The furore over cloning confirms that cutting-edge science is highly unpopular today. John Gillott calls for scientists to get out of their bunker and win the case for their work
Time for science to get on the soapbox
Dolly Parton says she is honoured that the world's first cloned animal has been named after her, since there is no such thing as 'baaaaad publicity'. But many others greeted the arrival of Dolly the cloned sheep with a mixture of disquiet, fear and anger. At a debate on genetics called 'The people decide', organised by the Wellcome Trust in March during National Science Week, only 32 per cent of the 450 members of the public present thought Dolly should have been made. On the broader question of 'Is human genetics research going too far?', the answer was a narrow yes - 39 to 37 per cent - with the rest undecided. Research into a possible genetic influence on IQ got the thumbs-down by a sizeable majority.
The hostile reaction to Dolly, and the calls for further research to be banned on both sides of the Atlantic, has caused great concern within the scientific community. 'When I hear about research on human cloning as something that ought to be taken away, I shiver', said Harold Varmus, director of the US National Institutes of Health, anticipating the collapse of what he considers to be many areas of important research.
The fact that such cutting-edge work as cloning caused such a reaction should have come as no surprise. Anything which involves the manipulation of nature is now likely to provoke a combination of public anxiety and vehement criticism. Society has all-but abandoned many of the principles which provided a supportive environment for experimental science. Consider the changes:
Society once linked scientific progress to social progress and believed the future would be better than the present; today any such sense has been lost.
Society once believed that through science we could improve upon nature for our benefit; today this is condemned as 'playing God' and 'colonising the future'.
Society once thought it could cope with any side-effects of scientists' actions; today it fears a runaway world full of man-made risks.
Society once believed in the intrinsic value of increased scientific knowledge; today it is worried that abuse will outweigh the benefits of new knowledge.
Society once celebrated scientific experimentation and expertise; today it looks to ethicists and regulators for protection from experimentation while critics talk about 'bringing science down to earth'.
Society once believed in the value of science; today critics talk about the oppressive values of science.
How should scientists, especially those engaged in work in contentious areas, and the funders of such work, respond? Here's my four point plan.
1. Tell it like it is
Scientists should start by being open about their work, giving an honest explanation of what they are doing, why they are doing it, and the possibilities it opens up. There is no mileage in trying to avoid criticism by keeping science a secret. People are not stupid, and the critics will draw out, distort and bemoan the implications, even if the scientists try to keep the lid on.
Ian Wilmut, leader of the team that made Dolly, has been praised for his patient and friendly handling of the media. But in some ways he has been a poor model. Worried about a backlash against his own area of research based on animal cloning, he has at times tried to downplay the possibility of useful research linked to human cloning. More positively, other scientists have gone out of their way to insist that we keep open the possibility of research linked to the cloning of human cells. Robert Winston in the UK and leading researchers and funders such as Varmus in America have ensured that these issues are not ducked by explaining some of the benefits of work in the human field - such as culturing cell lines in treatments for cancer, as well as for studying the basic elements of cell development and the ageing process.
Another immediate example of the need for openness and explanation concerns research into genes and IQ. Scientists involved in this work, and the Medical Research Council as a funder of scientific research, are pretty coy about what they are up to. At the Wellcome Trust debate on human genetics, Professor Peter McGuffin of Cardiff presented a defence of research into genetic influences on everything but IQ, despite the fact that the IQ work is an interest of his. What is the problem? Presumably scientists are scared of provoking a backlash because the public image of their work smacks of eugenics. But that is all the more reason why the issue should be openly debated.
I can see reasons to do the work. For a start, we should never be scared to find the truth. And the claims made - that genetic factors account for 50 per cent of IQ variations across the population - are pretty staggering. If there is any truth in them there are some obvious implications of the work we ought to at least consider. What do the scientists involved think? It would be useful to know.
2. Don't let the critics set the agenda
The critics of science are often allowed a free hand to plant in the public mind the idea that experimental work is of limited value, probably dangerous, and open to abuse. Thanks to a concerted effort by some scientists and funding bodies, this imbalance has been partly rectified in relation to the cloning debate (see 'Send in the clones', LM, April 1997): while the team involved and leading figures such as Robert Winston have explained the various agricultural and medical benefits likely to flow from the work, others such as Richard Dawkins have sought to play down the threat of abuse by ridiculing the way in which cloning has been compared to the atomic bomb. And as others have pointed out, if anybody can think of any specific terrible abuses of the technology, we should move to close them off as we do in relation to abuses of other technologies.
