Back Chat #10

Rob Reddick

March 12, 2019

Rob Reddick is an editor at Wellcome, one of the world’s largest medical research charities. Among many other things, he commissions features for the award-winning long-form publication Mosaic, manages online educational resource Big Picture, and edits content for the Wellcome Collection, a museum of science and medicine. In Rob’s own words, he “makes important ideas understandable and understanding them enjoyable.”

26/02/2019, 09:27 - BTF:

Hello Rob! Just setting this up so we can chat whenever you are ready (there really is no rush). As a quick reminder, it’s just an informal chat about your job at Wellcome. The interview series is all about creative people working in and around the third sector (arts, social, charity, etc).

26/02/2019, 09:29 - BTF:

Everything is very informal – hence whatsapp. Please do share images, links, emojis, gifs, videos, etc etc to illustrate any point you are making. In fact, the more of all that stuff, the better.

26/02/2019, 09:30 - BTF:

The whole thing is designed to fit around your day, so don’t feel obliged to reply immediately at any point. Just get back to me whenever is convenient.

26/02/2019, 09:30 - BTF:

So whenever you are good to go, just let me know and I will ping over the first question…

26/02/2019, 09:36 - Robert Reddick:

Hello! I am ready, but will probably dip in and out across the day.

26/02/2019, 09:43 - BTF:

Lovely jubbly. So, to get the cogs whirring – tell us a wee bit about yourself. What do you do for a living, on the side, and for fun?

26/02/2019, 09:52 - Robert Reddick:

My name is Rob, and I’m an editor at Wellcome, a global charitable foundation that funds work to improve health. A lot of that funding goes to medical research, but we also do lots to support the culture around health, whether that’s improving science education, looking to influence governmental policy, or keeping science and health in the public consciousness.

26/02/2019, 09:53 - Robert Reddick:

Which means we do quite a lot of things that aren’t strictly ‘science’ — publishing magazines, running a museum in London, a book prize, a photography prize, and so on. I spend most of my time working on Mosaic, a longform magazine we publish.

26/02/2019, 09:53 - Robert Reddick:

https://wellcome.ac.uk/

26/02/2019, 09:53 - Robert Reddick:

https://mosaicscience.com/

26/02/2019, 09:54 - Robert Reddick:

Both Wellcome and Mosaic are sort of hidden giants. We do a lot of things.

26/02/2019, 09:55 - Robert Reddick:

A lot of people refer to Wellcome as a British version of the Gates Foundation.

26/02/2019, 09:56 - Robert Reddick:

On the side… I play in a band. Though I guess that’s for fun too.

26/02/2019, 09:56 - Robert Reddick:

I also like reading, running, sport, eating things, drinking things.

26/02/2019, 09:57 - Robert Reddick:

I’m not ashamed to say that I’m pretty basic.

26/02/2019, 09:58 - BTF:

😂 You do not seem basic to us, Mr Reddick. Far from it.

26/02/2019, 09:59 - BTF:

Could you tell us a little bit about the history of Wellcome?

26/02/2019, 09:59 - BTF:

And the name of your band / website / soundcloud links, obvs)

26/02/2019, 10:00 - BTF:

🎸🎸🎸🎤🎤🎤

26/02/2019, 12:45 - Robert Reddick:

So, Henry Wellcome was a pharmaceutical businessman who died in the 1930s. He left a large amount of his wealth to charity, stating that it should be used to improve human and animal health, and the Wellcome Trust was set up to manage this money.

26/02/2019, 12:47 - Robert Reddick:

The central idea is that this should happen “in perpetuity” (I had never used this word before working here), meaning that this money has been invested, the amount grown, and a proportion then used to fund research, year on year.

26/02/2019, 12:48 - Robert Reddick:

So while Wellcome is a charity, it doesn’t accept donations. It’s more like a business that instead of giving out dividends, uses its profits to fund research.

26/02/2019, 12:50 - Robert Reddick:

This also means it’s quite a complex organisation — we have an investments team that manages the portfolio, as well as various other divisions that work out how best to give out the funding money available.

