Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Statement from Fiona Fox, Director, Science Media Centre

  I should start by saying that I feel most uncomfortable with the idea of anything I have done becoming evidence in a dispute between the MRC and NIMR. Robin Lovell-Badge and Colin Blakemore are shining examples of that rare gift to science media-relations—brilliant scientists who see the importance of engaging the media. As such they are both valued friends of the Science Media Centre and we take no position on the institutional issues involved in this dispute.

  So I submit this note reluctantly having been advised that it would be frowned on if I failed to do so.

  Here are the facts as I recollect them.

  There was a long-standing open invitation from our friend Robin Lovell Badge to visit him and colleagues in Mill Hill. in Summer 2002 Robin called with proposing a specific time and date. The invite came at a time where there had been some media coverage of the row about NIMR and of course it crossed my mind that this would be raised. However, my main interest was to strengthen good relations with Robin, meet more good scientists and find out more about the science going on at Mill Hill so I went along.

  The meeting was a long time ago and my memory of it is sketchy. However I do remember Robin leading me into a room with about 10-15 people who were introduced as his equivalents (ie Heads of Department). I gave a summary of the SMC and they presented the main areas of science conducted at Mill Hill. The discussion did turn to their dispute with the MRC about the possible closure of NIMR and they certainly did ask my advice about the media interest in this story and explained that they had been approached by several media outlets for interviews and comment. I gave bits and pieces of advice—which is of course what I do—but did say that the SMC was good friends with the MRC press office and I didn't feel I could in any way become an adviser on this issue—which after all was an institutional story not a science story. They were fine with that and no attempt was made to persuade me to play that role. I suggested that if they needed long term media advice but didn't feel they could use the MRC press office, they should recruit a press officer—a piece of advice I constantly give to any scientists trying to get their case across in the media. However, as far as I know they didn't pursue that option.

  The meeting lasted about an hour and I went back to the SMC. On the tube on the way back I decided that I should tell someone at the MRC about the meeting. Carolan Davidge, our main point of contact at that time—was on maternity leave so I called Jane Gizbert, Head of Communications. She thanked me for telling her and that was the last I heard or spoke about the meeting until Colin Blakemore asked me about it in December.

  To clarify one or two points:

    1.  I have been asked whether John Skehel was present. The honest answer is I haven't a clue. Aside from Robin I have not knowingly met any of the scientists in that room before or since the meeting and I had no reason to remember their names.

    2.  I feel I must explain the reference to the demonstrations outside the MRC. Robin Lovell-Badge definitely did not ask that question—he is more media savvy. But one of the scientists in the room did very tentatively ask whether I thought there would be any media interest in the entire staff of NIMR donning their white coats and protesting outside an MRC meeting. This was the most memorable bit of the meeting for me—(at that time relatively new to the strange world of science media relations)—and unfortunately I have obviously repeated it to someone—but only because it's such a beautiful example of the naivety of the scientific community about their own ability to generate media coverage. After seven years doing press work for a campaigning NGO which constantly had people dressed up outside World Bank meetings etc—it was quite touching to hear a scientist just starting to think in a similar way. I remember laughing loudly and assuring him that the sheer novelty of 500 scientists protesting about anything would guarantee media interest—but it was clear that there was no general enthusiasm for the idea!!!

January 2005

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