Colin Blakemore: From a scientist's point of view, life is getting better

For both stem cell research and climate change, the angels might switch sides in 2007

Share

Despite the gloom over the Middle East and the threat of dirty bombs, I'm hugely optimistic that things will be better in 2007. Let's take a couple of things on the minds of many scientists - climate change and stem cells. In both cases, the scientific imperative for action is clear; but other forces are frustrating progress.

For climate change, the obstacles are short-sighted commercial and political interests - let's call them myopeconomics and myopolitics. Many businessmen still judge that their own fortunes and those of their shareholders are best served by ignoring the doom-mongers and pumping out the carbon dioxide to make money. A few politicians - one in particular - still think that their reputations and their places in history are favoured by denying the growingly obvious.

But the consequences of climate change are accelerating. A point must come at which the impact of change will fall within the near-point of those refractory industrialists and politicians. When that happens, the rules will suddenly reverse. Both business and politics will be better served by response than denial. I predict that the tipping point will come in 2007. Political sceptics will become passionate converts, eager to claim credit for recognising the inevitable. The burners will become preservers.

I should make clear that what I'm optimistic about here is the likelihood of a change in attitude; not, alas, about the probability of rapid success in the monstrous task of reversing the effects of a century of profligacy. We are going to have to live with the consequences of our parents' actions, and our children with the consequences of ours. The issue is whether our children's children will inherit a world worth living in.

For stem cells - to be more specific, human embryonic stem cells - the barriers to progress are not economic but moral. On the one hand, medical science offers the hope of cellular immortality - the prospect of repairing a damaged brain, heart or pancreas, just as grazed skin or a bitten tongue already mends itself. On the other hand, a substantial cohort of politicians and religious leaders (more exactly Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant leaders), especially in the United States and some European countries, fiercely oppose the taking of life in the interests of other lives.

Although the argument seems different from that for climate change, the crux of the problem is again the power of intuition and assertion over the rationality of science. I have heard a "pro-life" lobbyist describe the collecting of stem cells from 10-day-old embryos, surplus to the requirements of in-vitro fertilisation, as "the evisceration of little babies". Life, it is argued, begins at the moment of conception.

Most scientists would surely argue that an embryo, never to be implanted in the uterus, smaller than the point of a needle, without a single nerve cell, let alone any viscera, cannot possibly be considered a person. Defining the starting point of life is not a matter of dogma but of social consensus. As my friend, the Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel put it: "Life begins when the kids are all through college and the dog dies!".

Given these entrenched positions, why should I be optimistic about a change in attitude to stem cell research in 2007? Because morality is, for all but the most stubbornly impervious to practical evidence, a matter of utilitarian dialectic. Yesterday's moral outrage has a way of becoming today's necessary evil and tomorrow's common good. Just as with climate change, what will cause a swing of attitude is the turning point of a mathematical function; in this case the shifting ratio of perceived benefit to theoretical cost.

Just a few weeks ago, a team of scientists from the Institute of Ophthalmology, the Institute of Child Health and Moorfields Eye Hospital in London (supported, I'm delighted to say, by the Medical Research Council) reported that it had restored sight to considerably more than Three Blind Mice, by transplanting into their eyes immature photoreceptor cells (midway between stem cells and fully formed rods and cones).

Rats that have suffered strokes have been vastly improved by the transplantation of nerve-making cells into their brains. The first attempts will soon begin at repairing severed human spinal cords with the help of transplanted stem cells. The evidence of likely benefit is growing fast. No miracles yet, but a trickle of hope, which is likely to become a steadier stream in 2007. I predict that the immorality of not helping the undeniably living sick will soon outweigh the good of protecting the never to be born.

For both stem cell research and climate change, the angels might switch sides in 2007. If so, the UK has a hotline to heaven. On both issues, we can rightly claim leadership. Vigorous, well-informed public debate and a healthy suspicion of uninformed dogma have put this country ahead of many others.

So, that's what I'm optimistic about. The problem is that I'm, by nature, an optimist. I see the world through those legendary rose-tinted spectacles. My glass is forever half full. Interesting, isn't it, how many clichés there are for being optimistic. Doesn't that suggest that optimism-pessimism is as fundamental a dimension of human nature as extroversion-introversion, happiness-sadness, energy-slothfulness? Being optimistic about a particular eventuality is more a comment on the believer than on the belief. So, what I'm really optimistic about is that I won't be devastated even if my predictions are less than perfect.

The writer is the chief executive of the Medical Research Council

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies  

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee’s new novel is more than just a literary event

Joseph Charlton
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate