Nancy Rothwell

July 22, 2005

In academia, degrees, titles such as professor, doctor and fellowship of esteemed societies mean a great deal more than becoming a Dame

I've never understood the British honours system and, in spite of my recent award, I'm afraid I still don't. Debrett's Peerage & Baronetage has been on my "should buy" list just so that I know how to address titled people correctly. But when I really needed it, it was still on that list and not, more usefully, on my bookshelf.

One of the many strange things about these honours is that, completely out of the blue, you get a letter from 10 Downing Street saying the Prime Minister "has it in mind to recommend to the Queen...". Those not well versed in such things (which includes me) are uncertain if Tony has had a fleeting idea or if this is a done deal.

In responding to the letter, you have to say how you want to be addressed if the honour is confirmed. The helpful suggestions from friends and relatives - "Widow Twanky" or the "Ugly Sister", and "what's wrong with plain Nancy?" - were clearly not acceptable.

In case you ever face the same problem, I gather it's Professor Dame or Professor Sir, and even more confusingly it's Professor the Lord. In fact, the full title I apparently acquire is "Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire", not something to roll off the tongue, which is also quite puzzling. As far as I know I don't get to command anyone or anything and, while history wasn't my great strength at school, I thought we hadn't had an empire for some time.

One of the few things I have learnt is that "those in the know" refer to it as a "D" as opposed to a "K". I actually rather like D. It has the ring of a secret agent or pop star, but it is probably not that useful on scientific publications.

You have to tick to say whether you accept the D (or not). It's not that easy, particularly after the press furore of 18 months ago when it was claimed that Colin Blakemore did not get his K (a much-deserved honour, I think) because of his outspoken views on animal testing. This is interesting because one of the things I am noted for is my public presentations on why and how animals are used in research. After a few days of deliberation and the advice of a small number of highly respected senior colleagues, I said "yes" and off the reply went. Then you hear nothing until the press start to call, and you start to worry about what your colleagues will think.

The best thing about such an award is the deluge of e-mails, phone calls, texts and letters from colleagues telling you how important this is for science, for women in science etc, etc.

Phew! I suppose there are many who feel that the honours system is outdated, but they were kind enough not to tell me, at least not yet. I've reflected on what such titles mean, and whether they can be helpful. In academia, degrees, titles such as professor and doctor and fellowship of esteemed societies, such as the Royal Society or equivalent, mean a great deal more than honours such as Ks and Ds. But in the world outside academia, titles apparently matter. This is obvious from the response among residents of the small village in which I live and the reactions of non-scientific friends and family.

I hope these honours do help to raise the profile of scientists and show that there may be some reward for communicating science (even controversial issues) and for activities not quite within our day jobs. I assume that this is why I was honoured, but I don't really know about the process.

Selection for most academic awards is relatively transparent. In the honours system, it's a mystery, at least to me. It clearly recognises contributions from people at all levels and from all walks of life, so it's probably not quite a normal peer-review system.

I hope this honour will make a difference to the medical charities and societies I work with, but I also hear from a senior colleague (with a K) that it's great for getting the best seats in restaurants and on planes, and for negotiating the bureaucratic immigration systems in certain countries. I also took great delight the other day in telling a difficult colleague that I could get them sent to the Tower or even beheaded if they continued to be naughty.

I'm not sure yet if that threat works. I wonder what the children from a school in a deprived area of the city who were excited to meet a professor will think when I go back as a Dame, but realistically it will pale into insignificance compared with their hero Alex Ferguson (who has a K).

So the Debrett's has now been ordered - but not the full etiquette edition at £5. The Debrett's Guide to Outrageous Party Games looked far more appealing.


Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of sciences at Manchester University.

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