In The Field

At the ceremony in Spain

From Philip Campbell, Editor in Chief, Nature

It was like a weird but utterly pleasant dream. As I was driven through the streets of the old Spanish town of Oviedo, a throng of citizens lining the streets cheered and waved at me. Many of them were dressed in traditional costume, while others no doubt included tourists bemused by the fleet of black Mercedes driving all of 500 yards from the hotel to the Teatro Campoamor.

As we drew up by the theatre, my colleague Annette Thomas, chief executive of Macmillan publishers, and I were ushered out of the vehicle to face a crowd of onlookers, the sounds of a pipe band, and a carpeted path to the entrance that at that moment seemed a mile away.

Seconds later, we were closeted in a little room with two colleagues from our esteemed rival publication Science, Andrew Sugden and Colin Norman. Like us, they had spent the previous day in a swirl of press interviews, photo-opportunities and an open discussion about science and science communication. (Most testing question: would we publish a paper from Jim Watson about racial differences? The reporter interpreted my answer as ‘yes’ and Science’s answer as ‘no’, but on comparing notes we discovered we’d said essentially the same thing: we’d not publish baseless offensive opinion but we’d publish good science whatever it said.)

Then we were ushered into an orderly procession and made our way towards the entrance to the grand hall. We approached a doorway through which I could see a sea of faces of Spaniards and international guests, and in the distance a brightly lit stage festooned with the blue trappings of the Asturias Foundation, with Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia of Asturias sitting waiting for us, and the prince’s mother Queen Sofia of Spain up in the gallery.

I tried to calm my nerves by telling Annette to relax. (She was completely self-possessed, as it happens.) Would I remember to bow to the royals in the right order? (I did.) Would I trip as I climbed the stairs onto the platform? (I didn’t.)

And then there we were – standing on a platform on behalf of my colleagues in Europe, the United States and the Asia-Pacific to receive the 2007 Prince of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities, given this year to Nature and to Science.

I’d said often in the interviews, and meant it, that to be given this award, considered and judged with as much care and respect by the Spanish as are the Nobels by the Swedes, is a wonderful testament to the importance of science and its communication to society and culture as a whole.

The assembled laureates on stage reflected that societal and cultural breadth. Al Gore, the pioneering social and political thinker Ralf Dahrendorf (represented by his wife Christiane due to illness), the novelist and champion of peaceful Israeli-Arab relations Amos Oz, the racing champion Michael Schumacher, the developmental geneticists Ginés Morata and Peter Lawrence, and representatives of Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, accompanied by 11 survivors from across Europe of the Nazi campaign of extermination. The regretted absentee: the arts laureate, Bob Dylan.

In succession, we walked up to the Prince to receive our scrolls, then down to the front of the stage to bask in the applause. We – Nature and Science – did so together, refraining from doing what past groups of laureates had done, joining hands and jumping up and down with joy. There was a more solemn moment as the holocaust survivors gathered at the front of the stage, to a standing ovation and then a minute’s silence.

Then came the speeches.

It’s not unknown for speeches at gatherings of ultra-distinguished people to degenerate into wafts of truisms and grandiloquent rhetoric. But when one is there to celebrate individuals and organisations of remarkable achievement, lofty sentiments can be tied to embodied reality and thereby achieve a vivid sense of purpose.

Thus it was that the addresses by Amos Oz, Avner Shalev of Yad Vashem, Christiane Dahrendorf, Al Gore and Prince Felipe struck a chord. When Shalev related the unresolved crisis in Dafur to the history of his people, when Gore spoke of the need for moral courage of peoples to move together with urgency to deal with the threats of climate, when Oz spoke of the need to explore each other as individuals rather than to hate each other as groups, and when the Prince cited each of the laureates as emblematic of respective enlightenment and humanitarian values: then it was that this editor, at least, felt that his colleagues and their publication are truly a part of a noble calling to which we only occasionally do full justice – to provide the messages of the sciences from the natural world as it truly is, and as it truly behaves, in a manner that helps humankind achieve its aspirations. The individual achievements of other laureates only served to highlight what more impact there is for us science editors and writers to aim for.

The award has a financial component – 50,000 Euros, shared by the two publications. We will use our share to boost a philanthropic fund that helps researchers from the developing world attend Gordon conferences.

The speeches ended. A piper strode onto the stage and summoned the ranks of a pipe band to play the Asturian anthem – an emotional moment for the audience. (The sense of Asturian identity was enhanced by local crops, especially apples, draped around the stage.) Then we trooped out, back into our Mercedes, back to the hotel and a reception. The crowds peered at us trying to see who we were and applauded dutifully. Al Gore’s clapometer rating was appropriately higher. But Schumacher capped us all. And let’s face it, I watch him more than he reads me.

Philip Campbell

Editor in Chief, Nature


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