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Letters: Stem-cell research

Hawking fails to understand embryonic stem-cell research

Sir: Stephen Hawking, for all his brilliance, seems to fail to understand the principle and practice of embryonic stem-cell research (article, 24 July).

He attacks those who oppose it as "reactionary forces" yet fails to understand that stem cells from ethical sources (adult, umbilical cord, bone marrow etc) are already being used successfully in degenerative cures he cites.

There have been no successful treatments from embryonic stem cells, despite vast amounts of money ploughed into such research. There is also a huge danger of the formation of cancerous tumours with embryonic stem cells, yet there is no evidence of a similar risk with ethical sources of stem cells. In the autumn, human studies are to begin into using the patient's own nasal stem cells to treat a common motorcycling injury which results in paralysis of the arm.

If successful, the treatment, which has worked in animal models, could also repair spinal cord injury, damage to the optic nerve that causes blindness, and brain injuries caused by strokes, including deafness and loss of speech.

Professor Hawking is wrong in saying that "because the embryos are going to die anyway ... it is morally equivalent to taking a heart transplant from a victim of a car accident": the accident victim from whom a heart is taken would be dead.

The embryos whose stem cells are taken for research are human and alive. The embryos are killed in the process of removing their stem cells. It is unethical and immoral to kill one human for the benefit of another.

I am a full-time wheelchair user and have several severely disabling conditions. I would be happy to avail myself of ethical stem-cell treatment, and stem cells from these sources are most likely to provide the treatments and cures I look forward to.

I would never accept embryonic stem-cell treatments, because I would not want it on my conscience to be "helped" at the expense of killing some of the most vulnerable of my fellow human beings.



Graphic reality of a missile strike

Sir: The leading technological edge of Israel (Letters, B Salzmann, 20 July) was evident to me on my visit to the Farnborough air show.

The "close-to-reality flight experience" provided for visitors at the new "multi-platform and mission-virtual cockpit" at the stand of Elbit Systems (of Haifa and the US) really does generate a "true-to-life experience" of being in an F16 and firing a missile "with detailed accuracy in all aspects".

What a stark contrast between the superimposed graphics that surround the visitor there, and the still photograph (The Independent, 20 July) of the unknown child killed when her car was attacked by an Israeli F16.

I can only wonder whether the increased number of unmanned aircraft technologies in development implies such errors regarding collateral damage in future conflicts will inevitably increase further.

On leaving Farnborough, it is just a few minutes by train to the next station, Brookwood, where one can alight straight from the platform to the war cemetery and walk among row after row of the thousands of carefully tended graves, many of which are for aircrew from the 1940s.

I wonder how impressed they would be of the use we have made of our 60 years' advance in technology.



Sir: The key dichotomy is between those who wish to work for negotiated, political solutions and those who believe in extreme arguments and war to the death to resolve them. The latter tendency paradoxically emphases the rights and responsibilities of nation states (for instance to be held responsible for terrorism in its borders) at the same time as the right for one nation state to invade/bomb another to establish control.

It seems a complete nonsense to blame a (weak consensual) government for failing to control a terrorist army at the same time as undermining this government by bombing it. Would it not be more productive for those interested in a political solution to find ways of supporting each other cross-nationally in a strong alliance against extremism and warmongering on each side? This would involve strong practical support for the Lebanese government and an independent UN presence to enforce peace. A successful model for this seems to me the Anglo-Irish agreement, which in the medium term has established a political peace, if not yet a political solution.



Sir: When will this Government understand that the military invasion of a sovereign territory with the specific intention of rooting out a "terrorist" group cannot bring a durable peace. It is shocking that no lessons have been learnt from contemporaneous events in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is equally shocking that one of the most powerful governments in the world considers it appropriate to foster democracy through violence.

This government's failure to call for an immediate cease-fire condemns Lebanon to become another recruiting ground for insurgency and escalates global insecurity. It also damages the reputation of democracy world-wide. I am ashamed of the leader of our Government and I am ashamed to be British.



Sir: Why is war once again taking place within Lebanon's borders? The main reason is that Lebanon is one of the weakest states in the region and one of the easiest places for other countries to conduct their power struggles. This conflict has practically nothing to do with the Lebanese collectively. It is about the strategic interests of the US, Iran, Israel, Syria and others in the region. In this struggle there will be shifts in the power balance which currently exists between these different forces. Exactly which direction these shifts will take remains unclear. One aspect of this is crystal clear. Lebanon will be the loser.



Heated debate about the heat

Sir: Jack Dixon (Letters, 21 July) asks why one hot day in July 2006 is held to demonstrate global warming, whereas one hot day in July 1911 does not. The answer is that a single hot day - or even a hot month - in a single place demonstrates nothing.

If we want to know what is happening to our climate, we need to look at an average temperature for the whole planet (the global mean surface temperature), for every year over as long a period as possible. A graph of GMST over time now shows a clearly rising trend. For example, the past five years have produced temperatures that are almost 0.5 degrees C above the 1961-90 average. And 1911 was, for the planet, almost 0.5 degrees C below this average.

