An unashamedly personal view of why 'Science is Vital'

In response to the news from Stockholm.

Two unconnected events 30 years ago, in the Summer of 1978 and January 1979, still have a huge impact on my life.

In that Summer of 78 I was about to head off on my first overseas holiday, very exciting. What’s more, for the first time I could remember, there were pictures of my home town (Oldham) on the BBC early evening news. It was the biggest story of July that year, on news bulletins and in newspapers around the World.

I was 10 years old and clearly not yet a scientist, so didn’t fully understand or appreciate the impact of what had happened, and certainly hadn’t a clue of the huge influence it would have some 30 years later. I was just thoroughly impressed to see images of Oldham General Hospital on the 6 o'clock news.

Scroll forwards almost 30 years to June 2008, a warmish, slightly cloudy mid-Summer day. Thoroughly knackered, bleary eyed and hungry, I was rather excited and heading home from York hospital. There was no evidence of TV cameras and no security men stationed outside to keep the World’s press at bay, but I was remembering vividly that Summer of 78.

What I’d witnessed back in 78 was the momentous aftermath of a little baby girl’s birth, a very special little girl called Louise Joy Brown, the world’s first ‘test tube’ baby.
In 2008, after years of heartache, anxiety, stress and considerable expense I’d just witnessed the birth of my own daughter a few hours earlier, also conceived by IVF, with a dose of intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) for good measure, two techniques barely dreamed of in 1978 but developed as a direct consequence of that birth.

IVF was required because, not to put too fine a point on it, I’m a mutant.

‘Normal’ humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, I only have 21. Two of my chromosomes (a chr14 and a chr21) became joined to form a 14:21 linked chromosome before I was even conceived, which means their unpaired twins (the other chr14 and the other chr21) are floating around, unloved and single, in my cells. This kind of chromosomal rearrangement, known as a Robertsonian translocation, is not uncommon and represents just one of a panoply of possible abnormalities.

As it stands, I’m physiologically ‘normal’ as my genetic abnormality is balanced i.e. there’s nothing (essential) missing and I should live out my days as per the rest of the population. However, the side effects include reduced fecundity and a risk of genetic abnormalities in my offspring, hence the years of IVF.

Why does this make me think Science is Vital?

Guess......., big clue!......., she’s just over 2 years old, a little devil and bright as the proverbial button (Yes! I’m totally biased) and she just had tonsillitis. Simple as that.

My appreciation now of Patrick Steptoe’s and Robert Edwards’ work is total and absolute, as is that of the American insect geneticist W. R. B. Robertson with his grasshoppers. It’s not just their discoveries that mean so much, some personal scientific heroes helped pave the way -however indirectly- to IVF success, greats such as Watson, Crick, Franklin and Wilkins, even Curie, Darwin and Mendel.
I don’t really know much about the physicists and engineers who developed the fundamental science and machines for ultrasound (I’m learning), or the other equipment required for modern IVF treatment, but their contributions are nonetheless vital. Lastly, without any doubt, I have the highest regard for the teams of medical personnel in this field, particularly at Leeds and Guy’s, simply brilliant! I’d buy each and every one a pint if I could.

IVF has its detractors, largely from groups acknowledging a non human authority. My thoughts on comments from an associate of that caring sharing organisation in the Vatican, are pretty much unprintable. The mildest I can come up with is a random list of words, such as ‘disgustingly ignorant’, ‘malevolent’ and ‘vipers’. Afraid I’m unable to string them together into any sort of coherent phrase or sentence.

So, I raise a glass of 15 year old Glenmorangie in thanks and to honour your work Robert G Edwards (and Patrick Steptoe), a son of Manchester and an excellent scientist. Cheers!

Better late than never Nobel people.

I mentioned there were two events 30 years ago that are still nudging my life along, here’s the second.

On January 16th 1979 the first episode of David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Earth’ was transmitted by the BBC. This TV series almost more than anything else provoked my scientific curiosity, particularly in the life sciences, guiding me eventually to my current career.

A career with papers published in renowned international journals AND a worldwide patent, which in turn has contributed a fair few tax pounds into UK Treasury coffers. By my calculations and your criteria Dr Vince Cable, it's World-Class science WITH an economic impact that’s STILL giving. I only have 6 months left on my current contract.

Science really IS vital to you, me and many millions like us, you should recognise properly the true value of science and scientists to the UK economy.

As Michael Farady said to William Gladstone in response to a question on the practical uses of electricity, “One day sir, you may tax it.”.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading, I hope you weren’t bored.



  1. Beautiful post Mark.

  2. Thanks Louise, found it rather cathartic.

  3. Fantastic post Mark! Here's proof, if ever it be needed, that Science is far from cold and heartless. It is a way of life that inspires enthusiasm and emotion as much as any other. Great to see rewards for work that has a direct positive impact on the quality of human life. You showed remarkable restraint in your appraisal of the naysayers. Science is Vital. yes indeed!