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why I accepted an OBE

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.

8 Responses to why I accepted an OBE

  1. Chris Shepherd says:
    Congratulations, and good on you. I am not a royalist but I think that, in cases like yours, the honours system provides recognition for a 'job' well done. I despair of the honours dished out to time serving politicians but that is a different issue.

    Congratulations, and good on you. I am not a royalist but I think that, in cases like yours, the honours system provides recognition for a ‘job’ well done. I despair of the honours dished out to time serving politicians but that is a different issue.

  2. Liz Malone says:
    Congratulations Fiona, I'm so pleased for you. The Fiona Fox I know will wield and mobilise this OBE in the interests of a public and rational discussion on Science.

    Congratulations Fiona, I’m so pleased for you. The Fiona Fox I know will wield and mobilise this OBE in the interests of a public and rational discussion on Science.

  3. Excellent news Fiona and delighted that you received it for your services to science. You have made such an impact and its great you have been recognised. Keep speaking out for all those in science!

    Excellent news Fiona and delighted that you received it for your services to science. You have made such an impact and its great you have been recognised. Keep speaking out for all those in science!

  4. Sue Avery says:
    Congratulations - there are times when pragmatism does and should win out over ideology. It's great that your work has been recognised, and since this is the way this country does things, it seems only reasonable to let the world know that it has been recognised - British science owes …

    Congratulations – there are times when pragmatism does and should win out over ideology. It’s great that your work has been recognised, and since this is the way this country does things, it seems only reasonable to let the world know that it has been recognised – British science owes you a debt – please keep up the good work!!!

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  5. Yes indeed. Congratulations on recognition for sterling work over the years. I hope you will continue for many more - the world of science and those of us who believe in progress need you!

    Yes indeed. Congratulations on recognition for sterling work over the years. I hope you will continue for many more – the world of science and those of us who believe in progress need you!

  6. Barbe Drillsma says:
    Hi Fiona, Congratulations and well done! See you in Helsinki? Cheers, Barbie

    Hi Fiona, Congratulations and well done! See you in Helsinki? Cheers, Barbie

  7. Maurice Moloney says:
    Congratulations, Fiona. Although it is cloaked in regal garments, this is really a vote of thanks from those who really understand the impact you have made...scientists in the trenches, often brilliant, frequently misinterpreted, were it not for your efforts. Way to go! Maurice

    Congratulations, Fiona. Although it is cloaked in regal garments, this is really a vote of thanks from those who really understand the impact you have made…scientists in the trenches, often brilliant, frequently misinterpreted, were it not for your efforts.
    Way to go! Maurice

  8. Toby Andrew says:
    Sorry Fiona, but i am firmly with your husband on this one! Also, scientists are no revolutionaries & are unlikely to make a case for progress for you - we need to do that ourselves.

    Sorry Fiona, but i am firmly with your husband on this one! Also, scientists are no revolutionaries & are unlikely to make a case for progress for you – we need to do that ourselves.

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