Spare an ear for unease

October 26, 1995

This week spare a thought for the animals. The number of transgenic animals bred and experimented on is rocketing; the issue of the "oncomouse", bred to develop cancer is in the news again, as is the question of the ownership of plant and animal life in general. Now we see on BBC1's Tomorrow's World that transplant technology has yielded a mouse with a human ear growing out of its back.

The traditional moral problem here is whether the means justify the ends: should we be rejoicing at miracles of science which could help us fight disease and starvation or be horrified at the unnatural processes we are inflicting on defenceless animals and on plants?

But prior to this we should be thinking: has there been sufficient public discussion for people to make up their minds over this moral dilemma? Have academics avoided these discussions? And, if there has been enough of a public airing, is there any mechanism by which emerging views can affect legislation?

Some critics, such as professor of food policy Tim Lang, who is concerned with genetically engineered food, say that academics involved in biotechnology have failed in their duty to tell the public about their fiddlings with nature. They have sacrificed the academic values of liberalism and intellectualism for commercialism, he says. Any debate over the last 15 years has been confined to academic journals: and the discussion has failed to trickle into the outside world where an informed consumer is an essential part of a properly functioning free market economy.

Belatedly, it is only now, when the fruits of their work are "poised in the mouth of the consumer", that protest can be heard.

But academics have not all been silent. There have been many attempts to stimulate public discussion of genetic engineering. Pronouncements, by committees and individuals, along the lines that "these processes raise serious ethical issues that require public discussion" have become so commonplace as to be not worth reporting. The difficulty is that the public often cannot be prodded into debate until that debate has become embodied in a real life case, such as this week's half-mouse-half-ear.

There have been speeches; there have been committees; there was the science museum's public "trial" of biotechnology; there is the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Concerned people pronounce. . . and then nothing happens. Nothing is done because there is no one officially there to do it. The House of Commons science and technology committee has proposed a solution to the human side of the problem: a human genetics commission.

We need to widen this suggestion into a national biotechnology commission that also addresses non-human genetics. It would hold public meetings, consult, discuss, conclude and then pronounce. Two features, difficult but essential to achieve, would be an official claim on the Government's ear; and the nomination of its membership by relevant groups of scientists, philosophers, medics and so on.

The science and technology committee's suggestions are still awaiting a Government response. Pressure groups claim they encounter many academics who sympathise but do not want to be publicly associated with them. A commission could provide just the right framework for expressing their unease or optimism.

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