The celebrity scientist of our time

By Carroll du Chateau

He may be the international face of science and genetics, but Professor Lord Robert Winston, of the trademark black moustache and eyebrows, hates having his photo taken.

He doesn't like being filmed, and above all he loathes being recognised. "Actually I find [the fame] incredibly intrusive," he says. "And it now means loss of privacy where ever I go.""

Even a simple portrait for the Herald, here on the edge of the world where he is collaborating with Professor Peter Gluckman of the Liggins Institute, makes him ratty.

The 66-year-old Winston is shorter than he looks on television. A natty dresser in his cream suit, pink shirt and brown suede shoes, he displays the focus of a first class mind. Sure he'll answer the questions, but what he likes best is thinking aloud, telling a few jokes, often against himself.

A member of the House of Lords since 1995 he is an independent thinker. He believes in GE food and nuclear power for Britain.

The two professors have spent much of the weekend discussing the possibilities and frustrations of their corner of academia over their single malt whiskies. They have much in common. Both are Jewish, both are fascinated by the mysteries of conception, birth and life thereafter.

Both worry society is not engaged enough in the ethics and increasing complications of genetics, stem cells and reproductive technology.

"What brings me here? Well, Peter, really," says Winston. "What you have here is a world class establishment which, in its field, is a very heavy hitter. You also have certain advantages we don't have including access to animal biology in this field. We're planning some experiments and I might come back and take part in this work."

Winston's television career began 28 years ago with Your Life in Their Hands (1979-87) and gradually took off as audiences warmed to his method of distilling complicated scientific concepts into clear, entertaining telly.

His low authoritative voice is as soothing and believable as David Attenborough's, his clinical research and information meticulous. And then there's the excitement factor, cooked up by Winston and his favourite producer Richard Dale.

"We have a meal and get drunk together and come up with some quite wacky concepts which are very stimulating," he says. "And then you think 'how do we translate that into a language on telly which is interesting?"'

The approach can also be used more pragmatically. About a year and a half ago, alarmed by the lack of donor organs in Britain, Winston "hijacked" the TV hospital drama, Casualty. "We wrote a script that looked at the issue of organ transplantation where I pointed out there weren't nearly enough donors of kidneys available," he explains. "And, [after the episode screened] I had, on line, 90,000 people signing up to become organ donors."

Adds Gluckman: "That's a brilliant idea. As soon as we leave here I'll ring John Barnett [of Shortland Street]." He is only half joking.

Last Monday Winston launched Gluckman's new book, Mismatch, which discusses the way our bodies and brains have become out of phase.

He spent the rest of the week with Liggins scientists to look at ways of working together in stem cell research, regulation, ethics - and of course, the best way to get the scientific message across.

Getting the message across is what Robert Winston does supremely well. His science-based programmes cover everything from brain development to the existence of God. He uses himself as a human metaphor: for the way the brain's pathways burn into our consciousness by suspending himself across an abyss on a single wire; demonstrating the symptoms of fear by hanging in the sea in a cage while being snapped at by a white pointer.

Why do it, especially when he doesn't enjoy the celebrity? Because, says Winston, it is crucial that people understand how science works, so we can have meaningful, informed, debate about the big issues of our time. Mapping the genome, IVF and pre-implantation genetic testing are only the beginning.

"Ultimately science is the key to the quality of life - and critical to how our children fare in the future."

This complexity, the thousands of unanswered questions, makes Winston a believer. He was raised in an orthodox Jewish family and a recent programme, The Story of God is being televised in Australia this week.

It was not always this easy at the front line of scientific documentary presenting. Around 1993, when The Human Body, was first screened, he faced a vitriolic backlash from colleagues.

"I was very, very depressed," he says. "The programme was already getting record viewing figures, but there were hostile reviews - journalists said I was dumbing down science."

A soiree at the Royal Society was an exercise in humiliation as people cut him dead. Depressed, he headed towards the exit. "Why stay when you're getting cold-shouldered and people are making snide comments?

"Then the president of the Royal Society, [Lord] Martin Rees, buttonholed me and said, 'Look, what you're doing is really important. It's fantastic stuff. You must do some more'."

The series was incredibly successful, won three Bafta awards, was sold all over the world. A year later he presented The Secret Life of Twins and in 2000 the first instalment of Child of Our Time, which will follow the lives of a group of children every year until they are 20.

Meanwhile Winston has his usual "bunch of balls in the air". His unit at Imperial College, London, is looking at the possibilities of using large animals in transplant medicine in a "dramatically different way". The goal is to persuade the body to use its own stem cells to activate repair, or grow tissues or organs which could be used to repair the body or for transplantation.

In his political life at the House of Lords he fights for better understanding of biotechnology and public consultation. He says various government decisions are having disastrous effects of peoples' lives, including the British Government's decision to ban the sale of eggs and make all donors of eggs and sperm traceable when their genetic offspring reach age 18.

"This was based on consultation with probably half a dozen people plus a few responses on a website". The result is an international trade in eggs and sperm.

"Some of these areas are not being thought through properly. There has to be a completely different approach, ultimately public engagement. You have to practise your science in an environment which believes in citizenship, which believes in responsibility to society and which recognises everybody has a stake in what you do."

Which brings us back to programmes like The Human Body, which have undoubtedly changed perceptions about the use of, for example, embryonic cells for research. "We're very permissive in Britain about using embryos to try and improve reproduction medicine or more specifically to generate stem cells."

What he's planning next is a series called Guinea Pigs, which will look at the ethics of ultra-modern medicine.

Richard Dale is on board - now all they have to do is package up a "quite cerebral approach to medical ethics with a lot of jazzy science" - then let an informed public decide.


Public crying out for knowledge

Science professionals in New Zealand believe that getting scientific issues across to the public in programmes that rate well is imperative.

Specialist science writer, Marilyn Head says, "This is what we always hoped television would be used for, and there is a near-insatiable demand for these programmes in New Zealand."

Glenda Lewis of the New Zealand Royal Society, who accompanied Winston round New Zealand on a previous visit in 2004: "He drew a crowd of 1450 people in Palmerston North. It really showed us that when science is presented in an interesting way, people lap it up."

Professor Dick Bellamy of Auckland University points out that public engagement in the scientific sector should extend to decision-makers as well.

"The level of attention paid by the community to scientific principles is disappointing, but there's also a serious issue to do with economic development," he says. "You can't develop a high-tech society and economy when you have a management structure biased towards law and economy. "

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