Subscribe to the BioNews newsletter for free

Advanced Search

Search for

Like the Progress Educational Trust on Facebook

The Fertility Show


Scientists, hybrid embryos and the media

28 April 2008

By Fiona Fox

Appeared in BioNews 455
Should scientists enter the media fray on the most controversial aspects of stem cell research when the row is clearly about much more than the science? This is a question that many in the scientific community have raised over the past year in relation to the furore over human-animal hybrid embryos. When the UK Science Media Centre first ran a couple of our trademark 'Background'  briefings on hybrids and chimeras in mid 2005, the story was covered responsibly by the science reporters in the inside pages. But when the Government revealed its intention to ban this area of research because of public revulsion, hybrid embryos became front page news. Some scientists point out that from that moment on this debate has been much more about politics, policy, regulation and religion than about science. And of course they are right - even in the midst of the Easter-tide assault from the Catholic church, much of the media focused on what it meant for the debate over a  free vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill - will MPs be whipped by the PM or the Cardinals was the question favoured by political commentators.

I do believe that scientists need to make careful assessments about the risks and benefits of doing media work at times like this. But, for me, that careful assessment comes out firmly in favour of engagement. It is worth reflecting on the huge media furore over genetically modified (GM) crops back in 1999. The UK's top plant scientists watched in horror as their research was sensationalised, hyped and trivialised. With a handful of honourable exceptions, the real experts on GM science ran in the opposite direction leaving the coast clear for campaigners and commentators on both sides who played fast and loose with the science.

The public have every right to say no to GM technology or human-animal embryos, but no-one interested in a healthy democracy can want people to arrive at these important decisions without having an accurate understanding of the science involved. My colleagues have been monitoring inaccurate references to hybrid embryos in the news for some years now, and suffice to say the number of real howlers has increased dramatically since politicians and Cardinals have entered this debate. Truth, it seems, is often the first casualty of a science story turned media 'row'. For me this makes it all the more important that stem cell scientists should have their voices heard in this debate, and should take every opportunity to explain the science.

That doesn't mean there are no risks involved in engaging with the debate when it's taking place at such a high volume and temperature. However I believe that the key scientists have avoided many of the pitfalls by sticking resolutely to explaining the science. Indeed I have absolutely marvelled at how many times scientists like Stephen Minger, Robin Lovell-Badge, Lyle Armstrong, Chris Shaw and others can repeat their favoured ways of explaining hybrids in simple and compelling terms.

Another risk is that the scientists most in the public eye will be accused of hyping the significance of hybrid embryo research and its potential medical applications. I think Martin Evans's intervention in this debate has been extremely important and well timed, but I did slightly baulk at his suggestion that some scientists may be guilty of hyping hybrid research - an accusation repeated by the Daily Telegraph's respected science editor Roger Highfield. There is no question that the huge media interest in hybrid embryos has had the effect of exaggerating the significance of this research over other areas of stem cell research. But the fault lies not with the scientists but with the vagaries of a media that always privileges the new and sensational.

I have listened intently to all the scientists who have taken the lead on engaging with the media on this issue over the past two years, and they have always been incredibly cautious about the claims they make. Those scientists who enter this debate under more controlled circumstances with trusted journalists need to acknowledge that whenever science becomes the subject of a media storm, the nuances, uncertainties and caveats will often disappear. It's amazing that Nobel Prize winners and the heads of funding agencies have entered this debate to express their backing for this research, but we also need to champion the scientists at the sharp end like those doing back-to-back interviews responding to alarmist attacks over Easter with considerably less control over the output.      

Whether we like it or not, the days when scientists could stay in their ivory towers and just pop out now and again to announce a new discovery are over. The debate over GM showed that the scientific community has to work hard to address public concerns and earn support for new techniques, and that the opportunity to do that comes often in the midst of a media storm. So far all the signs show that the efforts of the scientific community have not been in vain. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's rigorous consultation on hybrid embryos last year showed that when the public understand the science and the potential implications, 61 per cent can get beyond the 'yuk' factor and accept this research, while Cardinal Keith O'Brien's references to Frankenstein and monsters did little to stop a Times poll finding a clear majority in favour just after Easter. Leaders in the Times and the Financial Times in the past few months have clearly linked the public support to the scientific community's new willingness to enter the fray of one of the most controversial issues in science - the times really are changing.

The Science Media Centre will be involved in co-ordinating scientific reaction to several of the science aspects of the Bill as it comes back to the Commons in may - if you are happy to do any media work on PGD, tissue typing, embryonic stem cell research etc please contact Kate on 020 7670 2981.



09 November 2015 - by Dr Jane Currie 
A group of researchers have called for an overturn of a recent decision by the National Institutes of Health to suspend funding for research on human–animal chimeras...
11 November 2013 - by Dr James Heather 
The chance to watch a lecture from a Nobel laureate is always exciting. Throw in a couple of scientific societies that clock up over 400 years of history between them, and you can practically feel the prestige dripping from the ceiling...
07 January 2013 - by John Brinsley 
Mythical ideas of 'chimera', or animals formed or forged of parts derived from various different organisms, have endured throughout history, from Greek folklore and Homer's Iliad through to contemporary science fiction. In fact, organisms arising from human-nonhuman genetic combinations are already with us...
20 August 2012 - by John Brinsley 
With the term 'Frankenstein' having become synonymous with 'mad scientists' who 'play God', and its status as the go-to criticism against any new technology that threatens to interfere with what is deemed 'natural', Shelley's story is as relevant today as ever it was. Indeed, what was once considered so morally abhorrent that it formed the fabric of horror has, with recombinant DNA, IVF, organ donation and embryonic stem cells to name but a few, been realised today several times over...
09 January 2012 - by Suzanne Elvidge 
Three chimeric rhesus monkeys born in the USA have been described as the world's first primate chimeras...

14 April 2008 - by Katy Sinclair 
By Katy Sinclair: Christian groups have instigated a judicial review of the decision by the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to grant licences to create human hybrid embryos for stem cell research. The Christian Legal Centre (CLC) along with Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core) will argue that the...
31 March 2008 - by MacKenna Roberts 
The head of Scotland's Catholic Church, Cardinal Keith O'Brien - who in his Easter Sunday sermon attacked the government's proposal to allow research using inter-species or human 'admixed' embryos, calling it 'government supported experiments of Frankenstein proportions' - said he would be 'only too happy' to attend a meeting...
21 January 2008 - by Katy Sinclair 
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) License Committee has granted two one-year licenses permitting scientists at Kings College London and Newcastle University to carry out research using human-animal embryos. Over the past 12 months the HFEA has been deliberating on whether the creation of embryos using...

Be the first to have your say.

You need to or  to add comments.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

- click here to enquire about using this story.

Published by the Progress Educational Trust

Genome Editing, 14 Days and Beyond

Public Conference
7 December 2016

Speakers include

Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz

Dr Kathy Niakan

Professor Sir Ian Wilmut

Lord George Carey

Baroness Mary Warnock

Dr Simon Fishel

Professor Bruce Whitelaw

Professor Alison Murdoch

Professor David Jones

Professor Sarah Franklin

Professor Stephen Wilkinson


Good Fundraising Code
Become a Friend of PET HERE and give the Progress Educational Trust a regular donation