The last major scoop unearthed by Steve Connor, the science journalist who has lost his fight against prostate cancer aged 62, got him into the fiercest hot water. It was published simultaneously in July on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain a newspaper, the i, announced: “World exclusive: human embryos genetically altered for first time with new technology.” The MIT Technology Review stated simply: “First human embryos edited in US”.
Connor’s front-page splash on selective abortions in communities aiming to prevent the birth of daughters, on 15 January 2014
His story revealed that scientists had successfully used the Crispr gene-editing technique to alter the DNA of human embryos, opening the door to “pick and choose” designer babies.
As scoops go, it was as big as they come. The story subsequently made front pages around the world after the scientists involved from Oregon University had published their research in Nature, the world’s leading science journal.
Nature’s editors were incandescent that their thunder had been stolen – by a diligent journalist who had obtained the story through old-fashioned digging, rather than by reading a press release.
The former science editor had the attention of the newsroom at The Independent as this story, on 19 October 2012, testifies
But owing to an accident of timing – the US editor who commissioned Steve was away on holiday when he submitted the story and sat on it for a fortnight – it appeared only shortly before Nature published, making it look like a simple embargo-break.
Steve treated the spat with Nature as a badge of honour. If you weren’t upsetting someone – and he upset a few – you weren’t doing the job. He was hugely respected – a giant of science journalism, as others have already said – but he didn’t cultivate contacts the way many specialists do. He went after stories and, like a terrier, once he got hold he didn’t let go. He had a rare tenacity and didn’t care whose nose he put out of joint. The story was the thing.
‘Three-parent’ gene editing was a key area of interest for Connor, 26 August 2014
And what stories. In his 18 years as science editor of The Independent he covered every major science news event of the century including the human genome project, the discovery of the Higgs boson, the slow-motion disaster of climate change, and – a particular passion of his – the development of Crispr gene-editing whose…