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28 September 2019


Tag(s): Technology, People
Last week I attended the opening of a new STEM[i] building at the University of Bedfordshire where I am an Honorary Fellow and a member of Court, having served as a Governor for the maximum term of six years. This most welcome project has been long in the hoping and four years in the planning and cost £40m. Prior to becoming a university in 1992 it had been a polytechnic and as such, as you would expect in a town like Luton which is still the home of Britain’s largest commercial vehicle plant in the Vauxhall factory, it had a large engineering department. However, as a newly fledged university it over-reached itself and got into financial difficulties. The then governing body felt they had no choice but to close the engineering department which was one of the most expensive to run.

Over the years with careful stewardship and enlightened leadership the university returned to financial stability and over the last ten years or so has been able to invest in its physical estate. This latest development marks the culmination of this strategy. The university had retained some teaching strength in the life sciences through the teaching of nursing and also a specialised and highly respected expertise in cybernetics. But through this development it has recruited teaching strengths in all four strands of STEM and has implemented a highly effective marketing campaign to recruit students in these fields. This campaign has especially emphasised the opportunities in STEM.

The building was opened by Lord Robert Winston, the professor, medical doctor, scientist, television presenter and Labour Party politician. Bill Gammell, former Labour minister of education, is the Vice Chancellor of the university, hence the connection. After the ceremony Lord Winston gave an inspiring lecture covering some of the biggest questions in scientific knowledge, lasting over an hour and then taking questions.

Robert Winston was raised as an Orthodox Jew and graduated from the London Hospital Medical College in 1964 with a degree in medicine and surgery and achieved prominence as an expert in human fertility. For a brief time he gave up clinical medicine and worked as a theatre director, winning the National Directors’ award at the Edinburgh festival in 1969, an experience that would stand him in good stead in his later television career.

On returning to academic medicine, he developed tubal microsurgery and various techniques in reproductive surgery, including sterilisation revival. He performed the world’s first Fallopian tubal transplant in 1979 but this technology was later superseded by in vitro fertilisation.  He later led a research group that pioneered the techniques of preimplantation diagnosis, enabling screening of human embryos to prevent numerous genetic diseases.

Lord Winston has published over 300 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals. He has held several chairs in leading universities. He gives many public lectures a year on scientific subjects and has helped to promote science literacy and education by founding the Reach Out Laboratory in Imperial College, London, which brings schoolchildren of all ages into the university on a daily basis to do practical science and to debate the issues which science and technology raise.  He holds honorary doctorates from twenty-three universities. [ii]

He presented many BBC television series, including Your Life in Their Hands, Making Babies, Superhuman, The Secret Life of Twins, Child of Our Time, Human Instinct, The Human Mind, Frontiers of Medicine, Walking with Cavemen, Threads of Life, Child Against All Odds, Super Doctors, and the BAFTA award-winner The Human Body.

He was created a life peer in 1995 as Baron Winston of Hammersmith. He sits on the Labour Party benches and takes the Labour whip. He speaks frequently in the House of Lords on education, science, medicine and the arts. He was Chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. [iii]

In his talk Lord Winston covered a wide range of scientific subjects but as a polymath also bringing in his vast knowledge of music and other arts to illustrate his theme. He started with the pivotal discovery by Galileo of four moons circulating Jupiter thus killing the notion for ever that this was a geocentric universe. But as a believer in God it was not the religious implications of this discovery, which was to exercise the Vatican, but rather that Galileo wrote to the Doge of Venice to commercialise his telescope as it would enable the Doge to get two hours warning of any invading fleet.

The ethical question of scientific discovery has been always with us. Indeed scientific innovation is more likely to accelerate at times of conflict. Lord Winston used examples from his own television programmes to illustrate his themes but more poignantly he also used examples from the extraordinary series The Ascent of Man presented by another Jew, Jacob Bronowski, who visited Auschwitz, where many of his relatives had been murdered, and buried his face in the dirt that would have still included the ashes of some of the dead. Ironically Bronowski, who was a brilliant mathematician, during the Second World War worked in operations research for the UK’s Ministry of Home Security where he developed mathematical approaches to bombing strategy for RAF Bomber Command.

Lord Winston was particularly moving when he gave examples of how so-called scientists, even quite recently, had used science to justify their racist views. I was particularly struck by his answer to a question about Science and the Humanities. He said “I think that the Sciences should be regarded as part of the Humanities”.  This seemed to me to be a variation on the thinking of another great scientist who was ennobled, CP Snow. In his famous 1959 lecture The Two Cultures, Baron Snow lamented the gulf that had grown between the Sciences and the Humanities. This he attributed to the emphasis on the humanities in education so that while everyone knew some Shakespeare most people could not articulate the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

This breakdown, he argued, was a major hindrance to the solution of major world problems. At a time when world leaders regularly demonstrate their complete inability to understand the science of major challenges like pollution, healthcare, global warming, sustainability and many others it has never been so important as to address the lack of investment in teaching the STEM subjects and training enough STEM graduates to help solve these problems.  At least for one evening in Luton I could feel some hope and optimism as one of the universities with which I am associated makes its commitment to that cause.

[i] Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
[ii] I just have one and am immensely proud of it.
[iii] It is an odd feature of the Houses of Parliament that there are several distinguished scientists in the House of Lords but none at all in the House of Commons.

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28 September 2019

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