Three-person embryos: how the mitochondrial donation battle was won
Prof Doug Turnbull successfully communicated difficult and controversial research with scientific accuracy, but in simple terms. His triumph shows why public engagement is crucial to science
If you have been following the debate about whether to allow the new IVF technique of mitochondrial donation, which was approved by a thumping Commons majority on Tuesday, you will probably recognise the slight,bespectacled figure of Prof Doug Turnbull. The Newcastle University doctor who leads the team developing the technology has been a constant media presence, offering understated, accessible and compelling explanations of why it is necessary and why it is safe enough to offer to patients.
Turnbull is these days an accomplished media performer, whose advocacy and public engagement has been critical to building a winning coalition of support for mitochondrial donation. Yet it was not ever thus. The Doug Turnbull you saw this week is the result of a long journey – one that many more scientists will need to take if their research is to find a better reception among the public and the media.
I first interviewed Turnbull in 2005, when I was science correspondent at The Times, and he had won the UK’s first licence to create embryos with donated mitochondria – the miniature energy-producing elements within cells. The scientist I spoke to then had all the compassion he exudes today, but he was not what anybody would call a natural communicator.
He was extremely wary of journalists and reticent with information. He was excessively anxious about being misrepresented (not without reason), and reluctant to talk to any reporter who had not already won his trust. He did not come across well on television or speaking in public: he was obviously nervous and used language too complicated for a general audience. It was also evident that he hated the limelight, and would much rather be helping his patients and leading his lab without the world’s attention. As one press officer who worked with him closely recalls: “He kept saying he wanted to go on holiday and hide.”
Yet much as he hated it – and, I strongly suspect, hates it still – Turnbull has since become a case study in learning to communicate difficult and controversial research successfully. He forced himself to swallow hard and not only talk publicly about his research as often as demanded, but to get good at it as well. He worked hard at engaging the public and the media because he thought it his responsibility as a scientist pursuing research that some find contentious. And also because he recognised that it would be essential if his work were to stand a chance of having a real impact.
From the moment his team’s goal was first reported, it was clear that there was great scope for it to be misinterpreted as Frankenstein science: the “three-parent baby” loved by misleading headline writers is one of the milder terms used to denigrate his work. And to be fair, to ordinary people who don’t have a working knowledge of mitochondria or embryology, mitochondrial donation does have the potential to sound alarming. For its true nature and purpose to come through to public and policy-makers, it would have to be properly explained. The researchers, too, would have to listen to concerns and address them.
That is exactly what Turnbull and his team have done. Over the past decade, he has progressively taken more and more opportunities to discuss his work in the media, at science festivals and church meetings, with patient groups, with politicians and with regulators. He has learnt how to describe it with scientific accuracy, but in simple terms that lay people can understand. Every journalist requesting a lab visit or interview has been accommodated whenever possible. Long and frustrating as it might have been, he was an enthusiastic and constructive participant in the many years of scientific, ethical and public consultation that paved the way for the Commons vote.
It is worth considering what might have happened had Turnbull taken a different attitude, preferring to respond to shrill headlines by shutting the media out, and to public misunderstandings by keeping quiet. It is my firm belief that not only would MPs not have supported the regulations allowing mitochondrial donation, but that those regulations would never have been laid for a vote at all. It was only because so much public engagement had been done, led by Turnbull but with contributions from many other scientists, patients and communications and engagement professionals, that ministers felt confident enough to place them before the house at any time, let alone just three months before a general election.
What Turnbull’s evolution over the past decade shows is how important it can be for scientists who are never going to be Brian Cox or Alice Roberts to recognise that taking public engagement seriously is not only the right thing to do, but beneficial to their science. Without it, Newcastle’s mitochondrial research might have been forever confined to the lab, instead of poised to have a direct impact on the lives of families affected by a devastating disease.
It is because of this that the Wellcome Trust, which funds Turnbull’s research and where I have worked for the past three years as head of communications, recently ring-fenced 1% of our funding for awards to researchers who wish to add high-quality public engagement programmes to their research. Turnbull, it may not surprise you to learn, was among the first successful applicants.
Scares over the MMR vaccine and GM crops owed much to the failure of the scientists who ought to have known better to listen to public concerns, engage in dialogue and explain without condescending. That mitochondrial donation has passed so easily through the Commons – if not yet through the Lords – shows how this engagement can benefit science, as well as society.