Friday, 5 January 2007

Fear of Frankenbunny

Fear of science is back in the papers. Once again irrationality is in danger of trumping reason.

Caroline Flint, our public health minister, and Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, have become spooked by adverse reaction to a consultation and are rumoured to be about to block pioneering stem-cell research that may help develop cures for terrible illnesses such as Motor Neurone disease, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Now I am a firm believe in giving credit where credit is due. The Government has generally provided an excellent environment for medical research – so much so that Stephen Minger, one of the leading research scientists involved in this latest controversy, left the US to work at King's College, London. Without declaring a research free-for-all, the Government has created a licensing system that has enabled researchers in Britain to push the bounds of human knowledge and bring us closer to developing cures.

However, a recent consultation into the regulation of fertility treatments generated some negative results from religious organisations and anti-embryo research groups. This has caused Ministers to fear that public opinion is opposed to medical research.

Into this have stepped two research teams (one led by Dr. Minger), who are applying for licences to create embryos from neutralised cow and rabbit eggs implanted with human cells. Their aim is to create human stem-cells which they would use to examine the progress of diseases: if the neutralised eggs were implanted with the cells of a Motor Neurone suffer, for example, the stem cell would have Motor Neurone disease and so the scientists could study to progress of the disease. It may also be possible in future to clone cells and use them for transplants.

None of this requires the use of animal eggs, of course. However, human eggs are in short supply and those who are most concerned by this kind of research tend to be the same as those who object to using human eggs in research and to destroying fertilised eggs at all. In fact their concerns about breading a race of Frankenbunnies and Mootants is ill-founded; it is the implanted cell that will give the egg its DNA, while the tiny trace of animal protein and mitochondria from the egg would be replaced by human substitutes. Furthermore, there is no plan to actually implant these eggs and bring them to term.

What is more, the consultation that has caused all this concern was about an entirely unrelated issue (human fertility treatment) and the Ministers’ fears are based on a majority of opinions from among just 535 responses. Considering that 855 people have petitioned the Prime Minister to change the national anthem to Gold by Spandau Ballet, this seems to be rather a timorous overreaction.

In fact, it highlights the dangers of public consultations and “participatory democracy”, which are invariably captured by the most vocal and most well organised (often the best funded) groups, and where perversely it is easier for minority groups to organise than majorities.

I have written before about the danger posed to our society when we allow important and valuable research to be prevented by the illegal activities of minorities. In this case, however, it is not law-breakers who are threatening progress but law-makers. While I disagree with the irrational fear that fires the anti-research lobbyists, they are acting perfectly legally and have made their concerns known in the correct way. It is the reaction of Government ministers that is the problem here.

Stem cell research – including the use of hybrid embryos – has huge potential benefits for mankind. It will help us cure terrible diseases and alleviate great suffering. It is opposed by only a small fraction of the population, though a vocal and well-organised one. Ministers should have the courage to stand up for progress and for reason.

The decision has not been taken yet. Now is the chance for Hewitt, Flint and their Labour colleagues to show us they have some backbone and deserve their oft-claimed title of ‘Progressives’.


Kit said...

You failed to raise that this is a question of state funding. In the US stem-cell research is allowed but it is not federally funded.
I have no problem with stem-cell research, however, I understand the position of people who find it repugnant and yet are for forced to finance it with their taxes.
Should the true liberal position be against state funding?

Tom Papworth said...

An interesting point.

I did not raise it because it was not pertinent to this story: this isn't about government funding but about government permission. It may be that the university is operating through public funds, but it is still distributing those funds based on its research needs and not a public agenda.

Of course, I oppose state funding for ANY research because I do not believe that the government is best placed to pick which scientific advances or technologies should be promoted. There may be occasional examples of market failure (though I am not convinced) but this is definitely not one of them.

Your point that individuals taxes may be used to fund research they consider repugnant is well made.