Exclusive Interview

NMP Live Meets Lord Professor Robert Winton

Professor Lord Robert Winston is a life peer, scientist, broadcaster, author and speaker. He has an international reputation for his research into human reproduction and his work has pioneered advances in fertility, IVF and the treatment of female reproductive diseases.

He is perhaps best known to the public for his work popularising science and medicine, presenting such BAFTA award-winning TV series as The Human Body and publishing many popular science books for both adults and children. 

We had the privilege to sit down with Professor Winston for an exclusive interview at his office at Imperial College London where he is Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies.

In conversation with Professor Robert Winston

How did you first get involved with human reproduction and IVF?

My interest in reproduction goes right back to when the contraceptive pill was not a great success and was full of side effects. I was commissioned by WHO [World Health Organisation] with a very large grant to look at ways of trying to make better contraceptives, which wouldn’t involve the steroids and the hormones. It’s one of the many things I have done in life and totally failed at doing.

I got in to in vitro fertilisation quite early on – well very early on of course – when we tried to collect human eggs. In fact, we were trying to collect human eggs at Hammersmith in the very early 70s, well before IVF was really going at all, and we were trying to put them back in to the uterus of a woman during surgical treatments.

Certainly, I was very fortunate in that I had the most amazing professor, John McClure Browne, to whom I am deeply grateful because he was extraordinary. For reasons that were never very clear, he had a massive international practice and people came from all over the world. They would fly in to see him and they would crowd in to the operating theatre and he would say to them “I don’t know why you are watching me, why don’t you go and see what Winston is doing in the lab? It is much more interesting.”

So I was in IVF in the fairly early stages. Pre-implantation diagnosis is just a technique that you use to screen embryos for genetic diseases, and we were the first group to do that in the world and it has become a modestly useful technique. I am afraid it’s been often misused as well, but basically it has been a useful technique for families that have lost children due to a serious genetic disease in the family.

Could rising use of fertility treatment have a negative effect on the population?

When I got my grant from WHO in the early 70s the predictions were that the world population would be 125 billion people, so predictions are wrong. One of the things that I often say in talks is that scientists are no better at foretelling the future than anybody else.

Now we expect that the world’s population may grow to about 10 billion, maybe 11 billion, but all the evidence suggests it will then decline and of course population fluctuations are not due to contraception or due to reproductive medicine. Okay, we have created around six million IVF babies, but that against six billion individuals is absolutely trivial.

What really controls population are living standards, hygiene, better water supplies, better education for women, better democracies. The predictions for Britain by Malthus in the 18th century was that we would be over populated by 1930 and there would be not enough food to support the population. What Malthus didn’t know was that we were going to invent the water closet. The WC of course saved masses of lives, children’s lives, through no longer having contaminated water. So people didn’t need to constantly breed, so that brought the population down. That’s nothing to do with medicine; that is to do with the infrastructure of your society.

I am very optimistic about the planet in the long term. I think that we will have a sustainable population and I don’t think that we will necessarily ravage the planet. The problems of climate change are there, but I don’t think that will be so much related to populations; I think it may be due to what we have done already.

Have you always been able to portray complex themes in simple terms?

No! I haven’t. When I did my first television presenting, which was in the 1970s, 1978 was the first big series I did – Your Life in Their Hands – and I did six years of that; I had my director John Mansfield, to whom I am absolutely in debt, stand me in front of the camera and say “Robert, I don’t understand a word of what you are saying, completely unintelligible” or “Robert, you are being pompous”. And that is a fantastic education. Hard to take but doing a re-take and actually then explaining it.

I think with science presentation what I have tried to do is to only get out one idea with each piece of presentation, and I tend to not talk for great length at the camera. I mean most of the things that I interpose on camera, unless it’s a metaphor, would be less than 20 seconds.

What can we do to improve the overall health of society?

Remember when Tony Blair said Education, Education, Education? I think that it applies to small companies as well. I think that companies should be much more involved with public engagement; I think that we need to be much more involved with public engagement.

The reason why I enjoy doing the sort of stuff that you are promoting is because I think that kind of public engagement is an important responsibility. It is a duty actually, for scientists to be able to communicate what they are doing in simple terms without talking down to people. Not condescending, not being patronising, but explaining things as they are – to explain to them what they feel the problems might be. I think that that is something which is essential for good economics to do.

When and why did you decide to get involved in TV?

My first foray in to the medium was in 1967 when I was doing a caesarean section in black and white television live, well, it was being filmed. I think nobody had ever filmed a caesarean section before then; it was a very new thing to have a television camera in there.

