institutions who continue to place obstacles to scientists speaking out.
I also like the fact that leading scientists nominated a science press officer for a gong. Not being someone who has ever paid much attention to the honours list I have no idea how many press officers get them, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s a small number. Scientists do the most amazing work but, as many plant scientists learned to their cost during the 1999 media frenzy on GM, scientists need to earn their license to practice from the public and cannot stay in their ivory towers ignoring the media. Science PR has had a bad rap recently so I like to think this OBE is a welcome piece of recognition for the role that press officers play.
I do however have a sour note. If I had refused this gong it would have been less to do with maintaining marital harmony and more to do with residual anger at the scandalous way that Professor Colin Blakemore was treated by this system a few years ago. Colin remains the only former head of a research council who has not been honoured, and secret minutes leaked to the media at the time proved that it was a direct result of his outspoken support for animal research. On hearing the news Colin took to the airwaves to threaten his immediate resignation from the MRC unless a leading representative of the government went public to confirm that they fully back the use of animals in research… They did and he stayed at the head of the MRC, but he is still not a Sir. That I have been given an OBE after ten years of running press briefings on animal research and fighting publicly for more openness on the subject suggest that the dark forces that blocked Blakemore may have moved on. Someone should now right this wrong.
It may be crass to say I share this honour with my colleagues but I will say emphatically that I would not have got a sniff of it were it not for the intelligent, talented, passionate and courageous young scientists that make up Team SMC. As a friend of my elderly mother told me OBE stands for Other Buggers Efforts…never a truer word!
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.