Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report

6  Public engagement

Public confidence

108. Professor Sheng of Shanghai told us that the UK Government is considered as one which has established an image to be able to "balance scientific development and ethical issues with confidence and vision" in the area of embryology.[247] We believe that the UK Government has, to date, been effective in building the trust of the public in the regulation of developments in embryology and stem cell research. Public awareness of the need for and benefits of research in this area should be encouraged, alongside an understanding of the reasons for the requirement to update legislation. We regard it as the responsibility of the Government and HFEA to keep the public informed in respect of developments in legislation related to the creation of human-animal chimera and hybrid embryos for research.

109. For public confidence to be enhanced, with regard to future legislation in this area, it is essential that the views of the public should be considered fully. However, we are not convinced that the views of the wider public in relation to this area of research are clear. To date, public opinion in this area of research has been primarily obtained through the Government consultation on the review of the HFE Act. The Government received 535 responses, from a range of stakeholders and individuals.[248] According to the Department of Health, the "overall tenor of responses to the consultation was opposed to the creation of hybrids and chimeras".[249] However, as we have discussed previously, much of this opposition appears to stem from the belief that all research using human embryos should be prohibited and it is thus difficult to extrapolate from this information to give a clear representation of specific objection to the creation of human-animal chimera and hybrid embryos for research.

110. The wording of the Government consultation was also raised as an issue by witnesses. We were told that the consultation lacked detail and that, with regard to whether or not the creation of human-animal embryos should be allowed for research, this was "a blunt question" which got a "blunt answer",[250] for example, from the Church of England who may not have answered in the negative had more information on what was proposed been available.[251] The Right Reverend Dr Lee Raysfield, Bishop of Swindon, told us that "there is an openness to considering this line, if it might decrease the use of human embryos" but that, at the moment, he thinks that the Church "would take the position that we need a bit more reflection and some caution and we should not rush in to embrace what is potentially an awkward area".[252] We consider this view rather more open than the Church's response to the consultation would suggest, and question whether other responses may have been influenced in a similar fashion.

111. The reliance on this self-selecting sample as representative of public opinion has also attracted the ire of witnesses. The UK Stem Cell Network argued that the small number of responses received during this consultation "can in no way be viewed as a representative cross-section of the UK population",[253] whilst the BioIndustry Association claimed that the Government's public consultation "was not what we would call a representative poll of the country at large" and that "the Government has based its decision on an unrepresentative consultation, where the views of individuals have been given the same weight as the collective views of established scientific bodies".[254] We take these criticisms of the Government's consultation seriously and we recommend that they be taken into consideration both in relation to the proposals for revised legislation in this area and in future consultation exercises. We draw attention to the comments we made in our recent Report on Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy-Making which recognised the problem that responses to the public consultation were self-selecting.[255]

Defining public opinion

112. We were also interested to establish how public opinion may be appropriately defined and represented. Within the evidence received into this inquiry, we found a range of views with the general division that scientists and those representing medical research bodies (for example, charities) are generally supportive of this research, whilst those expressing views based on ethics and moral arguments tend to be against it. It is not, and cannot be, clear from this whether the views expressed into this inquiry are directly indicative of those of the wider public, and indeed whether respondents should consider themselves qualified to pronounce on what public opinion truly is. We heard from Dr David King of Human Genetics Alert that he thinks "public opinion on this is very strongly against allowing this kind of research".[256] When we asked Mr King for evidence to support his claim, he referred to the results of the Government's 2005 consultation, supported by his "gut reaction" that "because scientists have a different world view, they do not share the public's view on the importance of species barriers".[257] Not surprisingly, the BioIndustry Association took the opposite view, saying that "there is widespread scientific and public support for this ground-breaking medical research".[258]

113. We have seen no conclusive evidence to indicate the true state of public opinion on the creation of animal-human chimera and hybrid embryos for research purposes. It is, however, interesting to note that the media coverage has been broadly positive and that there have been no significant write-in campaigns to our inquiry, despite the high profile reporting which it has attracted. We find it unhelpful that witnesses on both sides of the argument have claimed to represent the public view, where supporting evidence for this is lacking.

Public understanding

114. The concept behind the creation of chimera and hybrid embryos is a complex one but this does not obviate the need for greater public understanding of what scientists propose and why, as well as the ethical and other arguments surrounding the issue. For example, Dr Calum MacKeller, from the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, identified a need "to develop discussion amongst the general public relating to the creation of animal-human combinations, chimeras, hybrids or cybrids [another term for cytoplasmic hybrid embryos]".[259] From a different perspective, the UK Stem Cell Network told us that "it is the view of several stem cell researchers in the UK that once the nature of the research and its aims are explained properly ... then a large proportion of the general public will be supportive".[260] It would be impossible for both these parties to be satisfied with the results of greater public understanding but we are impressed by their unanimity on this point. Accomplishing effective public engagement in this debate may be difficult, but significant effort must be made to this end. We believe that additional education is required to enhance public understanding of the techniques proposed by this area of research and its associated potential achievements and problems, including scientific, ethical and moral concerns.

115. The HFEA's public consultation has a major part to play in this. It is intended to go wider than the two specific licence applications which prompted it to "address all types of chimera and hybrid embryos, i.e. embryos which contain some elements of animal DNA".[261] The Authority expects the consultation to run from late April to late July and intends to use the results to arrive at a policy position at its meeting on 5 September 2007. The HFEA is liaising with recognised experts in the fields of embryology and stem cell research in drafting this consultation. During the course of our inquiry, the Government also announced that it would aid the provision of education to enable informed public response to the consultation through the DTI's Sciencewise initiative, in which the Chief Executives of the Medical Research Council and the Biological and Biotechnological Sciences Research Council will lead a public dialogue on stem cell research, under an RCUK (Research Councils UK) umbrella and supported by a DTI grant.[262] Notwithstanding the accompanying delay in consideration of the King's College London and Newcastle University research applications, we welcome the HFEA proposed consultation on general principles and commend steps taken by the Authority to ensure appropriate drafting. We also commend the Government for allowing funding to be allocated toward education in this area.

247   Ev 148 Back

248   People Science & Policy Ltd, Report on the Consultation on the review of the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Act 1990,  Back

249   Ev 112 Back

250   Q 176 Back

251   Q 155 and Q 173 Back

252   Q 155 Back

253   Ev 104 Back

254   Ev 108 Back

255   Seventh Report of Session 2005-06, para 136, Back

256   Q 196 Back

257   Q 199 Back

258   "UK chimeric stem cell research in the balance", 12th Jan 2007,Drug researcher website, Back

259   Q 203 Back

260   Ev 104 Back

261   Ev 127 Back

262   Ev 147 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 5 April 2007