26/02/2019, 12:50 - Robert Reddick:

There’s loads to say, but it’s probably easier just for me to direct you here: https://wellcome.ac.uk/about-us

26/02/2019, 12:51 - Robert Reddick:

Sorry, that’s quite a lot of text.

26/02/2019, 12:52 - Robert Reddick:

(My band is called the Howling Fantods — which, readers, Joe already knows because he’s the reason that it exists!)

26/02/2019, 12:52 - Robert Reddick:

For better or for worse, we don’t have a SoundCloud to subject people to. Yet.

26/02/2019, 15:23 - BTF:

Such an interesting model for the organisation – are there any other orgs out there that operate in a similar way? And “perpetuity” is a great word.

26/02/2019, 15:24 - BTF:

Much in the same way that Howling Fantods is an excellent band name.

26/02/2019, 15:24 - BTF:

(And yes, dear readers, I must admit I knew a little bit about the band beforehand…)

26/02/2019, 15:28 - BTF:

So what are you working on at Wellcome (or as part of Mosaic) at the moment that you find particularly inspiring, or feel is particularly important?

26/02/2019, 15:44 - Robert Reddick:

Other orgs… I’m not really sure.

15/10/2018, 10:11 - Hannah Massarella:26/02/2019, 15:48 - Robert Reddick:

I believe the Gates Foundation is similar – though I’m told they’re less hung up on the perpetuity bit. Ie, they’d break the bank tomorrow under certain circumstances (say, getting rid of malaria)

26/02/2019, 15:54 - Robert Reddick:

There are certainly other foundations, but I’m not really sure how they operate. Eg the Rockefeller Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

26/02/2019, 15:57 - Robert Reddick:

So Mosaic is the core of what I do, and we’re just about to turn five, which really makes me feel pretty old!

26/02/2019, 16:02 - Robert Reddick:

And as part of that, we’re going to be publicising some research we’ve been working on, which basically shows that when people read the articles we publish, their attitudes towards science change (for the positive), and they’re likely to take a follow-up action as a result – eg share the article, research the topic further, talk about it with friends/family etc.

26/02/2019, 16:08 - Robert Reddick:

Which is pretty exciting, because a) impact is notoriously difficult to measure and b) this impact is good. This is pretty helpful – Mosaic is a science publication and so works to build a case for science being a good, useful thing. It’s good to have evidence that we’re doing that – especially at a time when science is really being questioned in some quarters.

26/02/2019, 16:19 - Robert Reddick:

In terms of specifics, we have some cool features on the horizon in the coming months — we’ll be looking at the health effects of vaping, food poverty in the UK, and snakebite (ie being bitten by a snake, not the drink… though that’s probably not great for your health either).

26/02/2019, 16:43 - BTF:

🐍🍺

26/02/2019, 16:48 - Robert Reddick:

Snakebite’s a weird one. Understandably in somewhere like the UK, we don’t really think of it as an issue, let alone a disease. But about 120,000 die from being bitten by a snake every year. A further 400,000 are left with life-changing injuries.

26/02/2019, 16:50 - BTF:

This all sounds bloody interesting (well, in the case of the snake-bite, actually pretty scary). Do you know how the research into the impact of Mosaic was conducted? As you say, impact is famously ‘airy fairy’ for most organisations (third sector or not)

26/02/2019, 16:50 - Robert Reddick:

Comparatively, less than 500 people have been killed by sharks in the last 60 years.

26/02/2019, 16:50 - Robert Reddick:

But sharks get so much more attention.

26/02/2019, 17:12 - Robert Reddick:

This is going to get a bit GCSE science, but never mind.

We recruited just over 1,500 participants from readers across our website and the websites of others who republish our stuff, and then split them into a test and a control group. We then asked both groups to what extent they agreed with certain statements (say, ‘Virtual reality will have a significant impact on medical science/health’), gave them things to read, and then measured their agreement with the statements again after reading. The test group had Mosaic articles as their reading material, the control, some shorter pieces on a variety of non-science topics.

26/02/2019, 17:12 - Robert Reddick:

(If that makes little sense, please say!)

26/02/2019, 17:15 - Robert Reddick:

So, for instance, for that virtual reality statement, among the group that read Mosaic pieces, there was a 30% positive shift in agreement after reading. Among the control group, just an 11% shift. And this was borne out across all of the statements. For some, the level of agreement in the control group actually fell a little bit.

