All entries for June 2012

June 29, 2012

Battle looms over European funding for embryonic stem cell research

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.


June 25, 2012

Battle Now Joined for Scotland's Constitutional Future

This week’s launch of the 'Better Together' or 'No' campaign (http://bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-18572750) for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum means that the battle over Scotland’s constitutional future now begins in earnest.

It comes just weeks after First Minister Alex Salmond launched the ‘Yes’ campaign in an attempt to regain the political momentum after the SNP fell short of its self-declared goals in the local government elections held on the 5th of May.

Although emerging with more local Councillors and votes than any other political party in Scotland, the Nationalists failed to wrest control of Glasgow City Council after an epic struggle with their ‘auld enemy’, the Scottish Labour Party.

Supporters of Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom now sense that the tide is turning in their favour. 

It is certainly true that the challenges ahead for the Scottish Nationalists in winning the referendum campaign should not be underestimated. The latest opinion polling suggests that, after recently peaking at just shy of 40%, support for independence has now dropped to 35% amongst Scottish voters.

With 55% of the electorate behind them, those opposed to independence remain in the majority.

These figures reinforce a pattern, which has remained consistent since the opening of the Scottish Parliament over a decade ago, that demonstrates no more than about a third of Scots support independence.

To break through this electoral glass ceiling, the SNP needs to maximise the institutional resources at its disposal, in local government, the media, the Scottish Parliament and the wider community.

That was why their unsuccessful effort to destroy the Labour Party’s powerbase in Glasgow – Scotland’s largest city – mattered so much to the Nationalists.

Convincing sceptical voters to take a leap into the constitutional dark and back independence remains a massive mountain for the SNP to climb between now and the 2014 referendum.

But supporters of the constitutional status quo cannot afford to be complacent.

For now, ‘No’ campaigners may have public opinion on their side. But a lot could change before the 2014 referendum.

Leading figures from Scotland’s three main Unionist parties will feature prominently in the campaign to keep Scotland part of the United Kingdom.

Although former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown will be conspicuous by his absence from the front ranks of the ‘No’ campaign, his former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling will be leading the charge for Labour in Scotland.

He will be joined by the well-regarded former Liberal Democrat Leader Charles Kennedy as well as the relatively-popular (for a Scottish Tory) Annabel Goldie, who led the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament until 2011.

Whether these three contrasting political personalities can agree to share the media spotlight and successfully work together over the next two years to secure Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom will prove fascinating to watch. 

Indeed, it may prove particularly difficult for the ‘No’ campaign to maintain a united front when the SNP at Holyrood rails against austerity and the budget cuts being handed down by the UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government.

Sharing a platform north of the English border with both the Tories and the now-reviled Liberal Democrats could be especially challenging for Labour politicians sitting on the opposition benches at Westminster.

And in Alex Salmond – the undisputed leader of the ‘Yes’ campaign – they will continue to face one of Britain’s most astute, charismatic and emotionally intelligent politicians. In recent weeks, he has capitalised on confusion amongst the Unionist parties in the run-up to the launch of the ‘No’ campaign and will no doubt mercilessly exploit divisions amongst his opponents over the next two years.

So far, there have been bold claims made on both sides in their efforts to capture newspaper headlines and rally their supporters.

For the ‘Yes’ campaign, Salmond has called for 1 million Scots to sign a pledge in support of independence in the run-up to the referendum. Meanwhile, the ‘No’ campaign has declared that it will raise a war chest of £1 million to fight the Nationalists in 2014.

But big talk calls for a big vision for Scotland’s future, within – or outwith – the United Kingdom.

Over the next two years, Salmond will be hoping that the enthusiasm many Scottish voters feel for his government at Holyrood will translate into support for independence. He also knows that to win this argument, he must articulate a positive vision for the future and tell a story of a Scotland capable of standing – and prospering – on its own two feet.

