Saturday, June 27, 2015

Now seriously... in praise of Connie St Louis

In the past few days an esteemed journalist and teacher I know called Connie St Louis has come under sustained attack for reporting what happened at a meeting she attended. She was by no means the only journalist at the meeting who heard the sexist remarks of Sir Tim Hunt, but she is now in the cross hairs for reporting what she heard and saw.

Of the many things that happened subsequently, one was that Sir Tim resigned from his position at UCL, an honorary unpaid position. Yesterday UCL issued a statement explaining their decision to accept and why it was necessary for Sir Tim's resignation to be accepted even if the remarks were meant lightly:

"..Equality and Diversity is not just an aspiration at UCL but informs our everyday thinking and our actions. It was for this very reason that Sir Tim’s remarks struck such a discordant note.....An honorary appointment is meant to bring honour both to the person and to the University. Sir Tim has apologised for his remarks, and in no way do they diminish his reputation as a scientist."

Sir Tim has also rightly apologised to the Korean women scientists who he offended. One might think that this would be the end of it. But no. The Times (London) has already made one attempt to discredit the original report by citing a non-verbatim report that seemed to contradict the original reporting (it didn't). Then the Daily Mail tried the same sort of trick again, but that didn't work. 

Now the Daily Mail is trying a more direct approach, hatchet job on Connie. Make no mistake, the Mail has decided to destroy her reputation, even though she was doing nothing more than her job. She did not orchestrate the Twitter monstering of Sir Tim. It is completely untruthful to say that Connie hounded Sir Tim out of his job. 

On the upside, The Mail seems to have got its knickers in a twist over something easily understood. which is that her university uploaded an outdated CV into its information system when they were running a pilot. None of this has any bearing on the fact that a Nobel winning scientist put his foot in his mouth. 

Connie has the strongest moral fibre of any journalist I know. I worked with her as Chair of the Association of British Science Writers, and I was thrilled that she took over, and then was elected, to head the organisation after I stood down.  She was an excellent leader, and garnered great respect for her work at that organisation.  She is kind, overly generous with her time and a truly great lecturer and teacher. City is lucky to have her on staff. 

Over the years, I've been a bit cynical about science journalism degrees. I used to wonder if academic courses were truly necessary to teach young journalists. I was proved wrong by Connie, particularly as technology has advanced so rapidly, her skills as a leader, journalist and human being have convinced me that she has something really important to teach the science journalism students of tomorrow. Now, more than ever, she has a critical message. It is this: speaking the truth to authority is a hard. It is also a hard and personally difficult journey for any journalist. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A media strategy for Tim Hunt....

For a while, oh maybe a day or two, I actually felt a little sorry for the scientist Tim Hunt. He was eviscerated in a classic but actually hilarious Twitter reaction to his offensive remarks about women scientists. Here is the thing, if they were not a joke then the Twitter reaction was surely fine. But if they were a joke, then why can't Twitter joke back?

Even if his remarks were off the cuff, a joke or honest... or whatever other line we have been fed, being offensive is offensive--even if you hoped it might be funny. Many of us have been there, the solution to a bad joke is pretty obvious when you think about it.

Imagine for a second the remarks were about race instead of gender and began with a line saying how odd it is for a racist to be invited to a talk make some remarks to black scientists. He might think it was funny. But that wouldn't make it so.

Dr Hunt's job was simple, he was invited as a Nobel scientist to give a talk give some off the cuff remarks to Korean women scientists. That presumably means saying something about how great a career science is, that how although it can present challenges for women who may struggle to maintain an unbroken publication record, that they have to keep pushing because they have so much to offer e.g Doudna & Sharpentier.

Instead it was Fail. Fail. Fail. The only thing to do in the face of being called out on this is to apologise straight away for being such a twit and move on. On no accounts should one give a half-hearted apology, be amazed that the furore continues, and then give whinging interviews about how bad YOUR life is.

