Royal Society honours Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam for his public science communication role during the Covid-19 pandemic

August 24th, 2022

The University of Nottingham’s Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam has been recognised for the critical communications role he played during the Covid-19 pandemic with a prestigious award by the Royal Society.

Professor Van-Tam, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Nottingham, will receive the Attenborough Award and Lecture, awarded annually by the society for outstanding public engagement in science.

The award honours Professor Van-Tam’s work as UK Deputy Chief Medical Officer (DCMO), when he received international acclaim for his ability to explain complex Covid-19-related issues including transmission risks and the importance of vaccines using creative – often sports-based – analogies during the regular televised Downing Street press conferences.

His dedication to public communication has been fundamental in educating people about the risks posed by Covid-19, the science behind the disease epidemiology and promoting expected behaviours in citizens around issues including testing and vaccination which played a pivotal role in controlling the spread of the virus.

His plain English approach to science garnered huge personal popularity with the public and led to him being affectionately nicknamed JVT by his DHSC colleagues and then the UK media (unbeknown to many he had been using JVT widely in Nottingham since at least 2007). Earlier this summer, he received his knighthood from the Duke of Cambridge at Buckingham Palace for his services to public health and an honorary degree from the University of Nottingham, his alma mater.

Reacting to the announcement of the award, Professor Van-Tam said: “I feel very humbled to have been chosen by the Society because so many UK scientists do really great work making science accessible to the public. This is quite simply a huge honour.

“I am passionate about people from all walks of life and backgrounds being able to engage with science in a way that meets their needs and allows them in turn to benefit from science discoveries in their daily lives; there is no better example than the Covid-19 vaccines which have literally allowed our society to re-open after a devastating pandemic. But it is always our job as scientists to meet the public at their point of need and understanding.”

As an epidemiologist and the DCMO for Health Protection, Professor Van-Tam has played important roles in a number of different incidents, including domestic outbreaks of MERS and Monkeypox; the severe 2017/18 influenza season; the response to the Novichok attacks; and the Covid-19 pandemic where he worked on the Vaccine Taskforce and supported the development of treatments.

He is an author on almost 200 scientific papers including major studies into the transmission of the flu, the efficacy of anti-viral drugs to treat it and the success of the drug Tamiflu in protecting patients during the Swine flu pandemic of 2009-10. More recently he has contributed to academic papers on the clinical impact of Covid-19, the safety and immunogenicity of vaccine combinations and boosters for Covid-19 and the world’s first human challenge study with Covid-19.

He joined the executive team at Nottingham after stepping down from his role as DCMO in the spring this year.

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham Professor Shearer West said: “This award is richly deserved and we are incredibly proud of the vital role that Professor Van-Tam played in leading the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Professor Van-Tam epitomises excellence in the public communication of science in everything that he does, particularly through the numerous public engagement activities that he generously devotes time to in addition to his academic and leadership commitments at Nottingham. He is truly gifted in his ability to explain complex scientific and public health ideas in an accessible and engaging way and during his time as Deputy Chief Medical Officer, the public benefitted greatly from this talent.”

The Attenborough award is named after the UK’s best-loved naturalist and broadcaster, and honorary Fellow of the Royal Society, David Attenborough. The medal takes the form of a silver gilt medal and is accompanied by a gift of £2,500. Professor Van-Tam will also be invited to deliver a prize lecture at a future date.

Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society said, “On behalf of the Royal Society, I offer my congratulations to the outstanding researchers, individuals and teams whose contributions to our collective scientific endeavour have helped further our understanding of the world around us.

“Science has always been a team game, and I’m proud to see such a wide array of skills and specialisms reflected in this year’s medals and awards.

“From the original ideas that open up new fields, to the team effort that delivered the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, or the vital work of technicians and those opening doors for the next generation of talented researchers – I am proud that we can celebrate outstanding scientific contributions in all their forms.”

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