Nick Ross is best-known for his expertise in crime and community safety but has commitments in NHS healthcare and bioethics, science and debunking pseudoscience, evidence-based medicine and public policy, and has led campaigns to tackle road casualties and fire deaths. He champions a different funding model for public service broadcasting, and retains an interest in the peace process in Northern Irelandand environmental issues.
Here are some of the campaign issues he has taken up over the years.
Ross conceived the new discipline of Crime Science and inspired and founded the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science at University College London, where he is chairman of the board. He is an Honorary Fellow of UCL and of the (American) Academy of Experimental Criminology, and author of ‘Crime, how to solve it and why so much of what we’re told is wrong‘.
After years presenting a TV show on crime Nick Ross was disappointed at the failure of criminology to stem crime and sought more practical and scientifically robust ways to cut victimisation. He was one of the first to point out that crime began to fall from the 1990s onwards – an issue now generally accepted but which was highly controversial until recently. He was also one of the first to explain why the tide of crime had turned. In 1995 he coined the term Crime Science to mark out a new multidisciplinary and evidence-based focus on crime reduction*.
The Jill Dando Institute at UCL has grown into a major Department of Security and Crime Science, with undergraduate teaching to five-star research status, housing one of the world’s largest secure data labs, helping to improve policing and with the world’s first dedicated crime forecasting centre. Crime Science is now established at several universities around the world.
Ross was also influential in the earliest national adoption of targets to reduce crime and in particular to cut car crime where he led an initiative involving the Department of Transport and the DVLA to reform vehicle registration procedures. In 2000 he gave the Police Foundation Lecture jointly with the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John (now Lord) Stevens, urging an evidence-based approach to crime policy instead of what he described as ‘political wheezes’. (A memorable Radio Times cover quoted him saying, “Governments are clueless about crime. They come at it like amateurs talking in the pub.”)
He worked with the EC and others to establish a new business-led campaign against crime and has been a member of several government inquiries on crime. He was an adviser to Victim Support and to reviews on crime statistics. He is a regular speaker and adviser on crime reduction, terrorism and security, including a keynote addresses to the annual conference of the Association of Chief Police Officers and to successive Cumberland Lodge National Policing Conferences. He authored the crime prevention section of the Government Chief Scientist’s 2015 annual report, summarised by Sir Mark Walport as, “a straightforward way of using inducements to civil behaviour”. He is a Trustee of Crimestoppers, an adviser to the National Police Chiefs Council, chairs the Westminster Hate Crime Commission and is a member of the Barber Inquiry into the future of policing.
*Crime science is less concerned with political theory, criminal justice or redemption of people than with demonstrably effective and measurable ways of reducing victimisation. Most epidemics and cuts in crime are explained by changing circumstances in which individuals find themselves rather than by moves to re-engineer people or society, so while Crime Science embraces police training, detection methods and forensic science it finds most leverage in improving security by rethinking products, services or policies so as to design out unnecessary temptations and opportunities for crime.
Nick Ross is a Trustee of Sense About Science, is a regular speaker at science meetings and was a founder-supporter of the Campbell Collaboration, the international partnership to improve scientific methodology in the social sciences.
He helped to change the climate of science reporting in the early 90s with an influential series of articles critical of media portrayal of science.
He has been a member of the Committee on Public Understanding of Science and of several advisory boards such as the Societal Issues Panel for the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council. He was Guest Director of the Cheltenham Science Festival, the largest public science meeting in the world and has twice been chairman of the Royal Society Science Book Prize.
He founded the new discipline of Crime Science at University College London where he is an honorary fellow and visiting professor.
In 2013 he inspired an initiative called Evidence Matters to promote evidence-based public policy which merged with Sense About Science. In its 2016 report, Missing Evidence by former Court of Appeal judge Sir Stephen Sedley, recommended that government should audit and publish all its research findings. From 2017 Evidence Matters has been core to Sense About Science policy, including annual Evidence Week held in parliament in collaboration with the House of Commons Library.
He is a Fellow of the World Wildlife Fund, served two terms (2004-2011) as a WWF Ambassador, and is an Honorary Member of Population Matters. In past years Ross worked on conjunction with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on environmental issues in British Overseas Territories.
Twenty years before it became fashionable to challenge the BBC licence fee Nick Ross was one of the first to question the survival of the BBC itself. The RSA first published his proposals in 2002, five years before the Burns Inquiry first reached similar conclusions. He warned that by clinging to the licence fee the BBC had no incentive to compete on the world stage and would become a shrivelled version of its once mighty self. Weighed down by a fixed income it would be drowned in a rising sea of digital choice and commercial output.
When citizens could listen and watch not just on different channels but different devices, and even made TV output of their own, the BBC was bound to lose public and political support.