Anyway now the Science Empire (no names no pack drill) has circled the wagons and decided to defend Dr Hunt, and now we have to put up with the embarrassment of The Times making another strike for the Science Empire, in the form of a leaked Euro "report" that says it was a joke all along. (Cue calls for reinstatement).

You know what I think? I think this is all nonsense and the idea that it was somehow reported wrong from a conference of science journalists would be laughable if it wasn't so serious. So, in a bid to end the hoopla, free of charge, here is my five point media plan for Tim Hunt.


1. make a sincere statement of regret about his comments, acknowledge they are divisive whether or not they were a joke.

2. If asked whether they were honest or a joke come up with some sort of consistent and logical explanation*. (E.g. How about he says he was being honest about the fact that he is a chauvanist and that he was trying to see the light-hearted side of this, and he now sees that this wasn't helpful and actually pretty dumb. That might explain being honest and joking at the same time. But either way, refer to point 1.)

3. Shut up

4. Oh, before shutting up, he should ask his friends in the Science Empire, such as Darth Dawkins Vader to shut up as well because the are doing him no favours and just making things worse.

5. That is it. (Refer to point 3.) **

It will all blow over in a month or three and you'll be able to go back on all those committees again as if nothing happened. Key point though, refer to no 1. And if anyone asks you about that event in Korea, refer to no 1 again. All a mistake, terribly sorry. Do not be tempted to revise or downgrade the apology, by claiming you were misquoted, just accept no 1 as the new reality because the remarks were stupid in the first place whether or not you think your stupidity was fairly reported.

* Handy pro media tip: think about this carefully before you open your mouth. Try it out on a few friends first for internal consistency and maybe in front of the mirror.

** Handy pro media tip #2: summarise these points on a piece of card and keep it handy. Front of flash card: Apologise. Back of flash card: Shut up.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Price of drugs

Pharmaceutical pricing


Jun 4th 2015, 15:09 BY N.L. | CHICAGO

THIS week health insurers have begun revealing proposed rate increases to their health-care plans for 2016. These potential hikes, which in some cases exceed 30%, can be partly explained by the fact that insurers low-balled their prices in the early days of the Affordable Care Act in order to gain market share. But there is another reason: higher drug prices. Prescription drug spending increased 13.1% in 2015.

This rise is partly explained by some new drugs for Hepatitis C. More trouble is on the horizon. At the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago this week, scientists announced that new immuno-oncology drugs work in a wider range of cancers, and even better when given in combination. The problem is that these drugs are some of the most expensive the country has ever seen.

“These drugs cost too much,” said Leonard Salz, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, in a high-profile speech at the meeting. At $295,000 a year, the price of combination therapy is unsustainable, he explained. At a big drug-sponsored conference, this was like swearing at a vicar's tea party. The fact that the bad news about prices somewhat eclipsed the good news on cancer treatment was an irony lost on no one. And the problem of drug costs is expected to only get worse as Americans get older and fatter and the rates of cancer go up.  [More...]

Friday, June 12, 2015

What it means to be a scientist: male

The Science Advisory Board, an international network of science and medical experts, has just published the results of a study on global science that sheds some interesting light on what it means to be a woman in science--particularly in the light of the #distractinglysexy debate. 

With the caveat that that I have not dived deeply into the survey methodology, SAB report that female scientists in their survey are more likely to be dissatisfied with salary/benefits, job availability, gender barriers, and how they feel valued as scientists than their male colleagues. The study was part of a Global Science survey that sought feedback from people about why they became scientists and what it is like to be a scientific professional. 

 “We originally set out to look at what it means to be a scientist,” said Quentin Kreilmann, Science Advisory Board Community Manager. “We found two narratives depending on gender, one of which comes with additional challenges.” The Global Science 2015 survey sample includes 1,478 respondents, 58% men and 42% women, from North America, Europe, Asia, and South America. 

