Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-151)

MS SHIRLEY HARRISON, ANGELA MCNAB AND PROFESSOR NEVA HAITES

31 JANUARY 2007

  Q140  Chairman: What would be more helpful, from our point of view, is if the scientists you are quoting could speak to the Committee directly and give us evidence.

  Angela McNab: I am sure you will appreciate my difficulty. I do not want to give you a name without having checked.

  Chairman: We would like a name because we cannot find one.

  Q141  Dr Harris: I have a final question about the issue of how you handle the consultation, which you have touched on already. We have written evidence, including from an individual, saying these scientific proposals are completely groundless and bad science. They go on to say they are worried about experiments being at the whim of unscrupulous scientists. That view does not explain why they think it is bad science or what evidence they have that the scientists are unscrupulous. We have also had evidence from the Biosciences Federation, which represents 50 organisations, including one organisation that represents another 50 organisations with tens of thousands of members, who support this research, yet at the end of the Government's consultation, which is a similar exercise, they said, on the one hand, there were 350 against and 50 in favour, when the 50 in favour included the Academy of Medical Sciences and so forth. Do you accept how difficult it is to have any of sort of quantitative feel from consultations?

  Ms Harrison: Absolutely. I think I answered this question in a different form earlier on. We are going to take account of what people say to us, who they are, what they have to say, and we will weigh what they have to say accordingly. It will not be vote counting or weighing responses on the scales; we will be taking it into account.

  Q142  Dr Spink: The HFEA permit procedures that are ethically very controversial, for instance the creation of new human life with a specified purpose, and yet now it seems to be preventing this research which promises so much for mankind in a way that would certainly damage our competitiveness, which is nothing compared to the need for these disease groups to find solutions if it is possible. Does this inconsistency worry you at all?

  Ms Harrison: I do not think there is any suggestion we are preventing anything at all. That is the whole point of having a consultation and coming to a decision later in the year. There is no question of preventing.

  Q143  Dr Spink: Delaying?

  Ms Harrison: In order to be able to do it properly.

  Q144  Dr Iddon: The government are going to publish a draft bill this March. Your policy will not be formulated until September 5 at the earliest. What do you expect to see in the draft Bill, particularly on the issues we have been discussing this morning, when clearly the scientists who have been in front of us have convinced me we are not talking about hybrids, we are not talking about chimeras. We are talking about a completely different entity for which we need a clear definition. What are we going to see in the draft Bill regarding this area of research?

  Ms Harrison: Clearly we do not know what will be in it but we have given some advice.

  Q145  Dr Iddon: What would you like to be in it?

  Angela McNab: We gave advice, as part of the review, and that is what we would like to see in the draft Bill. We would like to see greater clarity. We would like to see the issues of definitions and scope well clarified. We would like to see this research permitted within the usual restrictions, within the usual controls.

  Q146  Dr Iddon: Government Ministers currently are coming out with the line that they will ban research on hybrids and chimeras, which we are not talking about this morning. How on earth is a Government with that view going to frame legislation that is acceptable to you?

  Angela McNab: You asked us what our advice had been and what we would like to see, and I think I have expressed that to you. In the meantime, we have to work within the current legislation.

  Q147  Dr Iddon: It will be interesting to see it when it is published. I have heard at least one scientist in my presence discussing this area of research suggesting we might have to go beyond the 14 day limit on the grounds that if you want to see how cell differentiation and chemical triggers actually work, 14 days is not enough. Is your horizon scanning pulling that suggestion up, that scientists will push at the boundaries shortly?

  Professor Haites: I do not think I have ever seen that reported from our horizon scanning but that may be based on the fact that it is known under the current Act it is a total prohibition, and that is pretty consistent around the world where new Acts have been brought into place. In Canada and Australia that 14 days remains; hence the reason there is seen by many scientists to be an enormous need to continue to study other animal models, rather than using human models, to actually ensure we have the full biological detail in this area. This is the coming together. I certainly have not seen that being brought forward.

  Q148  Dr Iddon: I can assure you there are some scientists now making those proposals I have just suggested. What do you mean by recommending that the Government has "proper consideration of the diversity of views on this issue" and how would that be achieved?

  Angela McNab: We are going to put together a consultation which will aim to reach a vast number of different audiences, and we would be very happy to share that plan for the consultation with you as soon as it is complete, which will be very soon. Our aim would be to ensure that rather it be just those who typically respond to this type of consultation and who have a well-known interest in it that we actually reach the wider public and the wider groups. We will do that through a variety of mechanisms. I hope very much, and we have already indicated this to the scientists who have put applications in, that the scientists themselves will take part in encouraging that kind of debate and be involved in sessions and use it as a way of informing people.

  Q149  Graham Stringer: What worries me about statements like this, and it comes back to the questions I was asking before, when you say proper consideration for diversity of views on this issue, does that mean to say that you are going to take seriously creationists and other anti-science people who make representations and give those views equal weight? That is what that statement, as it is written, means to me: that somehow you should balance up the creationists, for want of a collective word, with the people who are carrying out this very valuable research.

  Ms Harrison: There are some ethical issues in addition to the scientific issues in this area and we will take account of them. As I said before, it is not a question of weighing.

  Q150  Graham Stringer: That is a different issue. How ethics and the science meet is a different question which we have not asked yet. How do you take into account and balance the diversity of views that involves one extreme, the creationists, and, on the other side, the people who are doing this research?

  Ms Harrison: It is a question of judgment really. I cannot say any further than that.

  Q151  Graham Stringer: Of course it is a question of judgment. You are saying, because it seems to contradict what you said earlier, that those views will be put into the mix and will influence the final outcome.

  Ms Harrison: They will be taken into account in the same way as everybody else's will be taken into account. Obviously some views will have more weight behind them than others and that will also be taken into account.

  Chairman: Thank you for that. You have been excellent witnesses this morning and very patient with the Committee. You understand that we do regard this as one of the key areas for the Committee at the moment. It is an issue which the previous Committee began work on in terms of its human technologies and the law and we are seeing that through. Shirley Harrison, Angela McNab and Neva Haites, thank you very much indeed. I also thank my Committee this morning.





 
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