Nick is well-known for his expertise in crime, security and community safety but also has deep commitment to other policy issues, notably health, bioethics and science (and debunking pseudoscience). In the 1980s and 1990s he also played a pivotal role in road safety. Here are some of the campaign issues he has taken up over many years.Crime prevention and security
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’. He worked with the EC and others to establish a new business-led campaign against crime. He has been a member of several government inquiries on crime, as well as an adviser to Victim Support and to official reviews on crime statistics and of the future of forensics. 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 Conference. 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 and an adviser to the National Police Chiefs Council.
*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 has long been committed to public policy on health and has been closely involved in bioethics, promoting evidence-based medicine and fostering transparent decision-making about healthcare spending. He is President of Healthwatch, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, a Life Member of the Royal Society of Medicine and a non-executive director of one of the UK’s largest NHS acute hospital groups (Imperial College Healthcare Trust).
He first became engaged with healthcare through membership of a consensus conference which was influential in changing breast cancer treatment. He championed explicit rationing in the NHS (Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, traces the foundation of NICE – the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence – to a meeting in Ross’s home in the early 1990s) and he campaigns for honest debate about the trade-offs between different priorities and how they affect healthcare outcomes. He was a member of the NHS National Plan Taskforce, of the Clothier Committee which first authorised gene therapy in the UK, and of the subsequent Gene Therapy Advisory Committee which is now part of the National Research Ethics Service. He served for seven years on the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, was a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences inquiry into the use of non-human primates in research, a Director of the Health Quality Service until it merged with Dr Foster, and Chairman of the Wales Cancer Bank Advisory Board.
He currently sits on the ethics board of the Royal College of Physicians and of Biobank UK, and the research steering committee of the Royal College of Surgeons. He co-founded HealthWatch which promotes evidence-based medicine and is involved in promoting medical research and especially clinical trials (see www.lindalliance.org), challenging orthodox and “alternative” treatments which cannot be shown to be effective, and advancing the cause of accountability and transparency in prioritising healthcare.
He coined the term “fair tests” which has been gaining favour as a straightforward and accessible name for randomised controlled trials. He has chaired many meetings for the BMA, DH and NHS as well as international meetings of specialist clinicians in varied fields such rheumatology, allergology, paediatric endocrinology and health informatics, and has been a guest at WISE, the world healthcare leadership forum in Doha.
In 2017-18, in the build-up to the 70th anniversary of the NHS, Ross brought together the UK’s leading healthcare and medical research groups leading to a joint initiative between the King’s Fund, the Nuffield Trust, the Health Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and he persuaded the BBC to commission a major report on the health of the NHS at 70. The report concluded that the NHS was among the fairest healthcare systems in the world but lagged behind many comparable countries in health outcomes. The initiative culminated in a live 90-minute show billed as the centrepiece of the BBC’s NHS coverage.
He also played a leading role in challenging the General Medical Council after it struck off Hadiza Bawa-Garba, a trainee paediatrician who failed to diagnose sepsis and who, as a result of the child’s death, was criminalised and subjected to racist and anti-Islamic abuse. He argued that criminal sanctions are always inappropriate where someone makes a genuine mistake (“We have enough people intending to do wrong without diluting the concept of a crime or squandering the heavily rationed resources available for investigation and prosecution”) and that the GMC endangered patient safety by promoting a blame culture rather than one of candour and learning.
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.
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, and in 2017 Sense About Science resolved to make Evidence Matters at the core of its activities.
Ross was recruited by fire chiefs to help cut fire deaths, replicating his success with road fatalities. He proposed universal installation of sprinklers, especially to social housing, and regular updating of building regulations to assess new materials, all backed by explicit targets. The approach was adopted by FOBFO (the body that represents the UK’s Fire Organisations) and CFOA (the Chief Fire Officers Association), and won the backing of the Local Government Association.
Scotland and Wales both since moved to mandatory policies but three successive fire ministers (two Labour, one Conservative) rejected his ideas on grounds of extra cost and red tape. In 2013, addressing the Local Government Association, Ross warned that it would take a tragedy to make policymakers see the error of their ways.
In 2017, after the disastrous high-rise fire at Grenfell Tower in west London, he named ministers he held responsible for the tragedy and renewed his long campaign for sprinklers in social housing. At that year’s Fire Sector Summit he again criticised fire chiefs for failing to speak up. Eventually, three months after the inferno, London’s fire chief Dany Cotton finally came out in agreement. Yet at present only 2% of high rise homes are protected by sprinklers.
