Categories: Sanger Life27 April 202211.1 min read

You can change the world

Julia Gillard has recently joined Wellcome as Chair of the Board, overseeing the strategy and direction for Wellcome’s planned £16 billion investment into science over the next 10 years. Wellcome aim to solve the urgent health challenges facing everyone.

Julia served as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia from 2010 to 2013. She is the first and only female Prime Minister in Australian history.

Last month, Julia visited the Wellcome Genome Campus, where she was warmly welcomed to an open Q&A event for staff, bringing insights, inspiration and sharing her experiences.

Professor Sir Mike Stratton, Director of the Sanger Institute, opened the event by asking Julia to share some of her background, career journey, and what brought her to Wellcome.

Julia’s interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The words of my father

I think the best way of telling you something about myself is to start with the words of my father. In the last few months of his life, when he would talk to people about our family, he would always say to them, “Well, my daughter Julia has done very well for herself. But my granddaughter, Jenna, who has a PhD in science - she's the smart one.”

I can't say that my father's words came because our family was steeped in science - we were not. I come from Wales, and my family decided to migrate to Australia when I was four and my sister Alison was seven. They did that, like millions and millions of other migrants around the world, in search of a better life. They did it at a time when migrants from the United Kingdom were subsidised - the passage on the boat cost 10 pounds – we were what was known as ‘10 pound poms’.

I had a very ordinary suburban childhood in Adelaide. My father had been a police officer in Wales, but retrained as a psychiatric nurse when we got to Australia. My mother was a cook in an aged care facility.

For me to end up in politics, or to be here at Wellcome, was not a destiny you would have foreseen if you'd met me at school. I always used to say I wanted to be a teacher. But I changed my mind late in high school when I was challenged by the mother of some of my close friends. She said, “You know, you're good at debating, you should be a lawyer.” And so I took up the law.

When I was at university, I got involved in a campaign against government cutbacks to education funding. In my family we had been steeped in dialogue about educational opportunity ever since we were small. My dad originally left school at 14, simply because his coal mining Welsh family couldn't afford to not have him working. My mother had been very unwell as a child, and there'd been no support to help her continue her education. So she too drifted out of school at a very young age. Both intelligent people, and very conscious that their education had not given them all of the opportunities they might have seen in life. They had drummed into us that education was a precious thing, that the opportunity to study was something to be grabbed with both hands.

So when I saw that potentially being jeopardised by big cutbacks, I got involved. It was a humble student campaign; homemade signs, groups of students gathering. There was nothing big or glamorous, but it happened right around the country. As a result, the government did back down on some of the funding cuts.

That experience really hooked me on the idea that you could raise your voice about the things that really mattered to you. You could make a difference. You could change your community, change your state, change your nation, and potentially change the world.

That experience really hooked me on the idea that you could raise your voice about the things that really mattered to you. You could make a difference. You could change your community, change your state, change your nation, and potentially change the world.

Fast forwarding the clock, it's that energy from university that led me onto a pathway to politics. It took 10 years, and so by the time I got there, I was very determined, and very keen to make a difference, particularly around education. And I did get to make that difference. After my time as Prime Minister, I decided to find other ways to put the things that I believed in, in to action. It's that impulse that has led me to Wellcome.

I'm incredibly impressed by Wellcome’s new strategy. To be investing in discovery research, but very much foregrounding some of the principal health challenges of our time - infectious diseases, mental health, and the area of climate and health - I see this as a vitally important way to change our world.

It's about the smart people, about the scientists doing their research. But Wellcome aspires to be more than a funder. It is also about taking that research into the outside world, changing hearts and minds, persuading people of the value of the research, and of what needs to be done. For someone like me who has been in the business of public policy, ideas, evidence, mobilising public opinion, that is obviously an incredibly seductive combination. I am delighted to be able to play this role at Wellcome.

Public attitudes to science

I think this is an interesting world in which to be a scientist, as we hopefully emerge from the pandemic. I can see two threads that are going to overlay people's perceptions of science now. One is gratitude. I do genuinely think people are grateful to the scientific community for its leadership, for giving us the tools to deal with the pandemic, most notably giving us the vaccines. I think you've seen that on display – Professor Sara Gilbert being applauded at Wimbledon, for example.

But there's another thread that showed as many moments in the pandemic where the science, rightly or wrongly, has been very contested in public discourse. There are inquiries around the world about what went right and what went wrong. There has been theme of skepticism.

So I think science now has a challenge and an opportunity. Scientists can use this moment to better explain to the wider community what they do, why they do it, and what it's like to work against a backdrop of uncertainty.

