Spike: The Virus vs The People, The Inside Story, by Jeremy Farrar with Anjana Ahuja

I’ve been off the FT pages recently to complete a book with Sir Jeremy Farrar, and it’s hit the printers!

Spike will be published by Profile Books on 22 July 2021. You can pre-order here: Spike – Profile Book

The book, which draws on private blogs and emails, sheds new light on what was going on behind the scenes as the new virus emerged and the pandemic gathered pace. It includes interviews with major figures in the science of the pandemic both in the UK and around the globe, including: Eddie Holmes, the evolutionary biologist involved in releasing the coronavirus genome sequence; Kristian Andersen, the scientist who led an early assessment of whether the virus might have originated in a lab; John Edmunds and Neil Ferguson, two of the UK’s leading epidemiological modellers; and Stephane Bancel, the CEO of vaccine company Moderna.

Spike also includes an interview with Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser until November 2020 who has since become an ardent critic of the UK Government’s early pandemic response.

We also ask: what happens next?

Award nominations in 2018

I was delighted to be nominated in the 2018 Comment Awards, in the Science & Data category. The ceremony was on Friday 16 November. Alas, I lost out to the extremely deserving Tim Harford of the FT and Oliver Moody of The Times. The fourth person on the shortlist was George Monbiot of the Guardian. I think this is the fifth time I’ve been nominated (I can’t complain too much – I won it in 2013, and the UK is blessed with a roster of fantastic science writers. It’s an honour to even be mentioned).

I’m also nominated for the 2018 Guild of Health Writers awards. The awards evening is on Wednesday 21 November. Let’s see…!

Shortlisted for Comment Awards

I am pleased to have been shortlisted for Best Science Commentator in the 2017 Comment Awards, organised by Editorial Intelligence. My shortlisted compatriots are two writers I particularly admire: Clive Cookson, FT Science Editor, and Philip Ball, Prospect. Just my luck to be up against those two! The awards take place in late November. The full shortlist is here.

Judging the Baillie Gifford

It’s a great pleasure to be judging the BG prize for non-fiction this year, along with television supremo Peter Bazalgette, broadcaster Razia Iqbal, literary academic Sarah Churchwell and tenor Ian Bostridge. The shortlist for the £30,000 prize is announced this week – and I have plenty of reading to get my teeth stuck into (again).

I didn’t win…but Natasha did

Disgracefully, I didn’t update my blog on the 2016 Comment Award. I am delighted to say that Natasha Loder from the Economist won. I don’t mind missing out to the Economist, which has consistently excellent science coverage. And I don’t mind missing out to Natasha either (well, not much), as she is a fantastic, dedicated writer who really knows her stuff. I fully expect Oliver Moody, the other shortlisted writer, at The Times, to pick up an award in due course.

I’m also pleased that Natasha is a judge for the 2017 John Maddox prize, given annually to a scientist who champions their cause in the face of adversity. I am a trustee of Sense about Science, which co-sponsors the award.

Please nominate here.

A nice bit of news

I was delighted to find out last week that I have been shortlisted for the 2016 Comment Awards, in the category Science Commentator of the Year. My formidable companions on the shortlist are Natasha Loder, from the Economist, and Oliver Moody, from The Times. There is no shortage of talented science writers in the UK, at such publications as the Guardian, New Scientist and Prospect, so I am especially pleased to have made the cut.

Schools versus parents: an important case being heard today

A child cannot be in two places at once. Jon Platt decided that his daughter was better off attending a large family holiday to Florida than being in school for seven days, and will be in court today to hear a court rule on whether he was within his rights to flout the regulations. He had been prosecuted for refusing to pay a £120 fine; had successfully appealed; and is now back in court because his local authority has appealed in turn.

As a parent and former school governor, I am pleased that this case is being heard. Clarification is desperately needed as to what constitutes reasonable school attendance, and whether parents should be criminalised for exercising autonomy over their child. Do parents still have the right to 10 days’ unauthorised absence before the “exceptional circumstances” clause kicks in, as has been established in Wales? Many councils are fining as a first measure – these penalties are hugely unpopular, divisive and, I think, unreasonable. They also damage the harmonious relationship between parents and schools.

