Is politics stuck in the present?
by Jack Stilgoe
So what is the role for politicians in making decisions about scientific research? The last time this discussion went through parliament, in 1990, the product was the HFEA, which has given the UK a robust and respected framework for managing the uncertainties of science. Because we can never know exactly where science will take us. In the last year alone, stem cell scientists around the world have been astonished by a piece of Nobel-worthy work that is already changing how they think about their research. In Japan, Shinya Yamanaka has managed to reprogramme adult stem cells to behave like embryonic ones. Cells that seemed destined only to become skin were given back the chance to turn into all sorts of tissue.
Does this mean that the need for embryo research is over? According to most scientists, it's too early to tell. But, as with so many discoveries in this area, the breakthrough has come because of a close interweaving of adult and embryonic research. We should keep our options open. The argument about hybrids, chimeras, frankenstein monsters, call them what you will, is largely about keeping these options open.
This uncertainty about benefits and breakthroughs doesn't mean that we should give scientists free reign, however. Far from it. One of the things that has given the UK a comparative advantage in stem cell science over the last two decades is a sense that the views of the public have been integral. Scientists can get frustrated by the red tape, but they see the potential for controversy and the need for a continuous social conversation. Just as we don't know what the science will say in years to come, we have little idea what the public will think.
So we need a politics of the future. The role for parliament is to set the terms of the debate and erect a framework within which discussions about scientific benefits and public hopes and fears can take place. The future of science is too capricious to be reduced to Yeses and Nos. Politics needs to be able to talk about the Yes-buts, the No-buts and the Maybes.
We're currently part of a programme of public dialogue on stem cell science and we're hearing that The Public - real people, not the public imagined by politicians and journalists - are genuinely open-minded. They are concerned, but they also realise the impossibility of total awareness. They need to be able to trust what is going on, and they need a degree of transparency. When they meet university scientists, they are reassured that these people too are open-minded and unsure.
The politics of the future needs to map out the conditions under which science takes place. Once this bill has scraped through, the hard work will then begin.