SPIKE – shortlisted for the George Orwell Prize!

I was thrilled to learn today that Spike has been shortlisted for the 2022 George Orwell Prize for Political Writing, one of the most prestigious accolades for non-fiction. It’s fantastic to see the book making waves in political circles – the pandemic was not only a scientific challenge but a political one too. And we’re still waiting for the inquiry. Jeremy and I are doing a range of festivals and events this summer, which I’ll post up on this blog soon. You should be able to find them on my twitter account too (@anjahuja).

Thanks to all the editors, reviewers and readers who have supported the book – Jeremy and I knew it was an important book to write but it’s been so gratifying to see how well it has been received in the wider world.

The winner will be announced on 14 July. Fingers crossed.

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!