Sir Colin sticks up for the layperson

January 17, 1997

"I can't see a bigger issue than genetic science and its ethical implications now that the cold war is over."

So says Nottingham University vice chancellor Sir Colin Campbell, who this month takes on the role of chairman of the Government's new Human Genetics Advisory Commission.

Responsible for advising the Government and charged with taking on board public opinion, the group will first meet in February. It is expected to draw some conclusions within a year.

The task is an exciting challenge for legal philosopher Sir Colin. "I think it is probably the most difficult thing facing us. By the year 2007, human genetics would have changed medicine, science, work in universities, employment, attitudes to people with different attributes, attitudes towards pregnancy and diseases. It may have thrown up new treatments. It's fascinating. The range of issues is immense and intimidating.

"Very often science advances are neutral," he added. "It is the way we use them which is important. We will be worrying about the implications. The remit here is to advise the Government and to explain to the public."

The group will consider the social, ethical and economic consequences of developments in human genetics in relation to public health, insurance and employment, and debate genetic engineering and testing.

Sir Colin is a veteran of such public bodies, having already served on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and chaired the Medical Workforce Standing Advisory Committee and the Food Advisory Committee. He holds that philosophising in the real world is more difficult than debating in a university setting.

"University tutorials are full of clever people, but nothing is at stake," he said. "When you try and do it in the real world, it is much more difficult. I find it very interesting to get involved in things which are not totally academic. I enjoy the experience. I think this thing is very very difficult and therefore very very interesting. When I was asked to chair this commission I could not say no."

His new role is totally voluntary, adds Sir Colin, while the committee, which includes scientists, industrialists and broadcaster Moira Stuart, is running on a "tiny" Pounds 200,000 budget.

"I would like to think we will talk to the public and say really what is happening is as follows," said Sir Colin who believes he was chosen because he is not a scientist and has experience in dealing with scientists.

"I think mostly we will identify what scientists anticipate happening and then write documents in plain English. Scientists inevitably speak using jargon. We need a body made up of laymen so normal people like you and me can understand. Only then can people take part in the debate."

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