Ross subsequently chaired meetings between the Ofcom Content Board and broadcasters, and for the Voice of the Listener & Viewer, warning that far from driving up quality the licence fee progressively forced the BBC had to chase ratings much like its commercial rivals. He forecast loss of specialist arts and science programmes, progressive loss of the BBC’s distinguishing public service remit, and diminishing status around the world.
He proposed two paths to migrate to far less State dependence, and to rebuild a unique proposition. Since the BBC’s reputation was built on trust, it should never carry advertising, and in any case commercials could increasingly be spooled past or blocked. Instead it should pioneer subscription services – and do so quickly before commercial rivals stole a march on these new income streams. Not only hit shows and high-ratings TV networks could benefit hugely from subscriptions, but even more so channels that built loyalty like speech radio. Second, in order to justify a continued element of public levy, the BBC should have a more determined focus on areas of market failure. Where the State should retain its role was in subsidies to arts and sciences, and in funding news around the world to project British values and promote informed democracy around the world. If the BBC failed to deliver sufficient distinctiveness, such funding should be contestable by other broadcasters.
Ross’s warnings first proved prophetic when the BBC, twice, agreed to downgrade its world-beating news website, which quickly became third-rate and a minor player on the global stage. By 2008 an IpsosMori poll showed that almost as many Britons opposed the licence fee as supported it (a proportion that grew to 75% by 2020). In 2009 the BBC’s Director General conceded that the licence fee could seem anachronistic and might need to be replaced, and in 2013 Roger Mosey, the BBC’s outgoing editorial director, agreed, suggesting that the licence fee might be shared among all broadcasters to promote greater quality and diversity.
The same year The Sunday Telegraph published Ross’s manifesto for the BBC and in 2014 his proposals were debated at Civitas and at an RTS seminar in the House of Commons – where Michael Grade called his ideas for less dependence on the licence fee ‘naïve’. (The same Lord Grade who in 2022 was appointed to chair Ofcom, declaring that the licence fee was ‘regressive’ and should end in 2027.)
In a personal submission to the 2017 Charter Review, Ross proposed a last-ditch alternative to BBC decline, urging a one-time only step-up in the licence fee in return for a BBC commitment to migrate to more self-funding by the following Charter renewal in 2027. Speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival that year he lambasted BBC panjandrums for debasing the institution at the heart of British broadcasting. He conceded that the BBC would again win its conventional approach, but predicted that, as it had been in 2007, it would be a pyrrhic victory and would lead to further cuts.
Ross’s former colleague, Jeremy Paxman, now came to the same conclusion, pronouncing the licence fee “old-fashioned… Look how the likes of Netflix and Amazon now take extraordinary amounts of money from huge numbers of people electronically. Why can’t the BBC wake up to this?” By then the licence fee was proving to be an albatross, imposing severe cuts including scrapping of the science department, forcing the BBC downmarket and scrambling for younger audiences.
In 2019, ten and perhaps twenty years late, the BBC finally announced preparations for its own streaming service, Britbox. But it was too little, and much too late.
By now, as the former BBC executive Roger Mosey conceded, the once world-beating broadcaster was facing irrelevance even on its home ground. “This is not scaremongering,” he said, the BBC is, “at risk of being eaten”. Its only option now, as Ross had argued many years before, was to focus on areas of market failure.
By 2019 even the BBC’s Chairman, Sir David Clementi, came round to accept that, far from Ross’s prescription being naive, there was, “no doubt that the BBC would do well under a subscription model”.
By then a BBC licence then cost £142 compared with £72 for Amazon Prime or £60 a year for Netflix.
By 2020 the BBC was earning a fifth of its own income but, as Ross had prophesied, it had frittered away much of its global leadership. In a world in which electronic media were growing at a rate averaging 5-6% pa, the BBC was actually declining, shedding jobs, most notably in public service areas like news and science. VLV (the Voice of the Viewer and Listener) calculated that the BBC’s income in real terms had dropped 30% between 2010 and 2020. In 2019 the BBC committed around £2.5bn to content, most of it on old-fashioned linear broadcasting. Meanwhile streaming boomed. Netflix spent $17bn, Amazon and Apple $6bn apiece, and even AT&T invested some $15bn in streaming services. A gold rush was taking place in which not every player will survive, but where the BBC should have been the trailblazer.
The BBC once has global status. It was never inevitable that US corporations would drive it to the margins. It is doing that all by itself.
In 2020 the government almost abandoned criminal sanctions for non-payment of the licence fee. Each year more than 120,000 people clog up the courts charged with licence fee evasion and a handful go to prison. These tend to be the most vulnerable people in society and account for a third of all female criminal convictions. The BBC is externalising its own costs, obliging the criminal justice system to pick up the tab and, in England and Wales, consuming 10% of magistrates court capacity. Hardly a public service.
Some two decades after Ross warned the BBC needed to be bold or would go into decline, his ideas have proved broadly prescient. What he failed to predict was how grimly and dogmatically the BBC would cling to its licence even as it global, and even national, decline became so palpable.