Prof Robert Winston interview: ‘Genome research has been massively over-hyped’

'We're good at hi-tech medicine but awful at public health': Lord Winston
18 Mar 2014 @ 10.12 am
| News
'We're good at hi-tech medicine but awful at public health': Lord Winston
‘We’re good at hi-tech medicine but awful at public health’: Lord Winston

chris-titley-headshotCandid, sometimes controversial, always interesting, Robert Winston talks to Chris Titley ahead of his appearance at the York Literature Festival

Lord Winston is heading to York. If he can find it. “I don’t even know where York is,” he says. “Isn’t that where Richard III is reputed to have got some connections?”

Of course he’s just messing. “I have a lot of connections with South Yorkshire and I’m in Sheffield very frequently,’ says the chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.

“York I don’t go to so much because I find a curved station platform makes me feel a bit dizzy. It’s the longest curved station platform in the United Kingdom – bet you didn’t know that.”

This is the thing with Professor Robert Winston, the multi-award winning pioneer of fertility treatments, writer of more than 300 scientific publications, author of books for children and adults, broadcaster, and possessor of the most famous glasses-and-moustache combo since Groucho Marx.

Talk to him for even a few minutes and he switches from daft observation to serious social criticism in the flash of a photon.

He is heading to the city part of York Literature Festival, which begins its 12-day celebration of words on Thursday (March 20).

In conversation with the head of St Peter’s School Leo Winkley, Lord Winston will “discuss science, medical ethics, and his career as one of the UK’s foremost scientists”.

Judging by our conversation, this will be refreshingly candid stuff.

‘Real problems’ in schools

Take the thorny issue of educational standards. One of the reasons he has written a series of children’s books, two of which won awards, is as “an attempt by myself to encourage science literacy amongst children”.

Is that because there’s a problem with the teaching of science?

“I think there are real problems in primary schools. And I think there are real problems in pockets of science in secondary schools, particularly physics teaching,” he says.

“Primary school really needs much better science literacy amongst school teachers. Most primary school teachers teaching science haven’t done science at university, may not have done a science A level even.

“That isn’t to say that primary school teachers are bad, they’re not – they’re greatly undervalued. That’s why this has happened: lack of value given to their profession.”

What’s the answer? “Oh, invert the triangle. Invest much more heavily in the education of younger children.

“And leave secondary schools to work out their own curriculum for themselves, because they’re always going to be focusing their children on what they’re going to be doing afterwards.”

‘Awful at public health’

Although a scientific innovator himself, Lord Winston says he doesn’t “really believe in breakthroughs. I think that science is a gradual development.”

He regards the greatest advance in his lifetime as the collaboration between scientific disciplines – “that mathematicians talk to biologists and that chemists talk to engineers”.

“That really has happened in my lifetime, and it’s probably more important than the much vaunted medical advances that have been made, some of which are more apparent than real.”

Such as? “Well, the sequencing of the human genome. Which at one level has been pretty bloody useless really, as you might expect.

“I think it was worthwhile sequencing the genome but it’s not going to solve the sort of problems of its own that were expected of it.

“It’s been massively over-hyped and even scientists don’t always understand the limitation of that knowledge, and that actually the real deficiencies of course in medicine are not the hi-tech medicine.

“We’re very good at hi-tech medicine but bloody awful at public health.”

Lord Winston is a prolific writer, as befits a guest at the literature festival. His latest book is Science Year By Year, “which is kind of an encyclopedia of the developments in science over time”.

“I’m heavily into non fiction, but I do read some fiction. I’m reading Robert Harris’s book on the Dreyfus affair at the moment, An Officer And A Spy, really as fiction non-fiction – sort of crossing the barrier.

“And I’m re-reading Brave New World, because I’m vaguely thinking of doing a broadcast about it.”

From literature to the laboratory, Prof Robert Winston has an unexpected and informed opinion. He’ll be good value when he arrives in York… if he can find it, of course.


  • Professor Robert Winston appears at the York Literature Festival on Monday, March 31 at 7.30pm at St Peter’s School, Clifton. Tickets available from the Theatre Royal website
  • Science Year By Year is published by DK, price £25
  • For all the York Literature Festival listings, click here