There are several factors to consider. The Department of Education defines “persistent absenteeism” as a child being absent for 15 per cent of school time. Mr Platt’s daughter has an attendance rate of over 90 per cent. He thus successfully argued that he had ensured regular attendance. It is hard to see how this decision can realistically be overturned, without giving local authorities almost dictatorial powers over families.

On Radio 4 this morning, one headteacher argued that children needed to be “in school and safe”. This is a fair comment if the child is a rebellious teenager with a tendency to roam the streets. But for a primary school child? This was a mistake – to suggest that children are unsafe outside school, when most, in fact, are in their care of parents or guardians, seems needlessly provocative. It cannot be that actually being in a school, per se, that is the issue – after all, the government allows parents to home-school children, with fairly light supervision.

I hope that other factors will be discussed. Fee-paying schools tend to have longer holidays than state schools, so it logically cannot be true that it is only the number of days’ schooling that is critical for children’s education. It is the quality of schooling, and perhaps the length of the day, that matters. It is also the child; some pupils will struggle to catch up after missing a few days, while others will quickly get up to speed. As for setting a precedent or opening the floodgates: shouldn’t every request for termtime leave be considered on its own merits, rather than in the light of what it may encourage others to do?

In addition, schools are often shut on polling days – if every single day of education is important, why can’t local authorities find alternative venues for local elections? Schools offer fun trips (as they should) to places such as Legoland, and for younger pupils it is common for schools to make the last few days of term a bit more relaxing, eg allowing them to watch films. It seems wrong to censure parents who choose, for example, to miss the last day (or half-day) of term in order to save a great deal of money on a family holiday. I don’t think they should be censured or penalised – or prosecuted.

Instead, headteachers should have the discretion to take the child’s circumstances (attendance, punctuality, school attainment, behaviour) into account when authorising leave. Prosecution should be a last resort targeted at parents who wilfully allow their kids to skip school on a regular basis.

Remember, parents enjoy the right to leave their children unvaccinated. I think this is a far more serious issue than a parent taking their child out of school for a few days. If the state wants to prosecute parents, it should demonstrate the harms that accrue from missing school. If my child is doing well, scoring highly on tests, and otherwise contributing fully to school life, then I expect a degree of flexibility and discretion if a family event or holiday clashes with school time.

It will also be interesting to see whether academies and free schools, which have the power to set their own term dates, respond to this issue. Some have already mooted abolishing the six-week summer holiday in order to make holidays more affordable. Most, though, stick with local council dates to accommodate families with children in multiple schools.

Incidentally, I have long regarded my holidays abroad, including one to Walt Disney World in Florida when I was about 10, as formative highlights of my childhood.


Update: Jon Platt won his case, successfully arguing that he has ensured his daughter’s regular attendance. The courts did not define what constituted ‘regular’. It potentially opens the floodgates for other fined parents to be reimbursed. The Government has announced it will seek to change the law.

The resignation of Sir Tim Hunt

Today I wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph on why Sir Tim Hunt’s widely reported remarks about “girls in the lab” were a bit of a car crash. I was invited on to BBC London this morning to chat with Vanessa Feltz about it (I happen to think she is a great broadcaster). When she asked me whether I thought it was right that Sir Tim had resigned, I said yes. The reason is simple: if I were a female scientist working in his lab, I would be concerned about my chances of career progression. There may have been a different, gentler way – perhaps Sir Tim apologising, taking a break from his senior position while undergoing a diversity training course – but I don’t know whether that option was available to him.

Vanessa took a tough line when quizzing me; I expected nothing less. The conversation on BBC London that followed, with listeners phoning in, made me feel uncomfortable. The following issues were raised: Twitter lynch mobs; public humiliation; political correctness gone mad; feminism gone mad; the threat to free speech; a great man of a certain age who, thanks to all the above, is now lost to science.

While I feel extremely sorry for Sir Tim, and I was not among those asking for his resignation, I think he has done the honourable thing. For the record, I don’t like Twitter lynch mobs and try to avoid them. I don’t think a Twitter lynch mob should ever be a reason for someone to resign – but the fact that Sir Tim could get up in front of science journalists – plus many senior women scientists – and say what he said in such an important public forum, shows poor judgment. I didn’t really care about what he said about women crying – but his suggestion that men and women work in different labs invited challenge.

