Wellcome’s Director stepped outside his comfort zone to give a talk about the arts at the Edinburgh Fringe. In this edited version of his talk, on 8 August 2016, Jeremy explains why it’s only by crossing cultures and collaborating beyond disciplines that we’ll be able to tackle the great global challenges of our time.
When I was asked to give an opening address for The Sick of the Fringe, a project commissioned by Wellcome at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into.
I’ve given many lectures and talks at universities and conferences across the country, and the world, but this one was different. With no slides, little preparation, and following a presentation that straddled the worlds of science, technology and performance art, I feel as nervous as I have ever been.
The Sick of the Fringe is a project that supports artists and theatre-makers to get outside their comfort zones, to explore new and different ways of thinking and working, and so, embracing that ethos, I’ve stepped outside mine.
But why am I, as Director of Wellcome, addressing a room of people from across art and performance, as well as medicine, academia and research?
Although Wellcome is largely known as a biomedical organisation, we’re much more than that. Henry Wellcome himself – an immigrant to the UK – who established his charitable foundation in the early 20th century, was an entrepreneur, an eclectic collector and a globalist. He was perfectly comfortable within the arts, the humanities, the sciences, in academia as well as within industry, and that is the spirit we preserve at Wellcome today.
Wellcome aims to spend up to £5 billion over the next five years, with a significant proportion of that going to artistic projects that both entertain and inspire emotional, intellectual and critical engagement with science, creating opportunities for a wider range of people to reflect on the research that affects their lives.
Bridges across disciplines
We are currently at a real reflection point in the world. In many ways, we have never had more opportunities, we are in a golden age of scientific discovery, science that has and will continue to transform the lives of millions of people around the world. But we also face some enormous global challenges. Wherever those challenges come from, we will not find solutions to them – and solutions are findable – if we just talk among ourselves.
We are in an increasingly polarised society. Although we have access to huge amounts of information at our fingertips, we risk becoming ever narrower in our views. I worry that we often exist in isolation, talking only to people within our own communities and bubbles: scientists talking to scientists and artists talking to artists is just one example of fragmentation and division.
We don’t have to be passive observers, though. We don’t have to just watch the world go by. We have the capacity to make real change in the world by working together, reaching out beyond our comfort zones and our bubbles, and building bridges across disciplines. And I believe it is our duty to do so.
The great minds of the past, like Henry Wellcome, were not singular in their viewpoints. They were polymaths, as happy talking about art and culture as they were about the sciences. They were artists, doctors, inventors and explorers. Although modern science doesn’t allow us to do that in quite the same way, it does not, and cannot, exist in a vacuum. Science must exist within the broader cultural and societal context.
That became even clearer to me when working on Ebola during the crisis of 2014 and 2015. Alongside our partners in west Africa and across the global health community, Wellcome’s work led to the development of a vaccine in less than two years. That was an incredible achievement, but in truth there wasn’t a solely biomedical solution to Ebola, just as there isn’t a single scientific solution to climate change, to drug-resistant infections, to the challenges of demographic shifts, urbanisation and feeding an ever growing population.
Holistic approach to science and society
With Ebola it took partnership, evidence and most importantly a deep understanding of the communities in the affected countries in which we were working that turned the epidemic around. It is this same holistic approach to science and society that will allow us to really change the world and make it a better place for the maximum number of people.
We would love to continue to working in this way. To be an organisation that bridges gaps, that catalyses others and works together, listening and talking with those who don’t look, think or work like we do.
Although we may not see the impact of this tomorrow, next year or even for 10 or 20 years, working in collaboration and creating opportunities for informed dialogue will make a difference. We can change the course of history and together we can find solutions to some of the world’s great challenges.
And if getting over my nerves about speaking at one of the largest arts festivals in the world is a tiny example of that, then I am delighted to have played that small part.
The Sick of the Fringe is led by artist, performer and Wellcome Engagement Fellow Brian Lobel, and co-directed by producer Tracy Gentles, of In Company Collective. Follow @TSOTFringe on Twitter and use the hashtag #TSOTF16 to connect with the project and the TSOTF community.