Nick Ross also proposed a radical new approach which would use existing plumbing to power sprinkler-heads from kitchens and bathrooms, thus radically cutting costs of installation. A similar concept was trialled in New Zealand but the project and the British government took over testing in the UK but it was frustrated by lack of political support, thwarted by water regulations and was resisted by some in the traditional sprinkler industry who fear being undercut. Nonetheless, in 2013 the first domestic installations costing less than £800 were fitted in Derbyshire.
In the 1980s Nick Ross produced and directed a hugely influential and much-repeated TV inquiry, The biggest Epidemic of Our Times, which was widely credited with transforming public attitudes and public policy. Three decades later a BBC science series described it as the broadcast that ‘would transform road safety’ and which ‘lead to an historic victory in the struggle to save lives’ (Dallas Campbell, A Horizon Guide to Car Crashes, BBC4, 9pm, 21 October 2013).
Ross’s subsequent political campaigning was similarly forceful. According to one commentator the effects of his lobbying were so profound that, “in significant consequence British mortality rates of people under 50 are among the lowest in the world” (Morgan, Adam, “Eating The Big Fish”, Wiley, London, 2009, pp134-136).
The most notable achievement was when roads minister Peter Bottomley formally accepted Ross’s challenge to set challenging government targets to cut fatalities (the first of which was a one-third cut to 4,000 deaths by the year 2000). Others also signed up to the idea of targets including the Institute of Highway Engineers. Ross was invited to chair RoSPA’s National Road Safety Committee. Road deaths plummeted to 3,500 by the turn of the millennium, almost half the average for the previous half century, and by 2017 fatalities were down to 1,710, the lowest level since records began in 1926.
However, the government abandoned targets in 2011 and the steeply downward trend came to a halt. In 2016 Ross met ministers to propose a new targeted approach to be led by IAM RoadSmart, of which he is vice president.
Ross presented a long-running peak-time series So You Think You’re a Good Driver on BBC One and has maintained an interest in road safety. He is a Vice President of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and was for many years President of the London Road Safety Council. He continues to play a leading role in road safety conferences in the UK (see the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety 2018) and internationally.
We Shall Overcome – Nick Ross’s award-winning and very personal account of the violence in Northern Ireland.
Nick Ross was a student leader and civil rights campaigner in the late 1960s, reported from the Province through much of the 1970s and continues to have an interest in Northern Ireland affairs.
His autobiographical account of the start of the troubles won a best documentary award and was hailed by the Irish Times as, “The true story told for the first time on television,” through the eyes of Nick Ross, “the well-informed English journalist (nearly an oxymoron when it comes to writing about Ireland).”
Take a look through the broadcasting section to find out more about this, and Nick’s other television and radio work.
In 2002 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University Belfast.
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.
For two decades as one of Britain’s foremost broadcasters Nick Ross challenged the orthodoxies of public service broadcasting, urging radical action to preserve the BBC’s public service remit. Five years before the Burns Inquiry reached similar conclusions in 2005, he warned that reliance on a licence fee would progressively reduce the Corporation’s reach and influence. Digital technology would be disruptive and, as electronic media grew at a colossal rate, the BBC’s output would be progressively eclipsed by rival platforms. Nor could it fight back effectively since its income would be static at best, leading to relative decline. Gradually, as audiences embraced hundreds more channels and multimedia environments, the BBC would lose public and political support, threatening its status as an untouchable national treasure.
Worse still, in order to justify the licence fee, the BBC had to chase ratings much like its commercial rivals. This would degrade its output, making it ever less distinctive. Ross 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 solutions. First that public service broadcasting must become less State-dependent and pioneer subscription services, along with other ways of raising revenue, before commercial rivals stole a march on these new income streams. Second, in order to justify a continued element of public levy, the BBC should have a greater focus on areas of market failure.
The RSA first published his proposals in 2002, and he subsequently chaired meetings between the Ofcom Content Board and broadcasters, and for the Voice of the Listener & Viewer, predicting that by the 2020s the BBC’s influence would have waned, along with its justification for a universal levy.
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. By 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 approach was 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’). In a personal submission to the 2017 Charter Review, Ross proposed a radical alternative to BBC decline, urging that the licence fee should be substantially increased and the BBC should be given ten years (up to the following Charter deadline of 2027) to migrate to much greater self-funding.
He acknowledged at the Edinburgh TV Festival that the BBC would again win its conventional approach, but predicted it would be a pyrrhic victory leading to further cuts.
Ross’s former colleague, Jeremy Paxman, eventually 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 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 scaremonegring,” 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.
Yet it shows no signs of understanding how much global leadership it has frittered away, no courage to loosen its dependance on State funding, nor resolve to compete distinctively on quality – and thus ever fewer signs of having purpose.