Scientists for Labour

Guest Opinions

These blog commentaries do not represent the opinion of SfL as a group but rather are the personal opinions of individual members or guest authors. As a result some opinions may even go against the views of SfL but have been posted in order to start debate on a subject and to allow alternate views to be presented on this site.

The Economy, its Science, stupid!

labour-science-party

 

In 2010, Michael Brooks renowned Science writer launched ‘The Science Party’. A single issue party with a focus on one goal, "that science, mathematics and engineering have sufficient funding, skills and political priority".

By 2020 Labour should be the home of scientific funding and breakthrough research. You see I’m no scientist but it doesn’t take one to see the causality between properly funded scientific research and Economic growth. That’s why much like John McDonnell’s Economic Advisory Committee, we need a Science Advisory Committee.

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Poor understanding = Poor policy. Getting it right on animal research.

zebra-fish-spawning-tank

 

In my younger days I was torn between policy and science, since I had the grades and enthusiasm for both, but the system is such that one must choose, so I wrestled with the problem, still couldn't decide, took PPE and subscribed to the New Scientist.

Not long into my studies I remember being struck during one lesson by just how much the classical philosophers, whose work we were discussing, had got their explanations for the world so very wrong as a result of predating modern scientific knowledge. At that moment I had a very important insight: you can't formulate decent philosophy, let alone workable policy, if you don't understand how things work.

And so to animal research: the thing that nobody likes to think about and, therefore, doesn't know much about which makes it very vulnerable to misrepresentation. Worse still, individuals may have fallen prey to the numerous misrepresentations of the 'anti-vivisection' movement, which has for its history maintained that animal experiments would amount to nothing. Such individuals think that '9 out of 10 drugs that pass animal tests fail in humans' (a misconception) and believe you can model whole-body systems using cell cultures and computer models (you can't).

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The Global Challenges Research Fund: a one year review

In the November 2015 spending review George Osborne announced that the UK would be spending £1.5 billion over the next 5 years on global challenges research though the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). I was initially taken aback at the altruistic nature of the fund which was at odds with the narrative of austerity of the rest of the statement. However, on further investigation it became clear this money was to be used to enable the UK science budget to rise with inflation. The money would come from the 0.7% of government spending which, by law, had to be spend on Official Development Assistance (ODA). By some creative accounting, Osborne had in fact kept the science budget the same (which is a reduction when inflation is accounted for) and got the Department for International Development (DFID) to make up the rest. What this meant was that scientists would now be encouraged to work on global challenges simply because the amount of money available for generic science had been cut and therefore would become even more competitive. Current estimates are that responsive mode funding grants have already been cut by 5%.

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Mrs May has forgotten the keys

In her rush to leave the house in Brussels, Theresa May has forgotten the car keys. The Brexit car will not start unless she takes the keys for future jobs and future industries with her. Those keys are a set of agreements and activities with 180 nations on science and technology.

With the dimmest of understanding of how the world works in the 21st century, May has reduced the EU’s international standing to a set of trade deals. “All we have to do is to replace the EU’s free trade agreements with UK-only deals like in the good old days of Empire,” she imagines.

While that is easier said than done, the fact is that trade deals are just one way in which European lawmakers have been trying to secure future jobs and industries. A “smooth Brexit” must mean that the UK replicates all the achievements of Brussels and Strasbourg in securing a prosperous future for all EU citizens.

The basis for a prosperous future lies in building the strongest possible environment for research, development and innovation. An example is the Information Technology industry: it all started with research at California’s Stanford University and the development of the transistor. On the back of that, Silicon Valley emerged next door and, now, IT employs millions of people.

No wonder the EU has developed links with about 180 nations for joint research, development and innovation. Brexit means the UK must now create all those links itself. Let’s look at these science and technology links.

Regional EU agreements with blocs in Africa; South East Asia; Central Asia; Eastern Partnership; Latin America and Caribbean; Mediterranean and Middle East; Gulf Countries; Western Balkans; Pacific.

