24 March 1997
John Gillot, who writes on scientific issues for LM magazine, is excited by the
possibilities brought about by the onset of cloning but despairs at the
Dolly Parton says she is 'honoured' that the world's first cloned animal has been
named after her. There is, she says, no such thing as 'baaaaad publicity'.
The public seem less certain about Dolly the lamb; and are downright
frightened about what might follow. At a large debate on genetics called 'The
People Decide', organised by the Wellcome Trust in London on March 19, even I
was surprised that only 32 per cent of the 450 members of the public present
thought Dolly should have been made. No vote was taken on whether we should
clone humans, but I would have been surprised if anyone had voted for it
given the temper of the discussion.
How should scientists respond to this wave of anxiety and downright opposition?
As I argue in the forthcoming issue of LM Magazine, the important point is
not to be defensive. Thankfully, some British parliamentarians, in the form
of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, have taken a
relatively (compared to some other countries) enlightened approach to the
issue. In a report rushed out by 18 March, they are at pains to stress the
importance of the work - calling it 'the most important development in United
Kingdom science since the splitting of the atom' - and to combat the hysteria
surrounding the discovery; a response which, they rightly argue, has helped
to 'diminish' the work.
Where the report falls down is that it is more concerned to stress the broad
scope of regulation which would restrict any moves toward human cloning than
it is to explain why research relating to human cloning and the cloning of
human embryos might be useful. As I explain in April's LM, cloning embryos
could be useful therapeutically. Cloning human cell lines in isolation could
also be useful. A case for this kind of work needs to be made publicly now if
we are to turn around the kind of negative reaction expressed at the Wellcome
debate. 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 has the unfortunate effect of merely confirming public
suspicion that there is something terrible going on that they would rather
see banned than regulated.
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