Single-sex labs? Really? Men and women distract each other all over the place. I don’t think this is a reason to segregate them in adult life. Would we tolerate men-only and women-only offices, workplaces and corporate environments? I hope not. Which lab would gay scientists work in? And – I speak from personal experience – how would we end up meeting our soulmates?

People point out that Sir Tim is 72. I have some sympathy with this – but not if he is in a position to influence the careers of young scientists in the institutions where he works. I think it would be grossly unfair for your career to depend on the age of your supervisor.

Is this all political correctness gone mad? I agree that, sometimes, being offended feels as though it has become a national sport. But on this occasion, Sir Tim’s remarks – while having the virtue of being honest – had the great disadvantage of being sexist. Even to begin a sentence with “The trouble with girls is… ” speaks volumes. Sir Tim sounds as though he might have a particular issue with being around women in the lab – and yet it doesn’t occur to him that this might be a problem that HE needs to address personally, rather than his dangerously bewitching women colleagues.

Now to one of the central points in my Telegraph column – you shouldn’t enjoy special dispensation to be sexist (or any other kind of ‘-ist’) just because you have achieved eminence in a particular field. Sir Tim is a brilliant scientist – and nothing should detract from that – but, again, if you are responsible for younger scientists, you are in a position of influence and authority. The world changes – and no matter how senior or eminent you are – you need to move with it, if you are to operate fairly in that new world. That means being sensitive to contemporary issues, such as gender and race equality.

‘Being sensitive to issues’ does not mean people have to shut up about them. I strongly support free speech, including by political parties such as the BNP.  It’s about being sensitive to the signals you send out (which is why, in the same column, I conclude that Dr Matt Taylor’s naked-lady shirt was ill-judged – hey, Matt, wear it to a party, not on primetime telly where loads of boys and girls are going to look up to you as a role model. Just a comment – again, not calling on you to step down – just think a bit more about the signals you are sending out).

I happen to think this is not a free speech issue – one of Britain’s top scientists gave a public speech that, largely, complained that the presence of women in labs is detrimental to science. It’s not true, it’s not funny and it isn’t harmless. That needed to be pointed out. Sir Tim said what he thought – and then others said what they thought of his comments. That’s free speech.

Maybe, as a non-white woman, I’ve had  long time to think about these things. And maybe universities could take this opportunity to do something positive, like offering their academics suitable training on diversity issues.

Writing comment pieces

This post is primarily for City University journalism students, but if you are interested in writing comment articles then please read on….

In our two previous workshops, we covered news writing and feature writing. Our last workshop, on Thursday 6 November, will be on comment writing. This seems like a natural order to me, not least because it reflects my own career doing first news, then features, and now, primarily, comment. It is an intuitive evolutionary path for journalists because:

news is about telling a story, features is about telling a story with style, and comment is about telling a story with both style and attitude.

All good journalism should make readers stop and think – but comment and opinion pieces really should have balls. Sitting on the fence is – and should be – an uncomfortable position to be in.

Here is an utterly brilliant opinion piece by my former Times colleague Matthew d’Ancona. It epitomises the art of comment writing: a strong, surprising premise, elegantly constructed, tightly and bravely argued, full of facts. It’s not science but it’s the structure and tone that I want you to take notice of.

In some ways, comment writing is the most difficult style of journalism to learn (and teach), because it relies on experience. Generally, writers first develop a specialism, such as science or politics or the arts, and acquire a reputation for expertise and knowledge in that area. Only from a position of knowledge, can one reasonably offer an opinion or comment that might influence public opinion and debate. But it is no easy task to graduate from news to comment: it takes practice, practice, practice. Good comment writers are valued by newspapers and magazines because they guide readers in how to think about the big issues of the day.

As science journalism students, you come with a ready-made specialism (although, please, I want you to think of yourselves as journalists) and so, on starting work, you might be asked to write a comment piece on a specific science issue (although, hopefully, your editor won’t tell you what your opinion should be). The essential questions to ask yourself are these:

Do I have something interesting and novel to say about it, that goes beyond the obvious? Am I bursting to articulate it?

If you answer yes to these, then you have the seed of a decent opinion piece.