Take Africa. Here, a joint “high-level policy dialogue” is underway between African and European science ministers along with the African Union and the EU. Set up in 2010, outputs include the world’s biggest radio telescope, developing new medicines and improving agriculture. But two legal instruments underpin this dialogue: the 2000 Cotonou Agreement and the 2007 Joint Africa-EU Strategy. Smooth Brexit means the UK must replace both these agreements and the dialogue. Any other type of Brexit means the UK will lose out on working with what is likely to be this century’s fastest growing economies.

International EU agreements are in place with 20 countries: Algeria; Argentina; Australia; Brazil; Canada; Chile; China; Egypt; India; Japan; Jordan; Korea; Mexico; Morocco; New Zealand; Russia; South Africa; Tunisia; Ukraine; United States. Smooth Brexit means the UK needs new agreements first.

Who in Mrs May’s government is responsible for re-negotiating these international agreements? Which countries should be added and which should we abandon? Does Mrs May have a clue? How many years will it take to re-negotiate? What happens to UK science and technology cooperation in the meantime? How much effort will go into replacing extensive agreements with inevitably more restricted ones?

Development-related projects. The EU supports in some measure 971 research, education and training projects in 160 nations. A smooth Brexit requires the UK to set up a development fund for all these nations, to set up an investment bank to make development loans and to negotiate to ensure UK researchers can continue to participate in many of these 971 projects.

Consider one of these nations. French Polynesia is located in the South Pacific and has a population of 267,000 scattered over 118 islands. Surely, you would think, there is no UK involvement. So Brexit poses no problems. Right? Wrong. French Polynesia had no historic links to the UK. But now, thanks to the EU, we have extensive links to provide loans for environmental protection, to support development and to enable UK researchers to contribute to development projects.

However, it is not simply a matter of renegotiating project participation: projects also require facilities and resource networks. You need specialised equipment. You need access to data and materials. The term used to describe these things is “research infrastructure”. There are 46 different EU research infrastructures across all the natural and human sciences supporting researchers across the EU - and internationally. The UK is involved in 33 of these and provides headquarters for seven. Smooth Brexit means continuing participation in all 33 of these with no new restrictions on the movement of EU and non-EU researchers and their students to and from the research infrastructures.
Refashioning these links in a smooth Brexit strategy means Theresa May has a lot of work to do. Given enough time, it is not impossible. She and her government will be judged by their performance. Forgetting the car keys, however, is not the best possible start.

Research has societal values

Some researchers imagine that the work they do is objective and value-free. In the natural sciences, this view is especially prevalent. In the human sciences, 'conventional' economists are especially prone to this view.

A paper in The Lancet recently provides evidence that research is not value free. The authors looked at cancer mortality in high-income and middle-income countries between 1990 and 2010.
When they had assembled the data, they asked whether the 2008 banking crisis was associated with increased mortality. The answer was 'Yes'.

Then they asked whether countries with universal health coverage (as provided in the UK by the NHS) were protected against this increase. Again, the answer was 'Yes'.

This suggests that it is in the questions that we ask that our values are revealed. Values about the importance of human health. Values about the best way to improve it.

We choose the questions. Our choice is dependent on what we think is important i.e. on our values.

When we apply for a research grant we are asked to provide a view on the wider benefits of the work that we are planning. In the biomedical sciences, the usual wider benefit claimed is that we will cure cancer. In the physical sciences I'd guess the claimed wider benefit usually relates to global warming. So from the outset, we are asked to assert values such as cancer or global warming are bad things.

Is it wrong or unscientific to assert such values? You may, if you wish, try to argue that it's wrong. But it certainly isn't unscientific. You can't get the money to do the science unless you can show wider benefits. You cannot ask questions about your data unless you prioritise your questions and ask first what you consider to be the most important ones. Moreover, you cannot even assemble your data without prioritising.

If the is one area of life where this 'value-free' dogma is most damaging it is probably in economic science. Conventional approaches seek to understand the price of everything and the value of nothing.

