Nick Ross is best-known as a broadcaster and journalist and some of his campaigns were inspired by the issues he reported on, such as the troubles in Northern Ireland, road accidents, fire safety and, most widely recognised, his work on crime prevention.
But away from the cameras and microphones his abiding passions have been healthcare and bioethics along with a wider commitment to community safety and evidence-based public policy.
His first opportunity as a TV director and producer was to make a 90-minute film about road safety, then regarded as a dull subject unsuitable for peak-time TV. The broadcast turned out to be a hit but more important it was influential, not least because it opened the door to the roads minister, Peter Bottomley, who accepted his proposal for a fatality target, one of the first policy targets of its kind and one of the most successful. Nick found himself lobbying with highway and vehicle engineers and was enlisted to chair RoSPA’s road safety committee. According to a global compendium of influential campaigns Nick changed public policy to such an extent that, “in significant consequence British mortality rates of people under 50 are among the lowest in the world.”
His success in road safety led to requests from fire chiefs to help cut fire deaths and Ross campaigned for improved protection for social housing tenants and especially compulsory sprinklers, warning of disaster long before the Grenfell Tower catastrophe. In 2023 he was appointed chair of trustees of the National Fire Chiefs Council.
He was also invited to be a lay member of a King’s Fund Consensus Panel on the treatment of breast cancer, an initiative that helped transform clinical practice, shook his faith in experience-based treatments and cemented his interest in evidence-based medicine – and eventually evidence-based policy in general.
He became increasingly involved with healthcare and was appointed to the Clothier Committee to consider whether the UK should adopt gene therapy, and then to GTAC, the Gene Therapy Advisory Committee set up after Clothier to regulate clinical practice and research. He was thereafter recruited to other advisory roles including two national NHS review teams, and chaired conferences for the NHS chief executive, Nigel Crisp, and for the head of the National Institute for Health Research and Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies.
Nick served two terms on the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, was appointed to several other national ethics committees and review bodies and was the longest-serving member of the Royal College of Physicians ethics committee. He chairs the advisory board for the Wales Cancer Bank, is on the advisory committee of the UK Biobank, and is a non-executive director of Imperial NHS Healthcare Trust.
His growing concern about the poor evidence base of medicine was paired with a mounting anxiety about the gap between healthcare expectations and resources. In the 1990s, along with Simon Stevens (later chief executive of NHS England), Richard Smith (the editor of the BMJ) and Alasdair Liddell (who became strategy director for the Department of Health), Nick Ross was a founder of the Rationing Agenda Group which set out the model for explicit healthcare rationing which was later developed into the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. NICE has become a model around the world for prudent resource management. He remains active in challenging the mismatch between the reality of available resources and almost limitless demand, insisting that managing expectations is almost as important as developing capabilities and improving productivity.
Nick has been more directly involved in health audit, including medical safety, as a non-executive director of HQS, the Health Quality Service, until it merged with the global healthcare consultants, Dr Foster. He also co-founded HealthWatch, inspired by the oncologist Prof Michael Baum. HealthWatch is a charity which exposes quackery and campaigns for orthodox treatments to be tested. And as part of Iain Chalmers’ campaigns for better evidence Nick coined the term ‘fair tests’ for RCTs (randomised controlled trials) which has since been adopted by the James Lind Initiative and others.
His profile as a journalist and broadcaster provided the opportunity to be involved in other medical challenges over the years, for example: to reduce tranquiliser use among women, to improve treatment of chronic pain, in support of the Defeat Depression Campaign, as President of SANEline, and with other, mostly Cinderella, healthcare charities. He runs an annual seminar on evidence for first-year medics at UCL and is a trustee of the UK Stem Cell Foundation. He is a Life Fellow of the RSM and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and of the Royal College of Surgeons.
His 23-year stint as presenter of the BBC’s Crimewatch was a more obvious focus for his interest. He saw in crime a parallel with his experience of some aspects of medicine where entrenched and long-established approaches appeared to lack a proper scientific basis. He served on three government crime reduction committees, and advisory boards for the National Police Chiefs Council and Victim Support. He coined the term “crime science” to forge a distinct multidisciplinary approach to cutting crime and created a national campaign which raised £1m to create the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science which chose UCL to be its home. The JDI has grown into UCL’s Department of Security and Crime Science where Nick chairs the Board and is a visiting professor and an Honorary Fellow of UCL. He lectures frequently on the parallels between medicine and crime prevention and in 2013 published Crime: how to solve it and why so much of what we’re told is wrong.
He chaired the Westminster Hate Crime Commission (2019-2020) and was a member of the Barber inquiry for the Police Foundation (2022-22) reviewing the future of policing.