I was doing this operation and as I was delivering the baby with a camera behind me, filming down on to the abdomen, I’d opened the abdomen, opened the uterus and I had those thespian instincts of showing off the baby being delivered, holding it out of the uterus. And as I am pulling it out of the uterus, because I am scrubbed up so I can't touch anything except the baby and the uterus, I had that horrible sensation – which every surgeon dreads – which is the feeling of the pyjama cord around my waist coming undone and my trousers slowly slipping down to my knees and then to my ankles. And the camera is behind me and all I could think about as I was delivering that baby – did I put on clean knickers this morning?

Ever since then I was hooked on telly really, so I wrote a science fiction program in the 70s, which won an award, and then we did Your Life in Their Hands, and then I gave up television after six series almost completely. I did the news stuff as IVF became very popular.

Then in fact, what happened, was they did a fly-on-the-wall documentary about my work, a seven part series called Making Babies, which was watched by millions of people. Something like 15 million people I think, because it was repeated. That led to The Human Body, which of course won all those BAFTAs – nothing to do with me, the production team were brilliant of course, and it had a fantastic budget.

It was an example of how the BBC could do science really well. It was a wonderful team effort produced by one of my best friends and we became very close. Since then, for a long time, I was never short of doing a series; I did so many series for the BBC.

How do you engage audiences?

Well one thing I do quite a lot is to engage my audience I use music a great deal. I’m Chairman of The Royal College of Music, which is a wonderful privilege, and I very often embed quite technical slides with musical examples, and the audience find that quite bizarre.

I also use quite a lot of art in my speaking. For example, when I am talking about eugenics I often show 14th century, 15th century paintings and I use a whole range of musical examples there, which may sound quite odd but I try to look outside my subjects.

I think my trick is to call on any aspect of being, which is not directly related to the subject, but use that as a metaphor. And to my mind that is a very powerful way of getting an audience really on side and waking them up, getting them interested – where is he going, what is he doing? That has been quite a successful strategy. 

I do it too with student audiences, not for a speaking engagement, just when I am teaching, and very often you can see it – they think, what the hell is he doing? Last week, for example, I talked to a group of finance administrators for a paid speaking engagement in outer London, and I saw quite a few of them bringing out their mobile phones and doing that usual thing that finance managers do, because they want to see what the markets are doing. By the time I had shown my third slide, which was completely unexpected, they had all put their mobile phones away and they stayed away, and I felt that use of parallel metaphors is valuable.

The other thing, which of course is really important, is humour. Humour is, I think, really essential. Far too many speakers take themselves very seriously and think that they can be absolutely didactic that they have got the truth. I don’t feel like that. I know that at some point I am going to fall flat on my face, but I also think that if I am enjoying the audience they might be enjoying what I am saying.

So, whenever I am speaking, I am listening to my audience, really listening to them. Even though they’re not saying anything, I am very conscious of what they are doing, what they seem to be thinking from their faces.

I don’t like to speak to an audience in the complete dark in the theatre, I like to have house lights on for example, and I think that aspect of communication is something I learned way back in the theatre.

What will be the biggest medical breakthrough in the near future?

I think the greatest medical breakthrough is probably going to be understanding how the environment influences our health more. I think that is where it is really needed and I don’t just mean pollution, I mean much more complicated. 

For example, the epidemic of obesity is not just fizzy drinks. I love Jamie Oliver, he is a wonderful person, and I admire him being altruistic and public spirited, but actually it is so much more complicated than what you eat. What we now know, for example, is a great grandparent with a particular diet can influence great grandchildren, while the in-between generations are not affected. It’s very, very interesting. That is the science of epigenetics. I think that in the immediate future we are going to be involved with that more and more.

I am currently involved in a big project in Singapore where we’re looking at the effect of the environment on children, about 2500 children, we have been following them since their conception. How do we know when they are conceived? It’s interesting but it is amazing how close to conception you can get with a carefully run study. These children are around six and we can see all sorts of environmental influences, which have been completely unknown. The bacteria in their gut for example, are an environmental influence which changes a whole load of things from the way they think to the kind of disease risks they have. I don’t just mean infections; I mean diabetes for example.

What is your proudest achievement?

I think, if I am honest – and this sounds cheesy but it shouldn’t do – my children. I’ve got three kids, five grandchildren and one on the way. And my three children are funny, responsible, thoughtful, very politically aware, not necessarily belonging to a party but very aware of society, good at what they do.

I’ve got one son who is a better scientist than I am and one guy who is making a name in broadcasting in a way that I never have done; he is in Los Angeles; I feel very happy with that. 

I think that achievements in science are much less important than people imagine. Even if you win a Nobel Prize, for example, in five years’ time you are eight-point type at the bottom of a page and nobody remembers who was the Nobel Prize winner for medicine five years ago. Why should they? Because time moves on, but the next generation is something that we can all nurture and I suppose if I have one message to audiences it is that we neglect the next generation at our peril.

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