The study results showed that some women see gender as a barrier to pursuing a career in science, whereas men did not. When asked, “based on your experience, what do you perceive to be the biggest barrier to pursuing a career in STEM,”15% of female respondents selected gender, compared with only 2% for their male counterparts. Women also report gender inequality after attaining scientific positions.

SAB is working on getting the report put online. In the meantime I have taken screenshots of the most interesting graphics. 

Sunday, June 07, 2015

A Canadian wind...

When it is cold in Chicago it usually means we are getting a stiff breeze from Canada. When it comes in over the city and hits warm air from the skyscrapers little clouds form over the city centre swirling around over the tops of the tallest towers.

These timelapses were taken yesterday. The camera is at a point west of downtown looking east.





Friday, June 05, 2015

More on the care and feeding of journalists

OK so this is the second part of a two part item on the Care and Feeding of Journalists. Although, let's face it, this is just about feeding this journalist in particular. Although I think some of the guidance is useful for many of the people I work with at The Economist.


What is the best way to reach you?
Email, which is my first name and second name as one word then an "@" You can also follow me on Twitter @natashaloder, and try to catch me there. When I'm checking Twitter, I'm open to being engaged in chitchat.

Can we send you anything?
It would be great if you could exert a bit of control over what you send, it may be just a press release for you but with all the junk I get sent it is death by a thousand cuts. A previous post lists the sorts of things I am interested in. (When I start getting particularly irrelevant pitches, I have resorted to using the #spamPR hashtag to highlight the worst offenders.)

If you really must send press releases about things that we both know are of no interest, please us both a favour and don't follow up.

If you think that it might be of interest, please feel free to send a second email reminding me about the first one.

Can I get feedback on what you thought of the release?
No. Seriously. Too busy. It will either get deleted or filed if I think it might be useful later.

And if you call me to re-pitch me a press release when I'm busy please don't expect me to be delighted to hear from you. And if you say "do you have a minute right now?" that is going to make me cross because we both know it is going to take longer than this. Also you have started your pitch with something we both know is a lie... which really doesn't help your case.

I would say that one or two in ten of the people who reach me on the phone actually have something to discuss with me that I want to hear. This is a really poor hit ratio so if you are calling you need to know that I'm expecting the call is going to be a complete waste of time before I've even picked up the receiver. When we speak, be prepared to answer questions such as, "what kind of article do you imagine I might write about this?" And, "have you ever read a piece like this in The Economist?", or "how does this technology work?".

How often do you write stories based on press releases?
Not often, truth be told.

Will you send me a reply to my email?
Sometimes. If a personal pitch is made to me (not just a mass email release), and I think it has a pretty good sense of what I'm interested in, I will try and say thanks but no thanks. If it is something I might pick up on at a later date, I will try and reply.

What do you look for in a story?
See my previous post. Bear in mind that in the age of the internet, as a journalist I really do need something new and different to say. Also, you know there really are only so many articles that I can write about the scourge of antibiotic resistance or mobile digital health.

When should I contact you?
It depends on what you have. My busiest days are Mondays and Tuesdays. That said, if it is late news for that week then these days are fine. If you are wondering what the best day to send something that isn't exactly news but which you would like to read, I would suggest Thursday or Friday. If you have a story that is going to need a lot of legwork, your 1,000 page annual review of the drug industry, you should send me a note a few weeks before it is going to hit.

What are your deadlines?
This varies according to the article concerned.

Can you send me a list of questions?
If you requested the interview, NO. You already emailed me to tell me what you wanted to talk about and I said yes. Seriously total time suck all round.

If I requested it I will give you an idea of what I want to talk about. Again list of questions is total time suck, and could well have changed depending on who I've spoken to prior.

Top tips 

* Try and keep pitches focused to my main thematic areas. Business stories on health (and pharma), and medical science and technology. See previous post.

* If I do agree to speak to your executive on the phone, please do not email to ask when the story is going to come out. That just shows that you don't understand how this works.

* I detest voicemail.