26/02/2019, 17:19 - BTF:

Makes perfect sense, sir. And continues to be fascinating! Incredible that the rise was borne out over all the statements – that is quite the result.

26/02/2019, 17:20 - BTF:

So how will these results be used? Internally and externally? The implications for other organisations (I’m thinking places like the BBC, with David Attenborough programming) is potentially huge. Especially if we zoom out and put it in the context of hyper-objects and wicked problems like climate change…

26/02/2019, 17:22 - BTF:

(Not to mention fake news…)

26/02/2019, 17:23 - Robert Reddick:

If I’m honest, I’m not sure. I think to have a wider impact we’d probably need to get the study reviewed and published, and it would be good to get these findings replicated. Are they Mosaic specific or more generally applicable, are there biases in our reader base, and so on.

26/02/2019, 17:23 - BTF:

Indeed.

26/02/2019, 17:24 - Robert Reddick:

I think the more we talk about them the more we’ll be able to see what others think.

26/02/2019, 17:24 - BTF:

(Part of me wants the results to be particularly true for Mosaic, as that would be testament to your excellent writing / editing skills…)

26/02/2019, 17:25 - Robert Reddick:

But they’ll definitely be useful for arguing that case at Wellcome that Mosaic is something that we want to keep doing in the future at Wellcome.

26/02/2019, 17:26 - BTF:

Excellent. It would also be interesting to see how the results varied by media type (print, digital, etc). I’m sure there would be plenty of news outlets / publishers out there who’d be keen to prove their worth…

26/02/2019, 17:32 - Robert Reddick:

Yes, this is purely digital.

26/02/2019, 17:44 - BTF:

But my brief mention of the beeb brings me nicely on to another question: outside of your own work, is there any arts, social or charity thing that you’ve been particularly impressed by recently?

27/02/2019, 09:40 - Robert Reddick:

I’ve not been out much, but I didn’t stumble across Kenwood House in Hampstead a few weeks ago. It’s a bit off the beaten track and not that well known when compared to the big London galleries, but it’s got a great collection of Old Master paintings.

27/02/2019, 09:41 - Robert Reddick:

There was a portrait of the Earl of Rochester there, who is kind of a hero of mine (or maybe an antihero, if you can claim those too?), and that made it a great discovery.

27/02/2019, 09:41 - Robert Reddick:

And, I’m visiting this at lunchtime today — so can report back later: http://p21.gallery/exhibitions/exhibition-i-am-british-petroleum-king-of-exploitation-king-of-injustice/

27/02/2019, 09:42 - Robert Reddick:

(Here’s a link to Kenwood: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/kenwood/history-stories-kenwood/history/collections/)

27/02/2019, 10:05 - BTF:

The Earl of Rochester! The infamous poet of Charles II’s court! What a rake he was! (Readers – you are highly encouraged to check him out, but be warned – his material is somewhat…explicit in places)

27/02/2019, 10:06 - BTF:

That exhibition you are heading to at lunch looks excellent. Curated by “BP or not BP”…

27/02/2019, 10:07 - BTF:

Please do report back. I imagine it will be a mix of harrowing and (hopefully?) uplifting (in the sense that people are discussing the impact of BP)

27/02/2019, 10:11 - BTF:

And while we are on the subject of facing up to challenges like rampant climate change and big, evil corporations… what do you think is the biggest challenge facing you, your job, or your sector?

27/02/2019, 10:11 - BTF:

(Big question for you there)

27/02/2019, 10:11 - Robert Reddick:

We’ll see. I don’t know too much about BP or not BP, but they seem quite wry.

27/02/2019, 10:12 - Robert Reddick:

Hmm. That is a big one. Let me think…

27/02/2019, 10:38 - BTF:

By all means, sir. By all means.

27/02/2019, 17:37 - Robert Reddick:

I think maintaining trust is a big challenge for both the science and charity sectors. Foundations aren’t accountable to the public in the way that businesses or governments are – they aren’t financed or elected by the people – and so there’s an ongoing need to make sure that they’re acting for the public good in a way that people agree with. The work of foundations and charities won’t get very far without public involvement and support.

