It is not often that a talk begins with a kidnapping, but nevertheless this is Professor Lord Robert Winston’s excuse as he joins a packed Bowland Auditorium late for his Q&A session, after having been accosted by several York alumni and ‘forced’ into drinking several whiskeys at the House of Trembling Madness.
With the speaker feeling “very relaxed”, the session begins in a somewhat less eclectic manner, and provides an engaging insight into the mind of one of Britain’s most prominent medical scientists.
Professor Winston’s earlier life was not as focused as one might expect. He originally planned to study English and “didn’t want to spend [his] life staring down a microscope” by taking up Biology, so he studied Medicine. Chuckling, he admits that, “Regardless, I’ve spent most of my career doing just that.”
However, he notes that the post-degree move to acting and directing plays for the Edinburgh Festival was time well spent. To this he attributes his ability to communicate well and understand relationships. This explains his specialisation in a very intimate field of fertility treatment.
Winston’s interests stretch beyond this — he is currently Chair of the Royal College of Music and plays both the clarinet and saxophone, although “not very well.” Nevertheless, he takes great interest in talking to students about non-academic matters, and believes strongly in the importance of widening one’s own range of experiences in different disciplines throughout life. Alongside this is his criticism of the current education system, particularly that of later childhood, where students are pigeonholed into certain areas early on, preventing them (in his view) from becoming truly rounded.
He remembers, with a comically pained look, the media backlash to a comment he made a few years ago, which was interpreted as a preference for undergraduates who achieved a 2:1 at university, because those who got firsts were too narrow-minded.
In reality, he hastens to explain, he prefers to work with those he likes. “At school everyone is taught to look up to Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Isaac Newton: individual geniuses. But we all have the same 20 million neurones in our brains as Einstein did. The difference is, if two of us collaborate, we have double the brain power of Einstein or Newton.”
He speaks about how he likes to imagine the various major members of his lab as characters from Winnie the Pooh. “I wouldn’t want to share a submarine with Francis Crick,” is his closing statement on the matter, prompting general chuckling.`
Winston believes that this ‘neurological equality’ is one of the most important things that should be communicated to children, and a major reason behind his numerous visits to schools with the aim of spreading interest in science and to foster scientific literacy in the entire population: “We must make sure that science is as much a part of our culture as Hamlet.”
At times this can seem contradictory: “We have limits,” he is careful to add and says that “the worst thing that Nobel Prize winners do is assume they know everything. People in such an influential position should not become self-important or try to shape policy outside their particular field.”
Policy is certainly a current concern, with the House of Commons voting in favour of allowing so-called ‘three-parent babies’ through the transfer of mitochondria from a separate egg just a few hours before Professor Winston’s arrival. He is quick to clarify his views: “‘Three Parent Family’ is a total misnomer.”
He claims that as mitochondria make up about 0.001 per cent of our total DNA, and none of this affected the phenotype (observable characteristics such as height and hair colour), the procedure had little more effect than a blood transfusion. A key difference, and one which he sees as purely positive, is that the effects of the procedure would last for the lives of the patient and their descendants.
He is particularly clear on his views about the role of religion in the debate. “It is ludicrous for any minority faith, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam or anything else, to try to impose its views on the wider majority. These are parents who have seen their children crumble and die horribly before their eyes. If they are informed and they know the risks, why shouldn’t they be allowed to undergo the procedure?”
He is, however, also wary of science overstepping boundaries, and warns that scientists must be modest and recognise that current scientific knowledge isn’t absolute truth, especially where quantum physics and biology are concerned. He expresses particular concern at Richard Dawkins’ habit of “peddling science as truth”.
A Life Peer of the House of Lords since 1995, Winston will be voting soon on the same legislation. He offers several insights into the workings of Parliament which quickly become more generally political. The Lords is “much misunderstood”, he claims, particularly in terms of its perceived partisanship. Although party affiliation is more overt than it was 10 years ago (he recalls his difficulty in convincing Labour’s Chief Whip that he was indeed a member of the party before he was appointed), the bonds are far from strong.
He tells the audience in conspiratorial tones that many Lords say to each other, “I couldn’t vote for my leader.” He deplors the state of the Commons, describing the Prime Minister’s questions as “a travesty of modern politics” due to the prepared questions and answers interspersed with “misguided flourishes”. This, as well as the youth and lack of experience of modern politicians leads him to call on students to “vote for the candidate who most impresses you”, and claim that the Lords should never be reformed before the Commons.
