Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charity supporting and celebrating biomedical research and the medical humanities. Previously he was the science editor of the Times newspaper in the UK. He is the author of two books, ‘The Geek Manifesto’ and ’50 Genetic Ideas You Really Need to Know’.
What I think is really exciting are the teachers who are doing open-ended experiments in school.
On first memories of science
I guess as a kid I played with a chemistry set which I enjoyed but, really, I didn’t do a lot of science at school, I dropped it at GCSE, I went on and did a history degree. If you’d told me when I left university I was going to make most of my career writing about science and communicating science, I really would’ve laughed at you. What changed was I joined the Times straight from university as a graduate trainee and I did three or four years of all sorts of jobs and then after a spell of writing leaders I was asked/told by the editor at the time to go and take on the science beat.
And I thought it was something that I’d do for a couple of years and then move on to something else, politics, or go and be a foreign correspondent or something like that and I didn’t…I didn’t, because it just grabbed me, and I guess writing about science taught me something about it that I had never quite picked up in my school days, which is that it’s Carl Sagan’s great phrase that science isn’t just knowledge, it’s more than a body of knowledge, it’s a way of thinking, and I think once I’d grasped that and once I became enthusiastic and even passionate about that there was no real going back for me and science became a vocation, something I really wanted to continue in, and it’s been so fascinating.
On working for the Wellcome Trust
So that was relatively recently, I moved about 18 months ago and it was too interesting a job to turn down. The Wellcome Trust is one of the world’s largest charitable foundations – third largest – and the largest spending money on biomedical research after the Gates Foundation. It’s by far the largest charity in the UK, we spend about £650 million a year and we have an overall endowment of £16 billion, and what’s great about the Wellcome Trust is that as well as funding the best science it also has a deep commitment to engaging with the public about that science as well. We have a public engagement programme which is an integral part of what we do, we spend millions of pounds on that area and we take communication very seriously as well. So the opportunity to communicate since for an organisation like that was just too good to turn down.
On communicating science to kids
I think that’s a really interesting question, it’s something that innovative teachers are really starting to do quite well and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. But I think the actual key is learning by doing, is by setting up experiments that don’t have necessarily an answer. Too often in school I think we…even when we do practical experiments, we do a practical experiment where there’s an answer: there’s a correct answer and there’s an incorrect answer. What I think is really exciting are the teachers who are doing open-ended experiments in school, and I’ll give you a couple of examples.
There’s a great example in my book, The Geek Manifesto, about a primary school in Devon where, with help from a parent who’s a scientist, they set up a study to look at colour vision in bees and set up an experiment which was a genuine experiment. The primary school kids were able to collect the data and work out hypotheses, really fascinating project, and what’s best about it, the results were published in a peer reviewed journal. So that’s one example.
Another example, there’s another cracking school in Kent called Simon Langton School where the sixth formers do real scientific research, they’re involved in doing research into a gene that’s implicated in multiple sclerosis and they’re actually doing cutting edge research in the context of their laboratory work for their A levels, and I think that’s a model that we can roll out much more widely.
On relating science to adults
I think that the status of science in national conversation is going up all the time and the kind of impact of science in popular culture – people like Ben Goldacre, Brian Cox etc. – over the last few years has been really significant, so that’s one way that’s definitely helping. But I think it is about trying to communicate that science is this wonderful thing, it’s a tool for satisfying curiosity, it’s a tool that we activate when we don’t know the answer, not a set of answers, and it’s actually applicable to all sorts of things, it’s not just something that men in white coats do in a lab, it’s something that all of us can do, that we can look at how…try to use the approaches of science to judge risk, how to look for evidence, all those sorts of things and really recognise that the scientific approach is really just about asking, what’s the evidence, observing, weighing up against data and recognising that everything that we know is to an extent provisional and that anything can be revised in light of better data.