Bringing science to the masses

Last updated 05:00 16/03/2014
Fairfax NZ

English professor Robert Winston visited New Zealand to offer his insight to several students around the country.

Lord Robert Winston
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ
POPULAR SCIENCE: Lord Robert Winston is in New Zealand as a guest of a genetics research organisation.

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Fertility expert, theatre director, TV presenter and a peer to boot . . . Robert Winston talks to Adam Dudding about the power of science.

The right honourable Professor The Lord Winston (you may know him better as Robert) is meant to be one of the world's great explainers - the guy who talks about DNA and neuroscience and human development and religion in terms that any schmuck can understand.

Yet two minutes into an interview in a sunny room at Auckland University's medical school on Wednesday, he'd already lost me. The question was a pleasantry, something about whether Winston enjoyed travelling to New Zealand. The answer was epic: first a list of the very few countries he hasn't visited, then a comparison of the Dunedin and Scottish countrysides, a quick comment on the state of English cricket and Winston's membership of the Marylebone Cricket Club, then a stern analysis of the unimportance of sports compared to the probity of the police force or the future of the health service. There was something in there about the European common market too.

He was jetlagged. He'd had a busy morning of interviews, plus a rehearsal at the university's Fale Pasifika for a presentation that on Thursday would be seen by a live audience of schoolchildren, plus 5000-odd more pupils around the country via webcast. He's been on the planet for 73 years, and most of those years have been busy. Perhaps it was time to cut Robert Winston a little slack.

But it was a false alarm. A couple of questions in, the fog cleared and he started making sense. Just like when he's on TV, he was sonorous and twinkly-eyed, and for the most part reined in the random conversational tangents.

He wore a pinkish business shirt with a loosened tie, blue trousers and nice brown shoes. He looked small, and a little cuddly, which could be because "I drink far too much and I eat far too much, and I don't do enough exercise. I should do a lot more, but it's difficult with a very full diary."

He was in New Zealand as a guest of Gravida, a state-funded Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE) focussed on the growth and development in humans and livestock. Gravida was having a bad week, as news broke that from 2016 it may lose its CoRE status, but that didn't change the fact, said Winston, the work it's doing is "world class" - including trials of how subtle tweaks to nutrition can cause complex changes in the development of a foetus.

The Fale presentation was the big event of this trip, and on Tuesday he gave a speech at Otago Boys High School. He claims his proudest career moment is always whatever he's doing when asked the question, so currently that's talking about science in schools, but there are plenty of other contenders.

As a researcher he's made breakthroughs in reproductive medicine and genetics. In his late 20s he dabbled as a theatre director and won an award at the Edinburgh Festival for it. In 1995, he was made a life peer by Labour leader Tony Blair, which means he gets to vote in the House of Lords.

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He and his wife Lira have three children - a TV producer daughter, a neuroscientist son, and another son who produced that One Direction movie. He's an Orthodox Jew who eats kosher, reads Classical Hebrew and says that although he's probably agnostic as to the existence of God, he sees no conflict between his faith and his science.

Winston is still best-known, though, because he has presented BBC science programmes including Child of Our Time, The Human Mind, and The Human Body, and has written swags of books. Has all this made him rich?

Winston gave one of his big, face-buckling smiles. No, not rich, he said, just "very comfortable". He draws a National Health Service pension, still works, and has done pretty well from books such as The Human Instinct. And of course by virtue of his age, he bought his "tiny" London house a long time ago, and it's now worth an absolute fortune.

TV, however, hasn't been lucrative. "Television doesn't pay. People like David Attenborough and myself weren't paid large sums of money."

He claims, improbably, he doesn't actually like being the focus of attention. There was one TV series, Play It Again, where he learnt to play the saxophone in front of the cameras. Learning the instrument wasn't too difficult, but he realised halfway in that "the production company wanted to see me fall flat on my face. I found that really hard to deal with, and I found myself closing up." He likes being in control then?

"Yes, of course. Doing a series like The Human Instinct you write the script; you say what you want to say to camera, you have a good deal of control in the editing process."

In other parts of his life, he said, he's not a control freak at all - "I delegate massively". Just that morning, he'd received an email from researchers in his laboratory at Imperial College London, and decided it was something he could stand back from, rather than telling them what to do. "I think it's very arrogant to think you can do it better than they can."

The research is into genetic modification. "We've got a paper out which shows we can improve the efficacy of transgenic modification massively, which means we could make, for instance, organs for human transplantation from animals."

Winston said New Zealand, with its history of anti-GM and anti-nuclear activism, is perhaps a little "neurotic" on both subjects, and "might want to consider how useful these technologies are".

He then tied himself in knots rephrasing that, worried that he sounded "terribly presumptuous": Of course nuclear power is unnecessary in New Zealand, "but in Britain if we don't invest heavily in nuclear power . . . the lights will go out."

We may not want GM crops down here, but in parts of Africa, it would be quite useful to develop GM crops with better disease and drought resistance.

Winston seems to have a taste for taking both sides of an argument, sometimes simultaneously. One of his biggest scientific breakthroughs was his development of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), where a cell or two is removed from an early embryo and tested for genetic disorders. Yet he now frequently criticises fertility clinics who offer it as a screening technique for improving the chances of IVF success, because he says it hasn't been reliably proven as beneficial when used that way.

He's an IVF pioneer, but has repeatedly said IVF clinics in the UK are run like cartels, and are charging two or three times more than the treatment really costs.

His current research is into genetic modification, yet he has recently spoken of his fears that parents may try to modify their children's genes for better intelligence, strength or beauty. And even as he bowls up to schools to sing the joys of science, he recently attacked the UK government for shifting university funds from the humanities towards science and technology, because it will make the curriculum too narrow.

It's as if he can't help seeing the worm in the apple, just as he's taking a bite. "Well," said Winston, "my wife says I'm too negative sometimes, but I don't think so.

"The motto of the Royal Society is ‘Nullius in verba', which broadly translates as ‘Don't take my word for it - be sceptical'. And a scientist should always be sceptical. When scientists say this is how it is, you know that knowledge is going to change anyway. So look for the flaws, but recognise the good as well'."

- Sunday Star Times

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