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
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
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
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
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.