5 Mar 2015

A dose of inspiration

Aneurin Bevan wasn't shy of showing his passion and commitment to a cause; something that should inspire us all, says Daniel Neill. 

Academic science can be a challenging, chastening and often grueling career path, so why then do so many of us choose to pursue it? I have been asked that question many times by family and friends exasperated from my complaints of (perceived) unfair reviewers comments, difficult collaborators and unsociable working hours. When I try to articulate an answer I invariably come back to the same theme: passion.
When you are stuck in the lab attempting an assay that has already failed twenty times, or when you are re-drafting a grant that has just been hammered in peer review, it is easy to forget why you love your job. The mindset easily turns towards negativity, perhaps especially so for us Brits for whom the “declinist” mentality has become something of a national stereotype. But it is important that we remember what drove us into science in the first place and what continues to drive us now.For many of us it was a desire to “make a difference”, to help the global fight against disease or simply to discover something completely new. At times when I feel myself losing those motivations, I think of those whose passions most inspired me.The list is a long one that includes scientists, sportspeople, writers, poets, and family and friends, but for this article I wanted to focus on a hero of mine from the polarizing world of politics: the founder of the National Health Service, Aneurin Bevan.

Aneurin Bevan at a hospital Manchester on the day the NHS was officially launched.  Photograph: Trafford Healthcare NHS/PA

St. David's Day has just passed and the NHS that we know and love is under continual bombardment by politicians from all parties, many of who seem to have forgotten the principles on which it was founded.Our politicians seem out of touch with the public and many of us have lost interest in party politics.At last weekends St. David's Day march, the Welsh actor Michael Sheen used Bevan’s name as a rallying call in a speech imploring greater passion and belief from our politicians and defence of our cherished national institutions. For me, Bevan is the archetypal example of the kind of battle-hardened, spirited and heartfelt politician that is barely recognisable in today’s world of bland, centrist wrangling. As Bevan himself famously put it:
“We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road.They get run down.” 
For those unfamiliar with the man, some introduction is necessary.Aneurin “Nye” Bevan was born in Tredegar, South Wales in 1897.His family was of nonconformist stock and Aneurin took an interest in politics from an early age. He would eventually hold offices as Minister of Health, Minister of Labour and National Service, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Deputy Party Leader.Bevan was a tireless supporter of working people and his successes, both in government and opposition, were many and varied.His legacy is the NHS, and it is for this that he is rightly celebrated, but for me personally, it is his oratory that strikes a cord. In the Guardian series of Great Speeches of the Twentieth Century Bevan features alongside icons including Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, JFK and Nelson Mandela. His impassioned speech to the House of Commons on 5 December 1956 is a masterclass in constructing and delivering an argument, combining humour, stirring imagery and judicious use of facts and figures.It is perhaps best remembered for the “weapons for squalid and trivial ends” quote denouncing the UK’s bungled attempts at intervention in the rapidly escalating Suez crisis in Egypt. Just a month earlier, on 4 November 1956, Bevan gave an anti-Suez speech at a rally in Trafalger Square. What struck me the first time I listened to it was his delivery: a mild-mannered and melodic Welsh twang that belies the savagery with which he systematically deconstructs the mixture of fabrications, half-truths, excuses and illogicalities put forward by Anthony Eden’s government to justify their stance on Suez.In one memorable example he highlights the absurdity of the prime minister’s claims (that British involvement in Egypt was a pretext to drag the United Nations in to resolve the conflict) by drawing on an analogy that won’t be lost on any of us who are working on infectious disease:
 “If it were possible for bacteria to argue with each other, they would be able to say that of course their chief justification was the advancement of medical science.” 
Bevan’s reputation as an exciting and engaging speaker is all the more impressive when placed in the context of his long struggle with a debilitating stammer.He eventually turned this perceived weakness into a strength and if you listen to the Suez speech the stammers only serve to draw attention to key points or to rally vocal support from the benches. Sadly, his story hasn’t captured the public imagination in the same way as that of King George VI, and I fear we may be waiting some time for a Bevan version of The King’s Speech.

The Suez speech is rightly revered because of the willingness of Bevan to say what was apparent to people at the time but that most were reluctant to admit.  Chiefly, that the real motivation for intervention in Egypt did not tally with what was being said by government. It has parallels for many of my generation with their feelings about the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However, my admiration for Bevan stems as much from the man as from the politics. His story is very much one of passion and commitment to a cause, something that should inspire all of us. If we could all apply just a little of his enthusiasm, wit and imagination to the presentation of our own work then it would undoubtedly help in our continuing aim of promoting wider participation in science. If the politicians can’t engage the public any more, perhaps the scientists can!For me, I take motivation from the man and from his mission; one that I think is close to the hearts of a lot of us working in the Institute of Global Health:
“…no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means” 
That, for me, is the principle that underpins our work here at IGH, and that’s what I’ll try and remember the next time my experiment fails or my paper gets rejected.  

Dr Daniel Neill is a Tenure Track Fellow in the Institute of Infection and Global Health.

Corrections and clarifications: The original blog post incorrectly made reference to an audio recording of Bevan's 1956 House of Commons speech. The audio being referred to was in fact an earlier anti-Suez speech Bevan made at a rally in Trafalger Square. The article has now been corrected by the author (23/03/15).

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1 comment:

  1. "Incidentally, at 49-minutes in length it would make a perfectly timed IGH lunchtime seminar.

    What struck me the first time I listened to it..."

    The problem is that you have not listened to Bevan's House of Commons speech because it was never recorded. The Guardian link is to just over 5 minutes of Bevan's Trafalgar Square speech.


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