a story lives forever
Sign in
Form submission failed!

Stay signed in

Recover your password?
Form submission failed!

Web of Stories Ltd would like to keep you informed about our products and services.

Please tick here if you would like us to keep you informed about our products and services.

I have read and accepted the Terms & Conditions.

Please note: Your email and any private information provided at registration will not be passed on to other individuals or organisations without your specific approval.

Video URL

You must be registered to use this feature. Sign in or register.


Reflections on my career


Science and communication (Part 2)
David Weatherall Scientist
Comments (0) Please sign in or register to add comments
There’s nothing in science except perhaps, perhaps some aspects of mathematics that cannot be made comprehensible to a, a layperson, if one takes enough trouble. But it’s something again, I think we’ve, we’ve all sort of very badly neglected it, I think, in training our young PHD students. They really should be presenting their material at least a few times a year, right through, and presenting it, not to just a couple of their peers in the lab, but to the whole institute or wherever they work. I think it’s that kind of training that we’ve not been very good at, and given the complexities of what they’re going to have to face, and the choices. I suppose the other important thing is how do you, how do you actually, to train a person, well, a doctor, never mind the public, in the statistics of what it actually means by risk? I mean, we can flash out these ghastly figures on smoking and ghastly figures on, well, it changes by the week, doesn’t it? Sometimes it’s coffee, sometimes it’s tea, I mean, everything’s been a risk factor that’s pleasurable, certainly in the last 30 years. But what does risk actually mean? Nobody actually explains what that actually means in numbers. I, I get the impression that a lot of our politicians who are looking after health don’t really understand this. They’re jumping on these bandwagons, there’s various, I mean, the things that make, I mean, okay, smoking, cigarette smoking, I have to admit, is very well established. Pipe smoking is not nearly as well established, but when you get to these marginal areas, which are poured out in the tabloids every week, how many risk factors for breast cancer there are now, and then they change weekly. So, there’s another layer here. There’s the layer of educating the scientist in communication, but then how do we interact better with the media? I mean, there are ways for them, I mean, the media do it on a personal basis, usually, and they have been ringing services for when big stories break, and there’s some excellent mechanisms for putting them into the right science area and the right people to talk to, but I think there’s more to it than that. When I was, I guess it was in the '80s, we had a body called the BBC Science Council, and we used to meet, a few of us, regularly with the producers, and I thought that was tremendously valuable, actually. I mean, we could tell them roughly what was hot at the moment, try and put it into perspective, and those were the days when there were these excellent Horizon programmes on science and a number of other very good programmes. For some reason, that seemed to disband, and I don’t know of any kind of more formal forum for the press meeting journalists. I think in our animal research report, we just asked bodies like the Royal Society and Academy of Medical Sciences to try to, I think the Royal Society had been quite good at this actually, and in particular areas of problem, like primate research, to really make a much bigger effort to educate the public, and that can be done by having open meetings, which are open to journalists and so on. I think it’s very important, but it’s got be at every level now, right through training and through the bodies like the Royal Society, and the Royal Colleges to some degree. Because complexity is by the day, it’s getting worse. Well, I don’t understand most of it now anyway.

British Scientist Sir David Weatherall (1933-2018) was a world renowned expert on blood diseases, in particular thalassaemias, and used his expertise to help control and prevent these diseases in developing countries. He founded the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford in 1989 and was knighted in 1987.

Listeners: Marcus Pembrey

Marcus Pembrey, now Emeritus, was Professor of Paediatric Genetics at the Institute of Child Health, University College London and consultant clinical geneticist at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children London. He is a visiting Professor at the University of Bristol UK, where he was the Director of Genetics within the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children until 2006. A past president of the European Society of Human Genetics, he is also the founding Chairman of the Progress Educational Trust.

Duration: 4 minutes, 31 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2007

Date story went live: 02 June 2008