These approaches embrace the values of a street trader selling different dodgy goods every day off the back of a lorry. These approaches led to the banking crisis of 2008. And they are associated with about 260,000 excess cancer-related deaths in the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Some more ethical problems about embryo culture

Human embryos are produced in in vitro fertilisation (IVF) clinics. They are more accurately known as "conceptuses" than "embryos" since they produce both the embryo itself and the fetal part of the placenta. There are always more conceptuses produced than are used since some clients complete their families while others abandon the IVF programme for various reasons. The surplus conceptuses are stored frozen. They may be donated, with parental consent, occasionally for implantation to another woman, or for research. Otherwise they will eventually be discarded.
In the UK, research on human conceptuses is permitted, under licence, for the first 14 days of development from fertilisation. This includes the normal time of implantation at about 7 days, and goes up to the formation of the primitive streak, at which time there is an identifiable population of cells which comprises the embryo itself, distinct from the placental tissues.

Recently the methods for enabling continued development in vitro have improved (see Deglincerti 2016 and Shahbazi 2016) so it is now technically possible to exceed the 14 day limit, and some have suggested that this limit should be raised to allow studies of human development at later stages.

Among the types of research undertaken with human conceptuses is the derivation of embryonic stem (ES) cell lines. These are permanent cell lines derived from the inner cell mass of the conceptus. These cells are "pluripotent", meaning that, under suitable circumstances, they can differentiate into any of the cell types normally present in the body. The 14 day limit does not apply to ES cell lines.

If ES cells are placed in a differentiation medium rather than a growth medium they will form structures called "embryoid bodies". These contain jumbled masses of the cell types characteristic of early embryos together with some extraembryonic membrane structures. The formation of embryoid bodies is often the first step in protocols to produce useful cell types such as heart muscle, liver or insulin-producing beta cells, which are important for clinical transplantation. The 14 day limit does not apply to embryoid bodies.

For the last 10 years it has been possible to make cells closely resembling ES cells by introducing a small number of specific genes into normal skin or white blood cells. These are called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. They have essentially the same properties as ES cells, including the ability to form embryoid bodies. Methods for making iPS cells have become safe and reliable and they have been the subject of much research in recent years.

Opponents of human ES cell work consider that a human conceptus is morally equivalent to an actual human being. So in their view any interference with or destruction of human conceptuses is wrong. Because iPS cells do not arise from embryos, they are considered acceptable for all the various forms of research and application for which ES cells are useful. The fact that they may be indistinguishable from ES cells is not considered important. In other words, the moral stance of opponents of ES cell research is based on the origin of the cells, not on their nature.

But advances of technology continue to throw up ethical problems. Careful attention to the size of cell aggregates and their treatment have made it possible to generate structures from ES or iPS cells rather similar to actual embryos and quite different from the usual chaotic embryoid bodies. Such experiments are not subject to the 14 day rule, even though what is being done looks rather like culturing a human embryo.

The experiment of putting human ES or iPS cells into an empty blastocyst (i.e. a conceptus whose own inner cell mass has been removed) and implanting into a woman, has never been attempted as it is considered unethical by everyone. However it is probable that such a procedure would generate an actual human foetus and eventually a baby. This is what is called "reproductive cloning" and is banned by statute in many countries.

So, we are left with an awkward issue. The 14 day rule made sense when only a human conceptus could generate a human embryo. But if an embryo can be made from cultured ES cells, or even from iPS cells, it seems rather arbitrary.

Personally, I think that the focus should be kept on the likely consequences of these procedures, not on the origins of specific cell populations. So the proper question to ask about a new procedure is whether a human person may be harmed. If the answer is "yes" then the procedure needs serious scrutiny and may be banned altogether or perhaps allowed only in special conditions under licence. Human personhood develops gradually so controls need to become stricter as development proceeds. If the subjects of study are cells and tissues, rather than a whole embryo, I see little need for regulation over and above the existing regulations on donation and use of human cells and tissues. When it comes to whole embryos, whether derived from normal conceptuses or made from ES or iPS cells, I would support a graded series of restrictions based on developmental stage, with an outright ban on anything that might generate a baby capable of independent survival or consciousness.

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