* Please don't use email tracking. It is impolite. All you need to know is that I do my job by reading my email as regularly as I am able.

Friday, May 01, 2015

What do I write about?

Having been a bit quiet on the blog front I thought I would write a few blogs loosely around the subject of the Care and Feeding of Journalists. Having worked the healthcare beat for about six months, one of the things that has impressed me most is the degree of engagement by healthcare public relations folk. I read that there are four or five PR people for every journalist. Well double that in healthcare and make them about ten times more efficient and you get the picture. One of the questions they ask the most is what do I write about, what I'm interested in as well as who else writes on healthcare at The Economist. I'll try and write a bit about that in this blog, and in a later blog talk about how best to contact me.

Firstly, if you work in health PR in particular can I encourage you to follow me on twitter... @natashaloder 

I'm quite active and I tend to follow people back if they are in healthcare, as this builds my expert base. I also try to engage in debates about subjects that I'm interested in--and even ask questions. On the subject of experts, I've recently been using HARO a little as a way of finding them. I will also sometimes use LinkedIn.

So what do I write about?
So the first thing to know is that the job is global and that my focus is business and science.  That means pharma, hospitals, management of healthcare, drug categories, patenting, pricing. In the science section it means medical advances and technologies. For the purposes of business and science that means that many stories are US focused--just given the size of the industry and research base. But we are always interested in an international perspective and international business stories.

If you happen to work in these areas. Stop. Do not hit send yet. Unlike daily or mostly online media, we are very selective in the stories we do--so many of the stories I end up doing would broadly be described as trend pieces tied to news. Rarely will I do the story that says company A has invented widget B which will change the world. Sorry! If I write a story about generic medicines tied to a proposed merger of generic pharma companies, chances are we will not do the story again for some time unless something huge happens. So we tend to do a considered take on different issues as the news dictates. That said, if we have some genuine piece of news to break--we also do that.

Policy gets people confused. If you know a little about The Economist there is a front half foreign part, and a back half business part. My job is very traditionally "back half", which means that sanitation in India, TB in Russia, malaria in Africa and Obamacare in America, generally end up being "front half" stories. That is not to say I don't write about policy, only that I do when it emerges from the business or science stories.

If you have a health story that concerns international policy, your best bet is to contact either Helen Joyce (International Editor) or Geoffrey Carr (Science Editor). If it concerns an individual country, then you would want to go to the editor of that particular section. At present that would be Robert Guest (US), DominicZeigler (China), AntonLeGuardia (Africa). If the policy is more tied to some emerging issue of business or science, such as gene editing, or FDA regulation, that is my area.

Selection of stories in past six months:

Generic drugs: Much ado about something. May 2nd 2015

Worries are growing about the effects of dealmaking among generics firms

THE plot is worthy of a Shakespearean comedy. Teva is in pursuit of Mylan. But Mylan dislikes its suitor and runs away to declare its love for Perrigo, while seeking a poison pill in case it is forced to marry Teva. Perrigo, though, rebuffs Mylan. With many suitors, Perrigo is holding out for a better offer—perhaps even from Teva itself. It may not be quite midsummer but the unfolding drama featuring three generic-drug makers could well run until then. [More...]

A wave of new medicines known as biologics will be good for drugmakers, but may not be so good for health budgets

IN PHARMACEUTICALS, the 20th century was the era of the small molecule. The industry thrived by identifying a steady stream of relatively simple compounds that treated lots of people, patenting them and making a fortune. In the early 21st century it has become harder for drugmakers to find new cures quickly enough to replace those on which the patents are expiring. [More...]

Health in west Africa: Help in the time of Ebola, Sep 20th 2014. 

There is a scramble to control a runaway epidemic

“WE ARE exhausted, we are angry, we are desperate,” said Sophie Delaunay, the American director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) last week, frustrated at the tardy international response to the deadly Ebola virus in west Africa. Within days of these words, the outside world was at last waking up to the danger of Ebola haemorrhagic fever—a viral disease that threatens tens of thousands of lives, health systems, economic growth and even political stability in parts of west Africa. [More...]