27/02/2019, 17:40 - Robert Reddick:

As for science… lack of trust stands in the way of making progress on big issues, eg on climate change as you mention, and also threatens to roll back advancements that we’ve already made, such as through vaccine hesitancy.

27/02/2019, 17:43 - Robert Reddick:

I don’t think trust is something that can ever be sewn up for good, and that’s I guess what makes this so challenging. It’s not about winning one argument on a lot of these topics – it’s maintaining that position that people agree with. It’s ongoing.

27/02/2019, 17:45 - Robert Reddick:

From a Mosaic perspective, a hugely relevant challenge is how journalism gets funded in a way that’s productive and sustainable.

27/02/2019, 17:52 - Robert Reddick:

Being funded by Wellcome is an obvious luxury, but we syndicate all of our content under Creative Commons and get the majority of our views through other publications (a bit more on this here: https://mosaicscience.com/about-mosaic/). If the realm of quality journalism shrinks (and it is), then our potential reach does too. At least, that’s my way of seeing it — another view might be that fewer rivals equals a bigger share of your audience’s attention. But I kinda think the audience and the publications are part of the same ecosystem, and so if one part shrivels, the other will too… that audience will move towards being the audience of something else that’s maybe good or maybe not.

27/02/2019, 17:56 - Robert Reddick:

As for me… my personal challenges are probably the same as pretty much everyone else’s: second guessing things I do, getting distracted, procrastinating when it’s obvious that the best way of getting stuff done is just to start doing it.

27/02/2019, 17:57 - Robert Reddick:

That and connecting my laptop to my docking station at work.

27/02/2019, 17:59 - Robert Reddick:

There’s another big dump for you. Gotta run — band practice!✌🤘

05/03/2019, 09:19 - BTF:

Morning Rob! How was band practice last week?

05/03/2019, 09:19 - BTF:

Any gigs coming up?

05/03/2019, 09:19 - BTF:

Thanks so much for your incredibly thorough response there.

05/03/2019, 09:20 - BTF:

Fascinating to hear about trust being a huge challenge. It’s tempting to think that ‘fake news’ is already ‘old news’ and a somehow already a cliched thing to mention when talking about journalism – but it’s evidently a severe, ongoing issue.

05/03/2019, 09:21 - BTF:

And, as you say, it appears in many forms – yes, literally fake news on Facebook feeds – but more generally, a decline in trust towards all sorts of institutions.

05/03/2019, 09:23 - BTF:

And in terms of charities – the message we hear when working with them is “impact, impact, impact!” With cuts to funding across the board – particularly in the arts – the pressure to show your effectiveness is more acute than ever.

05/03/2019, 09:24 - BTF:

Which is excellent, of course – but far from simple. Which loops me nicely around to your study on the impact of Mosaic. Many orgs in the social or charity space in particular struggle to put tangible numbers on what they are achieving – especially in the early stages of a orgs lifecycle.

05/03/2019, 09:26 - BTF:

Personally I think the strange inconsistency in funding pots around the UK don’t help – to the public, it seems odd that one art gallery has a ton of cash while another org fighting for literacy somewhere else is totally stripped down and desperate for donations. I think the funding bodies need to do more to explain simply how they distribute cash (as the issue isn’t just disgruntlement – it bleeds over into public mistrust, as you say)

05/03/2019, 09:27 - BTF:

But enough of my blathering… Let’s focus on something positive on this sunny Tuesday February morning. What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you? (this can be professionally or personally related, up to you)

05/03/2019, 17:51 - Robert Reddick:

Band practice was good, though we don’t have a gig lined up, which is something we need. Always gets us focused!

05/03/2019, 17:54 - Robert Reddick:

On the question of distributing funding, it needs to be understood so that the public can see what influence different bodies have. Transparency is obviously necessary if that money is influencing public life, doubly so if it’s actually public money too.

05/03/2019, 17:57 - Robert Reddick:

And whether public funds would be more effective if combined is something that’s nagged at me before. It’s always seemed really inefficient that you can have so many small bodies working towards the same end but independently. Sometimes they’re even working against one another (eg public sector bodies pension funds — looking at the big picture, by operating independently they’re essentially competing against each other for profit, which is pointless).

