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

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

1st Line Service Desk Analyst

£27000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client who are...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Norovirus the food poisoning bug that causes violent stomach flu  

A flu pandemic could decide next year’s election

Matthew Norman
J. Jayalalithaa gestures to her party supporters while standing on the balcony of her residence in Chennai. Former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is one of India's most colourful and controversial politicians  

The jailing of former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is a drama even Bollywood couldn’t produce

Andrew Buncombe
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style