The hunt for Ebola medicines is being accelerated

ON SUNDAY scientists and physicians from around the world will be descending on New Orleans for the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH), the world's leading convention on tropical diseases. The auspiciously timed gathering will include a number of high-profile sessions about Ebola, which promise to aid efforts to contain the disease. So it seems rather odd that an e-mail sent to participants only days before the event warned that anyone who has travelled to Ebola-affected countries within the past 21 days should best stay away. "We see no utility in you travelling to New Orleans to simply be confined to your room," said an e-mail from representatives of the state of Louisiana. It is one of several American states to have imposed a 21-day quarantine on anyone who has recently visited an Ebola-affected country. [More...]

The hunt for Ebola medicines is being accelerated

THE lucky ones are admitted to a health centre. They arrive bleeding, in taxis, on foot, in wheelbarrows and sometimes in ambulances. Mostly there is little help available and patients are dying alone, lying on the ground and lucky to receive even palliative care. Médecins Sans Frontières, a medical charity that has treated more than two-thirds of the known patients, says its centres are overwhelmed. [More...]

Antibodies v bacteria: Making resistance futile, Nov 22nd 2014. Gaithersburg. 

A new way to fight bacterial infections

“Our job”, says Jan Kemper, “is to make cells happy.” Ms Kemper works at MedImmune, a subsidiary of AstraZeneca based in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Her laboratory contains 40 bioreactors—fluid-filled tanks of about three litres’ capacity. Paddles within them whirl around a mixture of nutrient broth and specially engineered hamster cells that are busy making human antibodies. [More...]

Food allergies: Patching things up, December 20th 2014. Chicago.

A new treatment for allergy to peanuts is being developed

ANAPHYLAXIS, an allergic reaction that causes swellings and rashes and can thus block a person’s airways, is always unpleasant and sometimes lethal. Often, the allergen is in a specific sort of food. Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soyabeans and wheat are particularly risky. Together, they account for 90% of anaphylactic incidents in America, a country in which between 4% and 8% of children are reckoned to have a food allergy, and in which a third or more of such allergies are potentially life-threatening. [More...]

Why a promising new class of cancer treatments is so hard to value

IN THE late 1800s a New York doctor noticed that getting an infection after surgery helped some cancer patients. So he began to treat cancer using infections and had a little success. But many doctors were sceptical of his work, and other treatments such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy eventually took off. Today, however, the pharmaceutical industry understands how his treatments would have worked and has placed a sizeable bet that immuno-oncology—the treatment of cancer using the body’s immune system—will yield breakthrough drugs. [More...]

The Ebola crisis: Much worse to come, Oct 18th 2014. 

The Ebola epidemic in west Africa poses a catastrophic threat to the region, and could yet spread further

ON MARCH 25th the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported a rash of cases of Ebola in Guinea, the first such ever seen in west Africa. As of then there had been 86 suspected cases, and there were reports of suspected cases in the neighbouring countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia as well. The death toll was 60. [More...]

You can do a lot of damage with just seven genes

EBOLA is a simple virus, but also a subtle one. The stringy looking particles consist of a genome wrapped up in two layers of protein (see diagram). This long, thin package, along with a large protein called a polymerase, is packed into a membrane that is studded with a glycoproteins—that is, proteins with sugar stuck to them. [More...]

To win it requires a much larger effort in west Africa than the outside world has so far pledged

IN SEPTEMBER 1976 scientists in Antwerp received a Thermos out of Yambuku, in what was then Zaire, with two samples from a nun who was fatally ill. One of the vials had smashed, but after scooping the other out of a pool of icy water, blood and broken glass, they discovered that they were handling a deadly and unknown virus. To spare Yambuku from infamy, they named the infection after a local river, the Ebola. [More...]