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Big Interview: Lord Robert Winston

Professor Lord Robert Winston sits in his office at Imperial College London, the walls lined with books spanning a range of subjects fitting for someone who has broken ground in medicine, science, education and television.

As chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee for Science and Technology, waste management has become high on Winston’s agenda recently.

At this year’s RWM in partner-ship with CIWM exhibition, he will deliver a talk entitled ‘How humans think: how are we motivated to improve the world around us?’ (Tuesday 10 September, Leaders Arena).

The only thing that really affects behavioural change is money

Winston says that people generally understand, for example, the seriousness of climate change and unusual infections overtaking human medicine, but “there isn’t any recognition that actually the way we manage waste is one of the most important single social issues in our society”.

On the whole, the UK is not as environmentally conscious as it should be, he says. “There is evidence that we’ve not been particularly good at changing cultural values and opinion.”

Winston highlights behaviour change as a crucial underpinning of a plethora of issues in society, including energy and waste. But he adds: “It seems in general the only thing that really affects behavioural change is money – and that’s a problem.”

After the waste system became more regulated, the price of renting a skip doubled in some parts of London. But this may be a good thing, he says, because it forces people to be more careful about what they throw away.

But Winston explains that finance does not have to be the exclusive factor. He says that if people fully understand the kind of impact waste issues will have on future generations, and if sufficient publicity is given to waste management at a national level, change is possible.

We do stereotype people who are really very waste conscious

He even suggests that there ought to be an obligatory visit to a local waste management site so people can witness the problem of waste being sent to landfill.

He claims this would be particularly relevant for school children because it is much harder to change adult behaviour. Adults are also more likely to be influenced by their children, he points out.

Lord Robert Winston 2

Altering attitudes is not just challenging at an individual level. Stagnant collective attitudes can halt movements towards taking greater responsibility: “It’s a fault of all of us that we do stereotype people who are really very waste conscious.”

Consequently, leadership is also crucial to transforming collective attitudes. Winston says it is no use a council encouraging its residents to recycle and reuse more “if people see large companies being wasteful and profligate in their neighbourhood”.

Winston thinks recycling reward schemes with financial incentives and education elements could alter behaviour, and believes there are not enough of them in place.

We discuss the criticism faced by the Department of Communities and Local Government when it opted to grant funding for 41 recycling reward schemes in 2012, even though there was little evidence that it would be effective. Defra trials on the efficacy of such schemes is underway and due to be reported later this year.

Winston reflects: “Scientific evidence does not have a big enough role to play in policy making. This is a constant problem and scientists always say this.”

A lack of evidence on cost-effectiveness and long-term impact

Alongside the lack of evidence-based policy making, Winston says that, right across Government, there is nobody giving social science advice, even though it would give incredible insight into how to alter cultural habits effectively in areas such as household waste.

Winston sat on the Science and Technology Select Committee which reported on behaviour change in the House of Lords during 2010-12. It concluded: “There is a lack of applied research at a population level to support specific interventions to change the behaviour of large groups of people (including a lack of evidence on cost-effectiveness and long-term impact). 

“This is a barrier to the formulation of evidence-based policies to change behaviour.” 

Despite the call for more research, it was never implemented, he says.

But, ultimately, Winston believes that recycling is now more on people’s agenda than ever before. He points with pride to the increasing number of coloured recycling bins across the Imperial College campus. 

He says jovially: “It’s certainly catching on.”

Lord Winston CV

Robert Maurice Lipson Winston, 73, graduated from the London Hospital Medical College, University of London.

He is professor of science and society and emeritus professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College and chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology.

He has presented many television series including BAFTA award-winner ‘The Human Body’.

Winston sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords.

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