To derail his arguments, Unionist politicians may be tempted to run a negative campaign that seeks to exploit anxieties amongst Scottish voters over the economic uncertainties facing Scotland and the UK as a whole.

They will likely point to the recent experiences of small countries and fragile economies on the periphery of Europe, such as Iceland, Ireland, Greece or Portugal. And they will ask whether Scotland can really fend for itself financially, especially if as an independent country it can no longer rely on the Barnett formula or lucrative UK defence contracts to subsidise its economy?

In addition, the ‘No’ campaign could muddy the waters for the Nationalists further, distracting them with wearying questions of constitutional banality, such as what passports Scots would carry or whether customs would have to be paid at the English border.

While it is likely that a focus on the negative consequences and practical uncertainties of independence may help ‘No’ campaigners win the referendum, it is also true that they need to make an equally positive case for Scotland remaining within the United Kingdom.

Without doing so, Unionist politicians may risk sounding overly negative against a confident, clear-eyed and optimistic narrative from Alex Salmond, who will champion the promise of an independent Scotland able to decide and act for itself on the world stage.

This could alienate Scottish voters and, in turn, further entrench the SNP as the natural party of government in Scotland – even if it loses the 2014 referendum.

Such a result would be disastrous for the Scottish Labour Party, which is hoping to regroup and fight back after seeing off the Nationalists’ formidable challenge to its Glasgow stronghold in May.

The ‘No’ campaign has now been launched and the battle for Scotland’s constitutional future has been joined.

The stakes remain high for both sides.

The next two years will prove decisive in the history of both Scotland and the United Kingdom – whether or not the former elects to leave the latter in 2014.


June 14, 2012

Lessons learned from English football on tackling racism

As the editor of the book series New Ethnographies for Manchester University Press, I am really excited about the publication this summer of our latest title, An Ethnography of English Football Fans, by Dr Geoff Pearson of the University of Liverpool's Management School

His book is particularly timely given the extent to which racism and violence amongst football fans, from a variety of European countries, has come to overshadow the Euro 2012 tournament in recent weeks. Many of us have been shocked by images of violence on our television screens, the most recent example being clashes between Polish and Russian fans that took place yesterday in Warsaw (www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18409776).

For over fifteen years, Dr Pearson conducted detailed, ethnographic fieldwork amongst football fans from three clubs: Blackpool, Manchester United and the national England team itself. One of the questions he explores in his book is whether football attracts this type of anti-social behaviour to a greater extent than other sports.

In an interesting and thought-provoking Blog for Manchester University Press, he argues that incidents of racism he encountered amongst English football fans were ‘largely determined by context rather than by a disposition of football fans towards that type of behaviour or those types of views.’ He found that rather than being a ‘magnet’ for those holding racist or extremist political views, there was no evidence ‘to suggest that football fans were inherently more racist in attitude than non-football fans’.

Indeed, given how rarely he witnessed incidents of racist abuse and chanting, he claims that the good work of campaign groups like Kick It Out as well as improved legislation, better stadium infrastructure and CCTV has discouraged those fans who might harbour racist views and feel comfortable about articulating them in private from expressing them at football matches.

Dr Pearson concedes that there is no room for complacency on this issue. After all, there is an important difference between, on the one hand, challenging people and the prejudices they possess in such a way as to change entrenched social attitudes; and on the other, cultivating the kinds of (sub) cultures of self-policing football fans he describes in his book.

However, Dr Pearson concludes on an optimistic note: that the experience of English football suggests ‘it is possible to manage racism in football grounds without … excluding all those who have racist views.’

Follow this link to read Dr Pearson’s original Blog:

www.manchesteruniversitypressblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/racism-in-football-crowds-issue-of.html

You can find out more about his book, An Ethnography of English Football Fans, which will be available from Manchester University Press in July 2012, here:

www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9780719087219

And you can learn more about the New Ethnographies book series I edit for Manchester University Press, here:

www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?series=40


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