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- Thursday, 11 May, 2017

“The younger generation is remarkable”

Is the rise of superhumans inevitable? Will the science save us or will it doom the humanity?

One of Europe’s leading medical expert, and advocate of scientific literacy, Lord Robert Winston held a lecture at the Medical School as the guest of the English-German Student Council about opportunities and challenges lying ahead of the next generation of doctors and scientists. We had the opportunity to talk with the professor before his outstanding speech.

“I do not believe I am inspirational for the younger generations; younger generations are inspirational for me” – says Lord Robert Winston few minutes before his lecture at the Medical School of the University of Pécs. The motivational speech is a well established tradition of the Medical School: each year the English-German Student Council invites someone whose life and deeds serve as inspiration for the school's students. One of the greatest stars in recent years was Patch Adams, the famous clown doctor, who was played by the late Robin Williams in a successful movie.

Robert Winston is not a Hollywood film star yet, but he is a well known face for ten millions of TV viewers throughout the world with his popular science programs. However, science shows are only a little part of his work: as a result of his breakthrough in in vitro fertilization therapy research, hundred thousands of women and families could have children and he was a pioneer in embryonic genetic research.

Despite his 76 years, the professor hardly looks 60 years old, and although he is a peer of the United Kingdom, his demeanor is genial and open. He has a certain youthful energy which is not surprising: he is passionately interested in the life and development of younger generations. One of his most successful show, the Child of Our Time follows the fate of 25 children who were born in the beginning of the 21st century and the show asks and intends to answer a very important question: are we born or are we raised to be who we are?

The motivational speech was Robert Winston’s first visit in Pécs, but he has visited Budapest quite a few times in the last 30 years. In his opinion the country has changed tremendously in the last 3 decades for its benefit and it fits in the community of the European countries. From that point the conversation veers towards Brexit, which according to the professor is a tragic and ridiculous turn of events which has adverse impact on the British higher education and scientific research. This change of the subject is not surprising from Robert Winston who firmly believes scientists and intellectuals have huge social responsibility.

He assumed this responsibility when he was chosen as a member of the House of Lords by the Queen in 1995, although at first he rejected the idea. “I talked about this with my wife, who said: absolutely no, I would never see you! So I had said no, but some time later I found out that despite I rejected the title I was chosen as a member. Maybe they misheard me, or got the wrong message.” He takes his political “side job” very seriously as an active member of the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and although he votes for the Labour party, he is not afraid to stand up against them and sometimes even his government if he thinks they are wrong. “I am not a politician, but one has to be aware that politics affect every aspect of our life, so I have to assume political roles.” - he clarifies. It also means that politics affect the greatest opportunity and threat for Humanity: science. And this was the main topic of his lecture: why bother with science?

From the flint stone to synthetic organisms

In his lecture the professor pictured the bewildering development of humanity with two crucial examples. One million years ago our ancestors invented the flint stone, and took evolution in their own hands.  These days we are able to create synthetic organisms – in a way we have become masters of evolution. But the new scientific and technological achievements have not only made our life easier and better: they always brought new perils, emphasized Robert Winston. The Black Death, which killed half the population of Europe in the 14th century arrived with ships and one of the most useful inventions of the 20th century is also one of the most dangerous one: the aircraft. It gave us means to travel across the globe within a few hours time, but it also gives opportunity for deadly pathogens to spread like wildfire.

There is always a dark side of technology – said professor Winston, and this became increasingly important, because our everyday life relies completely on technology. “We often talk about the deadly terrorist attacks, but not about the shutdown of the Internet, which would plunge our society into chaos and it is a real possibility.” These times it is more important than ever to be scientifically literate, because without it we can not make responsible decisions in such life and death matters as the fate of the nuclear waste, animal testing or perhaps the most important one: genetic engineering and human cloning.

Genetic research is a familiar topic for Robert Winston – after all he was a pioneer in preimplantation genetic diagnosis which made it possible to diagnose defects in human embryos – and he has a strong opinion about genetic engineering and the creation of superhumans as he pointed out. “Genetic modifications are always unpredictable and irreversible.”

This means that scientists and doctors have great responsibility to explain their work to the public, a responsibility which they tend to neglect. And this was professor Winston’s most important message: the opportunities and the challenges ahead of the next generation of doctors and scientists.

Despite dangers, Robert Winston is confident in the abilities of younger generations and firmly optimistic about the future. “I am optimistic, because I think that the younger generation is remarkable. Of course there is deep uncertainty in the world, the situation is unstable. But I rather live in 2017 than in 1917. And I’d rather lived in 1917 than 1817. I believe that the world gradually improves.”

And though the professor does not consider himself as an inspirational person, the enthusiastic applause and the vivid discourse after the lecture told us something entirely else.

 

Miklós Stemler

Published by The Tourist Guide

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