The rising global temperature is correlated with the increasing amount of CO 2 humanity is pouring into the atmosphere, which has risen from 280 parts per million to 380ppm in the past 200 or more years, with a sharp acceleration in the past 50 years.

This trend of rising temperatures is set to continue, with potentially disastrous results for the planet, for several reasons. First, CO 2 emissions take a couple of decades before they have their full effect on temperature. Second, in spite of Kyoto, we are now emitting CO 2 at a higher rate than ever. And third, many politicians seem unable to grasp the severity of the problem and the need for urgent action. Prospects for doing anything significant about it are therefore bleak.



Help offered for child cancer victims

Sir: The article on the post-treatment needs of children who have had cancer ("Leukaemia: Life after death", 18 July) gave a flavour of what families go through after they are given this type of diagnosis, but there is much more that needs to be done.

At Naccpo (National Alliance of Childhood Cancer Parent Organisations), we work for better financial support for families in this position, because many face loss of earnings and increased expenses as a direct result of their child's illness, which adds to their stress in having to cope with the diagnosis and resulting treatment.

We are also keen to understand the extent of the problems, some of which were identified in the article, and would encourage childhood cancer families with similar concerns to get in touch with us.

By making an independent assessment of the numbers and types of children affected, we will then be in a much better position to lobby on their behalf.

Families in need should contact me as Naccpo operations manager.



Drive to attract poorer students

Sir: It is indeed desirable to see an increase in the number of students from state schools and low-income families entering higher education ("Top-up fees stop poorer students going to university", 20 July).

But the small percentage fall in these areas over the period 2004-05 should not distract from the sharp increase in numbers for state school and low-income entrants over recent years. Since 2004-05 (when these figures were collated), UK universities have continued to introduce a wide range of successful initiatives to encourage more applications from candidates with no family experience of higher education.

If we are to continue to widen access from disadvantaged groups, it is also vital that we increase the staying-on rates beyond compulsory schooling. In the UK, the participation rate of 17-year-olds in education is one of the lowest of any OECD country. Evidence suggests students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are leaving education earlier, which is why universities are making enormous efforts to ensure their considerable bursary schemes are well-targeted and well-understood.

Under the new fee regime, universities are offering more than £350m in bursaries to support these students. The bursaries, plus enhanced student-support measures such as the reintroduction of non-repayable grants, should provide further incentives to encourage more young people to enter higher education.



Sir: Disappointment at the failure to deepen participation in higher education should not disguise the fact that modern universities again lead in offering opportunities to first-generation students and in promoting the graduate and technical skills in the English regions, Scotland and Wales that are key drivers of economic regeneration.

While the jury is out on the long-term implications of the new tuition-fee regime in England, especially on mature and part-time students, supporting students to achieve their potential is something that cannot be done on the cheap.

In England alone, there is a £100m-per-annum gap between the cost to universities and the funding for present levels of participation of those students from under-represented groups.

The Government must ensure universities receive the full economic cost of widening participation if participation and retention rates are to be improved. Students deserve nothing less and the UK needs their graduate and professional skills to compete in the global economy.



Silent greens

Sir: Cameras appear to be a continuing problem at golf tournaments, particularly at the Open last week. It seems digital camera phones are the main cause for concern. The shutter sounds on all digital cameras can, as far as I know, be turned off. In fact, all sounds a digital camera makes can be turned off.



Airing a problem

Sir: Janet Street-Porter is right to enjoy Newquay before it slips beneath the waves of climate change (Travel, 22 July). There was just time for her to ponder the delicious irony during her pointlessly short plane journey as it pumped out its tons of carbon dioxide. The Government is no better because it subsidised the airport expansion while supervising cuts in the climate-friendly railway.



Wheels of injustice

Sir: On Sunday, as I came out of my local supermarket and on to the pavement, I had to step aside to avoid being run over by two large males on bicycles. I would not normally comment because this is prevalent these days. What I did find remarkable was that the cyclists were uniformed policemen. Should I lodge a complaint with my chief constable?



In praise of columns

Sir: Why is it that you have so many letters objecting to Cooper Brown's column? I find it a perfect counterbalance to Catherine Townsend's "Sleeping Around" column. Both are very readable, and columns such as these distinguish The Independent from its rather more po-faced competitors. Carry on the good work, Coop.



Swan fever

Sir: As a bird-lover I would scarcely call caring for the well-being of swans a "silliness" ("Her Majesty's cygnet service", Extra, 21 July). The ancient ceremony of "swan-upping" has now become an important tool for experts to assess the impact of modern threats on these beautiful and decorative creatures ("Wardens get down to the task of swan-upping", article 19 July).



Bash for BBC

Sir: The BBC, once renowned for cultural excellence, is now notorious for pumped-up prepositions, disregard for clarity in vowels and dipthongs, a news channel characterised by mushiness, and a virtual invalidation of the TV licence fee, by way of repetitious "commercials" for unabashed self-advertisement. Does a multiplicity of digital channels compensate for those deficiencies?



Grass roots

Sir: If Chris Mugan thinks Roxy Music's status is reflected by them playing on Tarmac in Docklands (Review, 24 July), what on earth does he think of bands who play in fields?