In conversation with St Paul's Juniors pupil Nikolas Boyd-Carpenter.
A leading authority in IVF and embryo screening. A scientist who has written multiple books and presented many television documentaries. A Labour politician in the House of Lords. A Chairman of the Royal College of Music. Were you to meet someone with any one of these credentials, you would surely consider them to be seriously impressive people. Old Pauline Professor Lord Robert Winston holds all of them. And on 25 April four pupils from St Paul’s Juniors were lucky enough to visit this fascinating man, with Mr Copeman, in his office at Imperial College London.
Professor Winston was born in 1940 and attended Colet Court from 1948. Sadly, his father died when he was nine, and Winston says that this could easily have been prevented; this was a driving factor him to study medicine. At school, Winston “enjoyed the academic side” but was “not particularly happy”. He remembers being terrified by stories from war veterans cum teachers, being shocked by the death of George VI and incorrectly thinking he was doing badly at school because his grades read 1 every time (he thought this was a score. In fact, it was his placing in the class). Winston did not enjoy contact sports. However, he took up boxing at St Paul’s just to prove himself. Interestingly, scientists “were regarded as philistines” at St Paul’s, whereas classicists were regarded as the top students. Despite getting a place at Cambridge, Winston changed his mind and studied at medical school. It would prove to be an inspired decision as Winston became one of Britain’s leading authorities on IVF and science in general.
Winston told us that he believes that the education system is in trouble and needs to change. His main belief here is that, in his own words, “we are learning more and more about less and less”. In other words, students should stop specialising so early and do a wide range of learning, something he says we are “very lucky to do” at St Paul's. To illustrate his point, he says that “it’s not right that British chemistry students at Imperial College have to do remedial maths to catch up with foreign students”. He also says that science is not being taught enough in primary schools. Recently, at a conference, he spoke to 18 primary school teachers. Of these, one studied science at university and three had a science A-level. This is especially wrong, he says, in the primary school system because, “at eight you can ask any question you want”.
Winston was made a life peer in 1995 and, as a member of the Labour party, often votes with them. However, he believes that, right now “the Labour party is a disaster”. This, he says, is due to the vilification of Tony Blair who he says, despite what happened in Iraq, always listened and “would do what he said he would do”. The problems continued with Ed Miliband, who, having lost the election, should not have immediately resigned but cleared up the mess he made. Now they are stuck with Jeremy Corbyn (“a perfectly nice chap but full of nonsense”), who he says is controlled by John McDonnell (who is “fundamentally dishonest”) and Seamus Milne. A political point he made was that “we’re making ourselves less attractive” [to foreign students] after Brexit. This will give students a less broad view of the world and will generally drive quality down. Winston also sees worrying issues on the horizon elsewhere.
On the subject of diseases and bacteria that have evolved to become antibiotic resistant, Winston was clear – “we need to stop taking so many antibiotics and stop taking antibiotics for non-bacterial illnesses”. Also, we need to develop new drugs. Winston gave an interesting, albeit troubling point on pandemics. Pandemics, he believes have gone under the radar. He says governments do not have good enough plans to deal with them as the Ebola virus showed and that, in the future, “pandemics could be bigger than climate change”.
Winston said intriguing, if a little perturbing, things on the topic of germ line gene therapy. Germ line gene therapy is the process of editing genes. It can be used to eradicate diseases. However, this can be risky as some diseases have been proven to provide immunity or protection against other genes. However, germ line gene therapy can also be used to produce more desirable traits in humans, such as a designated eye colour or height. This is currently illegal in the UK as it is very risky and possibly unethical to be able to edit a child to look exactly how someone wants them to without even consulting the child. It could even result in people attempting to create a super-race. Troublingly, Winston said he thought it was “inevitable” that someone would experiment with it, considering there is a market for it, even though it is “fraught with danger”. According to Winston, “With every scientific advance there is a dark side.” In the fourteenth century, ships were able to travel to more places and more often. Their dark side was that they brought the Black Death. The modern parallel is germ line gene therapy.
On other aspects of science, Winston was less pessimistic. When asked what the greatest scientific advancement of our time would be, Winston identified neuroscience as a possible area, saying a revolution was in progress. “Will it help us understand Hamlet better? Probably not. But we are going to learn a lot about human emotional development.” When asked about animal rights, he said that, “as we learn more and more about animal consciousness, it will become a bigger issue”. His views are that, “as long as what you are doing benefits the human race, I think that it is morally justifiable”. He pointed out that “no medicine except aspirin has been tested on animals” and that they are vital for cancer research. Winston told us early on that he was writing a memoir, with the main theme being treasuring failure. He pointed out to us that all great scientific discoveries represent failures and said that he believed success was overrated. “If I look at very successful people, none of them are really very happy”. He modestly told us: “I'm not a very good scientist. I’m really not. I’m pretty average. But I saw the bigger picture.” And that is what has set Winston apart - a great scientist who has seen the bigger picture and used it to make our lives better.