I think science now has a challenge and an opportunity. Scientists can use this moment to better explain to the wider community what they do, why they do it, and what it's like to work against a backdrop of uncertainty.

At the same time, I recognise that it's complicated for scientists to be advocates. As we saw during the pandemic, there are levels of communication. Ultimately in mass public communications you do need a very simple message if you are going to get it through to people, and have them act on it. So, things are reduced to slogans. But behind a slogan are many, many layers of decision making, and many layers of scientific work.

I think science has to be able to work right through that continuum, intersecting with government. In some public communications I think it's important to go through the complexity. Lots of people now, particularly with social media, want to get online and look at things themselves. People hear the slogan, but they want to understand more. I think the scientific community has to be able to communicate fully its thinking, the uncertainties, and the certainties. What science possibly hasn't been that good at in the past is then taking that ultimate step of boiling it down to something for mass communication. I don't want to just say sloganise it – ‘Wellcome is good’ - it's never going to be like that. But I think if we are trying to persuade people on mass, then ultimately, some of those simplifications do matter.

There's never been a time in my lifetime before, when people in such vast numbers have listened to and heard more scientists speak. Certainly during the early days of the pandemic, right around the world, people were glued to their TV screens waiting for the daily press conferences, waiting for scientists and medical officers, chief medical officers, to tell us what to do next. It would set the rhythm of their day, by making sure that they would be in front of a device watching that play out in real time, because they were so hungry for information.

I think that gives us some special possibilities in these next few years, if we're smart enough and ready enough to seize them.

Women and leadership

Julia Gillard at Mt Lofty House.

Julia Gillard at Mt Lofty House.

Much of what I do now is trying to dig into gender differences around leadership. And there are clearly still structures and stereotypes that hold women back from being leaders. The work of the Global Institute for Women's Leadership is about busting those barriers down.

But whilst we're living in this world where those barriers are still there, my advice, particularly for women, is to learn about them. I think, for many women, when they encounter moments in their life that are gendered, their first reaction is to think, ‘This is about me, I did something wrong, I should have done something better’. Whereas the evidence shows it's really about the stereotypes and the structures.

One of the examples we use in my book, is a study done on scientists at regularly held meetings. These scientists came together to talk through the scientific problems that were holding them back. Gender researchers tracked those meetings and worked out that the female scientists were speaking less than the male scientists. When they dug in a little deeper to understand why, they found that the norms of that group were affecting behavior. If a man put forward an idea that was part right and part wrong, then the group discussion would work to save the heart of the idea that was right, and to build on it. They would just discard the part of the idea that was wrong. However, if a woman put forward an idea that was part right and part wrong, it would be wholly discarded.

So the rational conduct for the women in the group, unless you were one million per cent sure you were right, was to not volunteer an idea, because you'd get battered back. Once the group was aware of the dynamic at play they could address it, creating a fair means of dealing with each other. But I would bet until there was that evidence, the women in that room are saying to themselves, “I just don't get much of this stuff right” - and internalising the problem.

More generally for leaders, I would say be very clear on your mission and your sense of purpose. One of the things I did in politics was I actually wrote down the purpose for the government I led. I used to keep it with me at all times, I used to move it from handbag to handbag. On the worst days, I'd get it out and reread it as a sort of steadying influence.

Finally, I think time management is a perennial issue. In this world particularly, carving out the time for reflection is really hard. There's always the next zoom meeting, the next Microsoft Teams, the next deadline. I don’t think any of us carve out enough time alone, for that deep thinking.

What’s next for Wellcome & the Wellcome Genome Campus

Looking back, Wellcome has largely been discovery focused.  The importance of curiosity-driven science and the ideas that come from scientists comes into the way Wellcome works, and will continue to into the future. However, under the new strategy, there is an appetite for more directed funding, in discovery research and in the three health challenges we’re taking on. To acquit the kind of hurdle that we've set ourselves, which is to be funding the science that has the most likelihood of a transformational impact in the world and on health, then that does mean that we are in the business of directing some funding. It is about getting the balance right.

Here at the Wellcome Genome Campus, we have an incredible opportunity to develop and curate a world class precinct. People at the Sanger Institute are focusing on genomics, but on site there will be many others, with different energies, different ideas, all coming together in a spirit of collaboration.

The buildings and Campus here facilitate that, and it is key for the future. These aren’t buildings where people don't ever make the journey across to someone else's lab, someone else's workspace. The site here is ultimately more than the sum of its parts, that there's an ‘X factor’ that is happening between people in different institutions, so that they are collaborating across the Campus.

If we get that right I think that will be a globally noted contribution.

Find out more

Julia Gillard’s website

A Space for Science – exploring the history of the Wellcome Genome Campus