Hype, hope and hybrids
The three-year public debate in the UK on animal-hybrid embryos was always a secondary issue for Understanding Animal Research and its forerunners, but an important one. We can claim no credit for the way it went, but we were pleased it went so well. It holds valuable lessons for all of us involved in potentially 'difficult' scientific issues.
The debate went well because little was left to chance. A new pamphletHype, hope and hybrids: Science, policy and media perspectives of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill describes not so much an orchestrated campaign but a great deal of organisation and effort by many people to make sure that the voices of scientists, medics and patients were heard.
As freelance writer and broadcaster on science and medicine, Dr Geoff Watts, says in his editor's introduction:
'Scientists, press officers and other media advisers all foresaw the possibility of another debacle [cf MMR, GM crops] and took steps to prevent it. Their proactive efforts paid off.... public and politicians were given an opportunity to hear – often from the scientists themselves – what would be done, what would not be done, and what the benefits might be. The Government, initially minded to put the brakes on hybrid embryo research, changed tack.'
The pamphlet was the brainchild of Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre. It includes contributions from research funders, patient groups and from journalists and medics. Fiona concludes:
'The British news media will always be a slightly unnerving place for scientists. With journalists demanding answers to tough ethical questions, almost every interview can become a debate. But somewhere along the line this group of scientists decided that engaging with the media is part and parcel of their role. Their example has given the SMC and every science press officer a positive example to hold up to the scientific community.'
Controversial issues likes this will always lead to a debate. We were pleased to see that because scientists were willing to engage with the media and the public they helped make this debate an informed one.