More terrifyingly – this happens to me around twice a week, and now excites more than terrifies – an editor may ask one or more of the following open-ended questions:

“What’s going on in the world of science? What should our readers be caring about? What do you fancy writing about this week? We’ve got three pieces on quantitative easing/UKIP this week – can you deliver something that stops our readers getting depressed?”

I find this exciting because I am in the enormously privileged position of being able to shape how readers think about things. Plus, I’m buzzing with ideas: I’ve always got two or three science issues that I’m quietly turning over in my head. Whatever kind of journalism you are doing, you always need to have ideas, and for that, you need to do lots of reading/surfing. Here are some topics I’ve been mulling this week:

  • what is the future for space tourism, after the Virgin Galactic setback
  •  the 16-year-old boy who has admitted killing a teacher and, chillingly, shown no empathy or remorse (I’m interested in psychopathy)
  • the new IPCC climate change report
  • a new website that challenges the public to Ask For Evidence when confronted with dodgy claims (eg homeopathy can cure Ebola).

The challenge is to turn one of those subjects into a piece of compelling, opinionated writing. And, for that, you need an opinion (obvs, as my daughter would say). But what makes for an interesting opinion? I think it should be:

  • sincerely held
  • a bit left-field or arresting (Virgin Galactic would have to pay me to go into space, not the other way around)
  • and involve a fair bit of devil’s advocacy.

What do I mean by that last point? I mean that you should be able to anticipate a opponent’s arguments against you, and ideally have answers for them. By tackling counter-arguments in advance, you increase the persuasive power of your own stance (Would you pay $250k to strap yourself to a giant firework? Because that’s what you’re getting when you sign up for space tourism).

Since comment pieces usually build upon recent news stories, you need to summarise the story (you don’t want to lose a reader who hasn’t actually read the initial story) and then move it on a notch. One way of moving things on is to predict where a debate might go.

For example, the schoolboy who has admitted murdering a teacher has been sentenced to life but could be released aged 36. If I was commenting on this, I could go on and on about how awful and tragic the whole case is – which, while true, wouldn’t be that interesting or informative. Much more fascinating is that there is little evidence that violent criminals incapable of remorse or empathy can be truly rehabilitated. What, if anything, does this case say about the difficulty of reconciling justice with science? If science says psychopaths can’t be reformed, should we throw away the key?

Comment pieces also need a narrative. They need an arresting beginning, a substantial middle and a punchy end. Structure and flow are important. As a rough guide, try to make a new point every paragraph, ideally one that follows naturally from the preceding paragraph. Throw in some human interest – it can be personal or someone else’s story, but it must be relevant. If, at any point, you start losing sight of what you are arguing for, retread your work with a ruthless eye and junk the bits that slow things down/don’t add anything/are tangential to your argument. You are building an intellectual edifice: once you get a few solid bricks down, the walls will follow.

Here’s one that I’ve written (one of three pieces that won me a prize, no less) – I think it fits all the criteria above.

I also like this one, because I have a personal interest in the subject and it made me think.

And your last couple of sentences should be your crowning glory, the persuasive punch line that finally convinces the reader that you are quite the cleverest writer in town.


Exercise: Please bring in a comment/opinion piece on any subject that has made you think differently about something. It can be from any magazine or newspaper, but ideally should be more than about 700 words long (ie long enough to contain a proper argument). I look forward to seeing you on Thursday!


Tips on writing features

This post is primarily for City University journalism students but if you are interesting in writing features, do read on…

In our last workshop, we covered news writing. This is the bread-and-butter of any working journalist’s trade: the ability to convey news in a pithy, compelling and appropriate style. News writing is journalism at its most functional.

What is a feature?

The imperative in feature writing is a little different. I like to think of it as an extended conversation with the reader. For this reason, newspapers often regard feature writers, along with columnists, as a corps that is integral to their identity. Writing fantastic feature stories can really help you to stand out from the crowd.

In newspapers, features tend to come after the other staples such as home news, foreign news, leaders (the small non-bylined articles that express that newspaper’s stance on the big issues of the day) and opinion-editorial (called op-ed, or comment). This position in the middle of the paper, or in a separate supplement, reflects the fact that features are aimed at readers who have the time and inclination to consume a longer article.

Where do you start?