This is not to say that he despises politicians themselves. He states that the media is mostly at fault for the loss of trust in politicians, due to “a few bad eggs in Parliament”, but that at worst, they tend to be “misguided and misinformed, but still deeply altruistic,” and he speaks highly of David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
Although better than other incarnations abroad, the British media remains “seductive”. This is made particularly pertinent in his criticisms of the actions of researchers in Newcastle in the days leading up to the debate.
Not only did they make the research appear much more important than it actually was (such mitochondrial issues make up a very small percentage of deaths each year), but also told the press that approving the treatment would be necessary in order to keep Britain at the forefront of science — a move which he describes as “bloody stupid” because it implies that we were in a race against other countries.
After the Q&A, I am able to talk to Professor Winston more personally about his life and views. Born and raised an Orthodox Jew, Winston considers his faith something of an advantage. “Jewish bioethics are very scientifically literate. Jews argue. That’s always been the tradition; this notion of rationalism goes right back to the Talmud.
“Science asks you to be sceptical and Judaism asks that of you as well, so what you arrive at is the rational answer to an issue, having made various judgements whilst also expecting you to be ethical.”
Winston’s ethics stretch far beyond his interest in fertility. Indeed, he considers our approach to assisted dying to be “the most difficult ethical issue we have to face.” It is far more difficult, he assures me, than ‘three-parent babies’. “I believe it will be debated again and again. At the moment, I think that the risks of having an Act of Parliament that would permit it might result in a huge number of infirm and confused elderly people going into hospital, being threatened or frightened that they’re not valuable and will be put down. I think it might make some of the nursing staff less caring. There’s also the risk of families making a decision for them for the wrong reasons.”
In a slight twist, it seems that his thinking about the end of life has affected his thoughts on life’s beginning. “We take the end of life as being the end of brain activity, which is clear under British law too. In that sense, the human embryo doesn’t have any brain activity, so in my view it isn’t a person yet. It’s actually something that [Thomas] Aquinas argues.”
“I’ve always stopped and thought about it,” says Winston, considering his views and doubts over the years. “When we were taking an embryo away, there was always the risk that we might do damage. That was a very big concern. We might also have made a misdiagnosis.
“Those certainly caused us repeated concern that maybe we should not try to do this, but then we did more and more research to try to justify it. We never felt that we were in a race to do it first, so we didn’t feel that we were doing it for aggrandisement, but for people like Mrs Edwards, who was the first woman we treated, who were people who had been really damaged by watching their baby die. That really was the prime motive.”
It is with a great deal of thought that he considers the effect of his fame on his patients and colleagues. “On the whole, I think it has been an advantage with my patients, because they tend to think that because I’m well known I can be trusted, which is a mistake. With colleagues it’s been a disadvantage because they think I’m trying to peddle my own aggrandisement, which I don’t think I have. In general it’s quite mixed. I don’t like being recognised and I think the celebrity culture is greatly overvalued. However, it sometimes helps one offer their opinion and have their voice heard, because people sometimes think I represent other people. I think I could probably do without it.”
On a lighter note, I probe him for a single book that every university student should read. He chuckles to himself and offers several. “Students should dip into Michel de Montaigne’s essays, written more than 500 years ago. Michel de Montaigne is an amazing man who comes from a very good family, but he’s a humble person. He lived with peasant farmers because his parents didn’t want him to get airs and graces, and he writes about life in a whole range of eras.
“I would also get people to read Brave New World for my own subject, because people take it so seriously that they forget that it’s really a bloody good comedy. It’s also not very far from what we could achieve with genetics in the near future. I’m going to be outrageous and also suggest Orlando Figes’ The People’s Tragedy, which is about the Russian Revolution. I think it’s a great book because there’s no one in it who comes out well, and many of the people who come out badly are actually rather good people. I think we should be looking at history to tell us about humanity. We should obviously all be reading some Shakespeare, because he got it all. He understood humanity.”
Unsurprisingly, Winston is in favour of the amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, and is quite clear on his views about IVF. Many worry about the ethics of screening for diseases and the slippery slope that this could cause, but Winston is quick to clarify that “with the exception of cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, fragile X syndrome and one or two others, screenable diseases are all pretty rare, so you could never screen for many successfully.
“In our present society, there’s no aspect of screening that we don’t want to do, so I don’t think there’s [an ethical] limit. Even screening for the most common one, cystic fibrosis, would be one in 20 of the population.”
When I ask him if it would be justifiable to deny some forms of IVF, Winston answers without even a twitch of his trademark moustache: “Denying people the right to procreate is a fundamentally hostile idea. It’s very close to the worst form of eugenics.” It seems that despite such fierce debates as we witnessed on 3 February, medical science will continue to have a significant impact on the earliest stages of human life for many years to come.