08 October 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 676
BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 2 October 2012
Presented by Professor Jim Al-Khalili
From April next year, Sir Mark Walport, current director of the Wellcome Trust will take over as the UK's chief scientific adviser.
Walport is moving between two heavyweight roles, the latter with public accountability. But because Jim Al-Khalili, a fellow scientist and science communicator, conducts this interview for Radio 4's Life Scientific, the two do not have a lot to disagree about.
Al-Khalili clearly thinks his interviewee will be great in his next job. So, if you're after a tough, probing Paxman-style interview you'll be disappointed. However, the programme makes for entertaining and diverting listening, covering chief scientific advisor-relevant territory: open access to scientific journals; the lack of scientists in government, and badger culling. Quite a lot on badger culling, actually.
Al Khalili suggests Walport's new job would in many people's minds be about giving science and scientists the respect they deserve, which is obviously a scientist's point of view. However, in practice success or otherwise for past advisors has been awarded primarily on their ability to respond in a crisis. In other words, Walport will need to expect the unexpected. It's not an easy job.
Walport started out studying the autoimmune disease lupus and is a highly respected rheumatologist. The interview reveals a slightly eccentric man, of eclectic interests. He is an avid collector of items ranging from medical instruments to meteorites. I enjoyed hearing his wife tell an amusing story of him coming home from a natural history auction one day with 11 pairs of antlers and a cabinet of stuffed birds.
This of course draws parallels with Sir Henry Wellcome, the founder of the wealthy charity, who was himself an extraordinary collector of medical artifacts. Indeed it was Walport who started the initiative to put Wellcome's collections on display at the Trust, which has been a fantastic success.
At one point, Walport mentions that the Wellcome Trust has been a pioneer in campaigning for open access to journals. Al-Khalili goes further and suggests that it was Walport himself leading the charge, but he is too modest to admit it. He does, however, talk passionately on the subject. The bottom line, says Walport, is that we want the science we fund to have maximum impact and it can only have maximum impact if it has maximum distribution, it's as simple as that!
This will be music to the ears of many scientists and no doubt science journalists, too, but, Al-Khalili points out, not all scientists agree about open access. This leads to an important discussion on the intrinsically conservative nature of science and whether scientists are currently judged on the wrong criteria: where they publish, rather than what they publish.
The closest we get to a debate comes when Walport is asked: 'What will you do if the Government doesn't listen to the best scientific advice?' On this Walport is pragmatic: you give the best measure of the scientific evidence and it is squarely for the Government to act upon it as they see fit.
But what about the badgers? A decade-long study showed culling badgers has only a marginal effect on reducing the spread of tuberculosis. This information has been ignored by the Government who will be going ahead with a badger-culling programme. On this, Walport was clearly not keen to comment and instead the conversation turned to the lack of scientists in Parliament - something both interviewer and interviewee are keen to address.
Throughout, Al-Khalili's manner is - pardon the pun - welcoming. Walport comes across as likeable and competent. For what it's worth, he sounded to me like the right man for the chief scientific advisor's job. Certainly, Jim Al-Khalili thinks so.