05/03/2019, 18:00 - Robert Reddick:

Working in what I guess is a creative role, and being the way I am, I’m always second guessing things, worried about things not being right, and so on.

05/03/2019, 18:01 - Robert Reddick:

When of course the best way to get something done is to do it, and one of the important elements of getting better at something is doing it repeatedly.

05/03/2019, 18:01 - Robert Reddick:

You won’t do good work by not doing the work. You won’t get better without doing the work. So just do it.

05/03/2019, 18:03 - Robert Reddick:

The reality is that in a lot of situations things don’t have to be perfect, and they don’t necessarily have to be good enough first time. They just have to be able to get there. So just get on with it.

05/03/2019, 18:04 - Robert Reddick:

(If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.)

05/03/2019, 18:04 - Robert Reddick:

(It’s a cliche, but I still listen to this:

)

05/03/2019, 18:05 - Robert Reddick:

This isn’t really any one bit of advice I’ve been given… just what I think I’ve managed to learn since entering the working world. It’s only taken a whole decade to sink in!

06/03/2019, 09:56 - Robert Reddick:

Do you have any advice for me?

07/03/2019, 15:34 - BTF:

Oooh, he’s flip-reversed it! Smart.

07/03/2019, 15:34 - BTF:

Let me think… I’m reluctant to ‘assign’ you any advice.

07/03/2019, 15:34 - BTF:

As in, pin something to you personally – that would be presumptuous.

07/03/2019, 15:35 - BTF:

BUT

07/03/2019, 15:35 - BTF:

How about this:

07/03/2019, 15:35 - BTF:

Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing–absolutely nothing–half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

07/03/2019, 15:35 - BTF:

(Bonus points if you can say where that is from…)

07/03/2019, 15:38 - BTF:

But more seriously – and to pick up on your theme – I think there is much value in the ‘just write it down’ approach. Most of the time, if you have an idea, a goal, a thought – you can move from just thinking it to doing simply through the action of writing it down. Sometimes that is all it takes to get you going – be that refining the idea (when it’s there in front of you in words, you can pick it up and play around with it), sharing the idea (nice to share a one-pager)… you name it.

07/03/2019, 15:40 - Robert Reddick:

Yup.

07/03/2019, 15:41 - Robert Reddick:

You also then get to give it to others to work on, and in a lot of cases (though not all!) having multiple people’s brains working on something leads to a better result at the end.

07/03/2019, 15:42 - Robert Reddick:

I think it’s only in the last few years that I’ve really understood the value of drafting things, going though rounds of iteration, and the value of getting other people’s input on stuff.

07/03/2019, 15:43 - Robert Reddick:

Do it. Give it to someone else. It’ll get better.

07/03/2019, 15:44 - BTF:

So very wise, Mr Reddick. Any guess on the quotation? You are not allowed to Google (though i cannot control this remotely)

07/03/2019, 15:45 - Robert Reddick:

I feel like it’s going to be Woolf.

07/03/2019, 15:45 - Robert Reddick:

Or Wind in the Willows…

07/03/2019, 15:47 - BTF:

It’s Ratty advising Mole. By the great Kenneth Grahame. Good guess sirrah!

07/03/2019, 15:50 - BTF:

Now – my last question – to be interpreted however you wish… What is your one recommendation?

07/03/2019, 16:15 - Robert Reddick:

The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot.

07/03/2019, 16:17 - BTF:

Boom. Love it.

07/03/2019, 16:17 - Robert Reddick:

Also: If you need something doing well, pay a professional to do it for you (if you can afford it).

07/03/2019, 16:17 - BTF:

This is on my to-read list (creeping up slowly) and it should be on everyones.

07/03/2019, 16:17 - BTF:

More wise advice.

07/03/2019, 16:17 - BTF:

Well Rob, thank you. This has been a delight.

07/03/2019, 16:18 - Robert Reddick:

Thank you for letting me bend your ear.

07/03/2019, 16:19 - BTF:

My lobes are happily twisted sir. Very happily twisted.

07/03/2019, 16:24 - Robert Reddick:

I lobe what you did there.

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