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01/09/2014

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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.

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 overlook 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 Steve's occasionally earthy language served in the cause.

BPS on the map

Many ABSW members will remember him as the person who, with characteristic dynamism, established in 1987 the British Psychological Society's first comprehensive, highly professional arrangements for media liaison.

By digging out and digesting potential stories from the BPS's conference programmes, and presenting them in press releases that were unusually enticing, he put the Society on the map for the first time and ensured widespread coverage of its regular meetings. The whole operation became a model of its kind. In this, and in his extensive training activities, he was a genuine pioneer in the field of science communication.

Steve was also a founder of STEMPRA (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine Public Relations Association) and served as its first chairman. To a large degree through his vision and dynamism, STEMPRA helped to strengthen the hitherto uneven and indeed often mediocre press and public relations activities of the UK's scientific societies.

How to do it

Over the past 20 years, Steve's talents have been harnessed in several long-running programmes of media and communication skills courses – including training the British Science Association’s Media Fellows, which he did for free.  

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 and the Royal Society to Cancer Research UK. Since his death, several former students have paid affectionate tribute to Steve's role in their lives - some saying it was he alone who inspired them to become science writers.

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.

Other lives

Steve 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 (Steve 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, when helping young postgrads and postdocs to explain their work, however, complex, in accessible terms.

Among Steve'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.

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Dr Bernard Dixon
Dr Bernard Dixon is a former Editor of New Scientist. He is currently European contributing editor for the American Society for Microbiology
Peter Evans
Peter Evans is a broadcaster, writer and communications consultant
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