A 'pornographer' of science

January 13, 1995

The research grants have dried up, so genetics professor Steve Jones is now writing and broadcasting about science as well as practising it. Kam Patel reports

With much of his year already booked up for the making of a series of BBC programmes on human genetics and human evolution, Steve Jones will have precious little time in 1995 to spend on a scientific passion that has played a central role in his career.

For Jones, professor of genetics at University College, London, has spent 25 years researching the ecological genetics of the snail species Cepaea nemoralis. And there is no end in sight to the work: "People must think I'm mad," he says, "I started the work as a final-year undergraduate and I still haven't finished it. It's depressing really, but it is a statement of the fact that you can never really finish a science project."

He seems almost desperate to get the making of the series of six 50-minute documentaries out of the way so that he can resume his work on the animals. To make the programmes, scheduled for screening next March, he has taken a sabbatical from UCL. Filming will mean some heavy-duty globetrotting over the next few months, something he expects to enjoy tremendously.

While "greed and egotism" have played their part in luring Jones temporarily away from academia, there are other, more practical, reasons for making the series. He says he has been partly driven towards making the programmes because his last 12 to 14 research grant applications have been rejected. "There comes a time when you begin to wonder whether it is worth wasting all that time filling in forms that are just rejected out of hand by people one doesn't particularly respect."

The grants may have dried up, but Jones regards himself as fortunate in having the alternative of being a "pornographer" of science; writing and making radio and TV programmes about science rather than practising it. "It is ironic to me that people who are, as I am, second-rate scientists --like most scientists are -- have been basically pushed out of the field on purely economic grounds. It is madness. The government has spent many hundreds of thousands of pounds training me to be what I am. They may not like what they have got but that is what I am. It is quite conceivable that I may be speaking in a fit of pique but it really infuriates me that so many people in my position are being turned off their profession because they are not being given the raw material."

It is the Natural Environment Research Council that has been responsible for rejecting his research proposals, but Jones stresses that he is not blaming those in charge. He has considerable respect and admiration for John Krebs, the council's chief executive, but believes Krebs is being hampered by the Government's wealth-creation policy for science. "It has been said a thousand times before but it still remains true that science is the art of the unpredictable. Only to a very limited extent can you say I am going to do this or invent that."

Jones does not think his ideas are being judged by the best scientists. If they were, and were rejected, he would "moan and bitch" about it but at least see that the decisions were fair. "At the moment I do not think the system is fair. I think it is deeply corrupt. And it is a very English corruption, an insidious corruption running through the whole system."

As a result of the "largely phoney remit of wealth creation", bad science is being supported at the expense of good science. "I do not say that from any sense of personal bitterness, although I may feel it. I strongly believe that to be true." He claims already to have seen evidence of this in his own field of thermal ecology -- which deals with the relationship between the temperature at which an animal lives and its genetic response to that environment. "A lot of the work that has been funded here and by the European Union in this area, I can say with my hand on my heart, is lousy science. It looks good and sets out to solve the central questions of global warming but it is the lowest grade, unimaginative, expensive, third-rate stuff you can think of. And that is because the programmes are being run not by scientists but by bureaucrats."

He is "pretty damned confident" that when the policy of wealth creation and improvement in the quality of life is assessed in the decades to come, it will be seen to have been "totally destructive".

But Jones, aged 50, sees these policies as just a small part of a general degradation of science in Britain. His biggest area of concern is that it is extremely difficult now to make a career in science: "I would not recommend science as a career to anyone. I have no complaints, I have other sources of income. But it is much worse for younger people. I would say to anyone looking to make a career in science not to do so if they had any sense of self preservation and common sense. The best advice to a young scientist these days is to become an accountant. And that is not a sensible way to proceed."

Some of the commission from the series of programmes for the BBC will be hived off to support his research on snails. Indeed the snail fund is already benefiting from income earned by his books, notably The Language of the Genes that won the Pounds 10,000 Rhone-Poulenc prize last year. "It is a wonderful piece of entrepreneurial spirit no doubt. It is a kind quixotic gesture but I am going to do it because I genuinely enjoy doing my research and it takes me to nice places. But you cannot run science policy on quixotic gestures."

Part of his future research on Cepaea nemoralis will involve collaborating with an archaeologist who has recently dug up a large number of fossils of the same species. The work could help to determine how the snail population has changed over the last 10,000 years.

Cepaea nemoralis is very common in Britain, continental Europe and parts of the United States, and Jones has carried out much of his research on the animal over the past 20 years in the Pyrenees, partly for selfish reasons -- he loves going there -- but also because the ecology of the species in the region is well known and the snails live relatively undisturbed.

He explains that before the development of sophisticated techniques for analysing genes in populations, land snails offered considerable advantages. The markings and colouring on their shells are genetically controlled, allowing researchers to go out and count the genes in populations. And it is still the case that clearly visible information system is the easiest from which to extract huge amounts of data."We have data on about 2.5 million snails, so we haven't been hanging about. As a model system for studying the central questions of genetics, for example why individuals differ from each other, it is still very good to work on and one which has a long way to go yet. My problem is, of course, that I cannot convince the research council that this is true."

Television, radio and book publishers appear to have more faith in him. The BBC series has clearly posed great conceptual challenges for Jones. "The difficulty I perceive is that it is really very hard now to make science documentaries because standards have been so high up to now in this area of programme making. People expect it to get better and better."

His team at the BBC has virtually finished one of the documentaries. With the working title Original Sin, it aims to tie the biblical idea of people born evil with the "really quite strong genetic evidence" that people can have genes that predispose them to impulsive, aggressive behaviour. "The courts are dealing with it very badly. They are trying to ignore the evidence but they are not going to succeed. You simply cannot ignore it."

One of the central issues is whether such evidence should be used as a kind of excuse or as a damnation, with the person judged to be beyond redemption. For Jones this raises very interesting dichotomies, with strong religious arguments. "We hope to have Reverend Ian Paisley involved simply as a theologian. He comes from a Calvinist background, believes in predestination and that God is an all-knowing being who knows who is going to be saved and who is going to be damned. In some senses genetics is standing in the place of God. It is going to be able to make the same judgement--it's an interesting parallel."

Another documentary, called Lost Tribes, considers the "completely wacky" idea shared by many people across the world that they are members of the tribes of Israel that lost their way during the Exodus. "There are something like 100,000 Japanese who have converted to Judaism under the belief that the Japanese are one of these lost tribes. The British also used to believe it but it has now been forgotten about." The programme will consider whether there is a genetic basis for such a belief. "The answer is quite clearly that people like the Japanese, and the British for that matter, are not related to the Jews at all."

However, there is one group of black people in South-west Arabia who have always believed themselves to be a lost tribe. "Their belief has always been thought quite wacky but in fact it turns out that they have quite strong ties with the Jews."

The group lives in Yemen and Jones says that they could have come from Yemeni Jewish traders who moved south around 1,000 years ago. "It shows that the different myths that people have about ancestry, ridiculous myths on the whole, can be tested by science. But despite this, I believe science will turn out to be irrelevant. People will still believe that they belong to one of the lost tribes of Israel no matter what science tells them."

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