A mistake scientists often make is to think that stressing the extent of 'regulation' is the way to deal with public unease. In practice it often serves more as a false reassurance. Those involved in promoting the cloning work have tried this tack. In the report they rushed out, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has taken a relatively (compared to some other countries) enlightened approach to the cloning issue. Yet even this report is more concerned to stress how regulation restricts any moves towards human cloning, than to explain why research relating to human cloning and the cloning of human embryos might be useful. Stressing the extent of regulation might seem clever in the face of hysteria, but in the absence of a positive case being made for work in the human field, it can only confirm public suspicion that there is something terribly dangerous going on; in which case many would probably say they preferred an outright ban to regulation.
3. Take the fight to the enemy
Scientists need to shift the whole terrain on which issues are discussed. Rather than giving ground, scientists should take the fight to their critics.
For example, there is undoubtedly public unease about the risks associated with genetic modification and the release of genetically modified organisms. That should be the cue for a forthright campaign to convince people of the possible benefits. Instead, the critics have been allowed to twist public anxieties so as to put many scientists on the back foot.
A recent report by the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change at Lancaster University, 'Uncertain world: genetically modified organisms, food and public attitudes in Britain', put it like this: 'In the lay public sphere, there is little familiarity with GMO technology, but (our research suggests) well-grounded, if still largely latent, anxieties about the implications of the technology itself.' In fact the evidence does not show that the fears are well-grounded. Indeed, we have many years experience with GMO technology and GMO release without any problems becoming evident. The Lancaster team are exaggerating the problems in order to pursue their Green agenda. But instead of saying, 'thanks for the sociological data on public attitudes, but never mind your loaded spin on the science', the top science journal Nature conceded ground, reporting the issues under the headline 'Risk and the inadequacy of science' (2 January 1997).
Every time environmentalists accuse science of interfering with future generations or 'playing God', many scientists run for cover. But it should be the critics who have to do the explaining. The powerful argument for making modifications is that nature is a source of disease and that it can be improved upon by human design. As James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, puts it, biologically speaking 'We are the products of evolution, not some grand design which says this is what we have and that's it....People say we are playing God. My answer is: "If we don't play God, who will?"'.
To get the message across, experimental and forward-looking scientists need to push through the logic of the argument in relation to genetics. And they will have to challenge some of their more conservative colleagues as they do so.
For example, a consensus has been established that germ-line gene therapy - which affects future generations because the modifications are made to eggs and sperm or the cells which produce them - is a bad idea in principle: 'such gene therapy is just too dangerous to embark on' says Baroness Warnock. 'Positive' gene therapy, in which we do not merely seek to replace a defective gene with a normally functioning one, but rather try to improve upon nature - say by strengthening resistance to cancer - is also publicly rejected by most in the scientific community.
This cosy consensus should be challenged by a public defence of the distinct possible benefits of genetic modification in expanding the limits of medicine. Scientists have too easily accepted the argument that altering the germ-line or effecting 'positive' changes to the genome is a terrible idea because it will mean affecting the genetic make-up of people in the future. There is a simple response to this argument: not making a change when it is possible to do so is also a choice to affect future generations, and a bad one.
4. Come out of the cloisters
Ultimately, scientists need to make a broad argument for the benefits of scientific advance in society. Robert Oppenheimer argued that 'it is not possible to be a scientist unless you believe that knowledge of the world, and the power which this gives, is a thing which is of intrinsic value to humanity'. Today, however, any broader notion of social progress has been lost, and with it has gone the easy association between scientific advance and social benefit. It is now more common for rapid scientific advance in fields such as genetics to provoke suspicion, since the loss of belief in social progress has encouraged profound doubts about humanity's ability to cope with the knowledge science brings. Experimental science sits uneasily with a conservative society.
Unfortunately, leading scientific voices are in danger of ducking the challenge this situation creates. Having given ground to the critics in areas such as environmental risks, Nature puffed out its chest on the cloning issue and declared: 'The history of science suggests that efforts to block its development are misguided and futile.' (6 March 1997) This may be true generally, but Nature's comment smacks of complacency and myopia.
We should not assume that what was true in the past will hold good in the future. The climate has changed in such a way as to call into question the accepted values of the past 200 years. While bans might not be on the agenda, a cautious attitude by funding bodies and subtle forms of self-censorship by scientists may well hinder research in more sensitive areas, if it is not already doing so. And a successful call to limit public funding for key areas cannot be ruled out if the only argument for scientific progress is that 'resistance is futile' - even the fearsome Borg were stopped in the end by Jean-Luc Picard and company.
Does Nature want or expect science to advance alone in a sea of conservatism and superstition? Are we to settle for a modern version of the Dark Ages, with scientists taking the place of monks, cloistered in their monasteries with their books while barbarism rules all round them? If this idea is unappealing, then I suggest that, metaphorically speaking, it is time for scientists to cast off their monastical mind-set and make a broader case for science as a component of social progress. The response to Dolly should give cutting-edge scientists a wake-up call to arms.
Reproduced from LM issue 100, May 1997