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June 29, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Battle looms over European funding for embryonic stem cell research

This blog was written for the ‘Making Science Public’ blog by Dr Alex Smith, University of Warwick, Senior Leverhulme Research Fellow. He is Project Leader responsible for ‘Science, religion and the making of publics in the UK and the USA’.

According to an interesting story in this week’s Times Higher, a strong challenge is being mounted to EU science funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Several Members of the European Parliament opposed to the use of embryos in stem cell research are planning to raise objections in a forthcoming debate on the European Commission’s research funding programme Horizon 2020.

Here in the UK, the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council have joined with patient groups and other biomedical lobbies across Europe to call for continuing support in this field of research, which will total 107 million euros (£86 million) over the seven years of the EU Framework Programme 7.

Currently, embryonic stem cell research is prohibited in Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia. Restrictions exist in four other countries – Austria, Germany, Italy and Ireland – where stem cell lines drawn from donated embryos that have been discarded during IVF treatment have to be imported.

Of the remaining twenty EU member states, Belgium, Spain, Sweden and the UK have the most liberalised regulatory environments for supporting such research. Each allows for the creation of embryos for research purposes, albeit under strict conditions.

But it would seem that even as embryonic stem cell research gathers momentum in Europe, public opinion is taking a more sceptical turn. While recent polling suggests that there is still an overall majority (63%) in favour of this research across Europe, support fell by eight percentage points between 2005 and 2010 in several countries, including Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Slovakia.

Two issues, in particular, seem to be vexing supporters of embryonic stem cell research. Firstly, according to Dr David Lynn of the Wellcome Trust: ‘If Europe were no longer to fund [embryonic stem cell research] through Horizon 2020, it would risk giving the impression that Europe is no longer open for business in this area.’

Coming amid concerns about whether companies will be able to patent technologies and treatments derived from embryonic stem cell research following a recent European Court of Justice ruling, the European Parliament’s forthcoming debate risks muddying the waters further on this important question.

Secondly, it could be argued from the above polling data that, after many years of debate, religious opponents of embryonic stem cell research are winning the ethical arguments and re-shaping public opinion in their favour.

Professor Austin Smith, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge, suggests that the problem here is one of a lack of scientific literacy and understanding that renders the public ‘susceptible’ to an ‘odd alliance’, which includes Greenpeace and the Vatican, both of which he alleges ‘ignore the patient, and … the scientific evidence.’

Advocating a pan-European initiative to educate the public and policymakers about the value of embryonic stem cell research, Professor Smith concludes the article by asserting that people ‘shouldn’t be allowed to impose fundamentalist views on the rest of the community.’

Unfortunately, comments like these do little more than reinforce an old and unhelpful trope in debates between science and religion: that if the public lacks enthusiasm for science, it is because the former fails to understand the latter and prefers to listen to (fundamentalist, irrational) religious leaders rather than (enlightened, rational) scientists.

This risks stereotyping and unnecessarily ridiculing religion and the often-important ethical and moral questions religious leaders ask – not just of scientists, but also of business leaders, politicians and others. In turn, this does little to progress the debates, especially when so much of the argument for embryonic stem cell research – as exemplified by the broad thrust of the Times Higher article itself – is devoted, first and foremost, to making the market case for investment in such research.

When the US State of Missouri famously debated embryonic stem cell research in the run-up to the 2006 US Midterm elections, opponents caricatured scientists at the Stowers Institute in Kansas City (see image) and the Washington University Medical Center in St Louis as only being interested in ‘Dolly, dollars and donors’. Their argument was that scientists have a vested interested in playing down the ethical questions raised by embryonic stem cell research so that business and private individuals will be persuaded to invest in their science.

This is the equally unhelpful counter-view – the mirror image, no less – to the intellectually lazy assumption by some in the scientific community that religion cannot make a ‘valid’ contribution to the ethical debates surrounding areas of controversial science, largely because (they allege) those with religious views either do not understand, or choose to ignore, the scientific evidence.

There is a sting in the tail here, with important consequences for those of us who believe in making science public. As American supporters of embryonic stem cell research engaged in the so-called ‘culture wars’ that have bedevilled the USA over the last decade can tell us, support for publicly funded education almost always goes hand-in-hand with a wider public acceptance of, and support for, science funding and research.

If the above polling is to be believed, the recent decline in support amongst European publics for embryonic stem cell research should sound alarm bells for policymakers because it appears to coincide with an age of budget austerity that has resulted in funding cuts for education and scientific research.

To compensate for these lost revenues, governments both here in the UK and abroad have emphasised the need for universities and other recipients of publicly funded research grants to move to commercialise (i.e. privatise) science.

Whether there is a relationship – an interface – between these two ‘trends’ no doubt requires further analysis. But my suspicion is that in a world of privatised science, it will become increasingly difficult to make the case that the public should support controversial scientific research.

Of course, this will only matter if there is still public funding in place for scientific research over which to fight in the future. But my point is that the drive to privatise science will likely make securing public consent to science funded in our name more problematic.

Privatised science is antithetical to making science public, which requires a commitment to making public science. This commitment, which needs to be renewed, is to a democratised science – of and for the people, so to speak. Only then can publics make a claim of ownership to science, culturally, financially and, most importantly of all, morally.

Image: Stowers Institute in Kansas City (Wikimedia commons)

(Moderation of this blog may not be immediate, as Brigitte is on holiday, but we’ll do our best!)

Posted in PoliticsReligionScience