Anyone who commits to reading your article should come away feeling rewarded, rather than short-changed. You need to think about: the choice of subject; the new approach or information that you are bringing to the party; and the tone. As I recommended in the last post: read, read, read! Find lots of features, read them and think really hard about why some were so much better than others.

Even though features are not news stories, there is usually some kind of news ‘peg’. It might be the publication of a book, or a court hearing, or a legal ruling, or the publication of an alarming trend. It might be an ongoing news story. Whichever topic you choose, are you sure that readers want to read 1,000 words or more on it? If not, then think of something else. If you’re not sure yourself, then ask your colleagues. If you and your friends can’t get enthused about a feature, then it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to interest anyone else.

Ok, you’ve got a topic….

Once you’ve got an interesting topic, you need to be able to say something new about it. You cannot regurgitate something that has already been in the news pages – well, you can, but you need to be an exceptional writer to get away with it. Look at the links above: they are all genuinely interesting and deserving of a long read. A top geneticist who has flown home in disgrace after a race row: a legal case determining whether a chimp is a ‘person’; the greed of genomics companies with monopolies on cancer tests; how scientists contain the most contagious viruses.

They are, at heart, all stories about people (except, maybe, for the chimp one – we’ll have to wait and see on that). The features re-state the news peg but also add context, colour and discussion. They add richness to the story by providing more detailed answers to the ‘who, what, how, why, when’. They also move the story forward by asking: what happens next?

Developing a narrative ‘flow’

Like any piece of writing, your feature needs to tell a story. It sounds like a cliché but pieces of extended writing really do need a beginning, a middle and an end. It doesn’t need to be in chronological order – you don’t want to end up reciting a long list of facts in date order.

The beginning – what writers call the ‘intro’ – is crucial. This is where you open the bargaining with a reader. Given him or her a reason to keep reading. Make your opening paragraph dramatic, urgent, important, absorbing – or quirky. Hook him or her in – the best features are the ones that make you miss your tube stop. Can you find a way of making readers think: ‘I have to know what happens next’ ?

It might help to make a note of the important things you want to get across – and then think about how you might link them. When I wrote a recent feature on painkillers, my starting point was a phone interview with Roger Knaggs. A lot of what he said was incredibly interesting and new to me.

Given that I had 5 hours to deliver 1,300 words, I also didn’t have time to talk to anyone else. I did the obvious and Googled the subject – and somewhere along the line I found a list of Victorian medicines. Among them was Mother’s Quietness – basically, opium for babies. I knew it had to be my intro.

Never submit your first draft…

…because it might be a fact dump. Read it critically. Have you successfully conveyed the impression that this is an urgent/important/untold/fascinating story? Have you checked facts and figures? Have you given the names and affiliations of people you’ve quoted? And, talking of quotes, do your quotes add anything to the story or merely re-state something you’ve already said in your own words? If you have the good fortune to talk to an important scientist, don’t just ask the academically important questions. Ask them a question that brings your feature alive: ‘When you revived the Ebola patient, what were her first words? How did it feel to save someone’s life?” Add colour, add life, add things that you don’t think people will know.

Now read your feature yet again. Does it…flow? Or is the move between successive paragraphs jarring and unnatural? Finding links between paragraphs isn’t easy – try moving a troublesome paragraph somewhere else and writing in a new link. If that doesn’t work, do you need that paragraph at all? In my painkiller feature, look at the first sentence of each paragraph: this seems to be a natural place to connect the themes in successive paragraphs.

Does your feature answer the questions a reader might have? When is the next court hearing? What’s likely to happen to that disgraced scientist? How many more people are likely to die in the current Ebola outbreak? Don’t leave the reader hungering for basic information. Add a small box if necessary: this is a good way to put in basic facts and figures without slowing down the narrative, and sometimes makes a page look nice.

Practise, practise, practise

Becoming a good feature writer takes practice and experience. Ask others to read your work, and ask them to appraise your work honestly. Definitely don’t expect to get it right first or second time, or even tenth time. Check the byline pictures in national newspapers: the feature writers are rarely the youngest chicks in the nest. It’s hard enough to produce decent news stories to deadline; it’s even trickier to write longer pieces with panache.

Good luck and see you on Thursday.

Please bring in a feature that you’ve enjoyed – and this time we’ll look at them!