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The Last Word
OBITUARY: Stephen White
Stephen White, who died suddenly on 23 August 2010 aged 61, was affable, witty, irreverent, sharp in both mind and dress, and wholly committed to the cause of science journalism. He made many far-reaching contributions to more effective science communications, despite, and perhaps because of, his lack of formal training in either science or journalism. Rightly critical of both scientists and journalists when they overlooked the key principles of clarity and simplicity, he reflected deeply on the ingredients of potent communication and became skilled in fostering them in others during his work as a trainer. Even Stephen's occasionally earthy language served in the cause.
Stephen was a genuine pioneer in the field of science communication. His comprehensive, highly professional arrangements for media liaison at the British Psychological Society ensured widespread coverage of its regular meetings and became a model of its kind.
Stephen was the driving force behind the formation of Stempra in 1993 and served as its first chairman. Jill Nelson, then COPUS manager at the Royal Society, remembers;
"COPUS was trying to support the very patchy media efforts of the scientific bodies - an issue that had been highlighted in the recently-published Bodmer report. We held one or two meetings with the PR people from all the different shapes and sizes of scientific society and they talked about their relative roles and the impediments they faced. Somehow out of this, we came to have lunch with Stephen to talk about taking this forward into something more than just a slightly forlorn group swapping horror stories. We talked about the need for training and professional support and the differing stages people were at. By the end of the meal Stephen's embryonic idea of some sort of formal group had been fleshed out a lot into Stempra, together with the idea of producing resources which materialised later as a series of Stempra/COPUS leaflets and media training courses. Stephen was the main driving force for the association and looked into all the technical issues of setting up such an organisation."
Stephen's own recollections of the start of Stempra were recorded in an email he sent to a group of founding members earlier this year.
"I wanted to use the strength of the PR and press people in the scientific societies to learn from each other and therefore enhance all that we did. So, I came up with the idea of an association for 'people like us'. The next step was that I drafted a letter saying let's have a meeting to see if we want to form an association and if I recall correctly we had about 50 or 60 people to an early evening meeting at the Royal Society. The extremely enthusiastic response was 'yes, let's go for it'. So, I did another letter and called another meeting to formally set up the group. Our main aim was 'people like us' because of our isolation, lack of value and because we didn't seem to fit anywhere else, no-one else was talking about the issue that affected us: how to get science out there".
Over the past 20 years, Stephen's talents have been harnessed in several long-running programmes of media and communication skills courses. There must be tens of thousands of young scientists, in the UK and abroad, whose abilities in writing and speaking for both peer-group and public audiences were honed through these courses, held by organisations ranging from the Wellcome Trust to the Royal Society and Cancer Research UK.
Many of his practical insights and much of his media savvy were embodied in his useful paperback Hitting the Headlines (BPS Books, 1993). Co-written with three journalists, this spelled out in meticulous detail how the media culture really works and what researchers need to do to operate effectively within it.
Stephen rarely reflected on past and possible alternative career paths – whether in the worlds of fashion design (in which he trained originally) or trade unionism (his first jobs were with the NUS and NALGO), in television (his father was a producer of the 1960s TV series The Avengers) or as a professional cricketer (Stephen had a successful trial for the Sussex senior county side at the age of 18, opting instead for a design course at Hornsey College). Professionally, he was happiest, apart from gossiping in the press room at what was then the BA Festival, when helping young postgrads and postdocs to explain their work, however complex, in accessible terms.
Among Stephen's private passions were cricket, a careful, cover-to-cover reading of The Times and a penchant for Italian cuisine (of which he was both practitioner and consumer). Those of us who shared with him a bottle or more of his beloved Pinot grigio will find it hard to forget his unbounded energy, wry humour and mental incisiveness.
Based on an obituary written by Bernard Dixon and Peter Evans, with additional material from Jill Nelson. Edited by Dianne Stilwell
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