Letters: Stop grousing over DNA discovery

These letters will be published in the print edition of The Independent, April 25th, 2013


On the 60th anniversary (25 April) of the publication in Nature of three papers by Watson and Crick and teams led by Rosalind Franklin and my late father Maurice Wilkins, it’s easy to forget that in April 1953 just about no one in the world had heard of DNA. Even among the few scientists who had, nearly all dismissed it as unimportant.

Sixty years on, DNA is one of the few aspects of science that can genuinely be called a household name. 

Just after Watson and Crick proposed their model in 1953, my father wrote to them saying: “I think it’s a very exciting notion and who the hell got it isn’t what matters ... there is no good grousing.” I don’t think anyone connected with that letter would have believed quite how much “grousing” about ”winners” and “losers” the next 60 years would bring.

DNA belongs to all of us yet none of us. Our bodies are just vehicles for these primordial molecules, formed in slime pits millions of years ago, to reach the future by combining with others. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking of the DNA effort in a similar way – the twin strands of Cambridge’s conceptual model combining with Kings’ experimental rigour to bring a new idea to life? A fully accurate and verified structure for DNA required vital contributions from both sides. 

The four very different figures in the “race for DNA” shared a common concern about the effect of science, including their science, on mankind. None could have hoped or expected that their work would have the impact it already has. Let’s hope the end result of this “very exciting notion”, 60 years young, is that we’ll all be the winners.

George Wilkins, London SE24


Boarding school offers neglected children hope

An underclass has been established in this country. While its genesis was economic – the loss of semi-skilled male jobs transferred the role of breadwinner to taxpayers – it is now culturally driven. A new way of life has emerged for all too many of my young constituents.

The report I presented to the Prime Minister on the foundation years two Christmases ago showed that the life chances of most children are determined before they step into school. And schools, as they are currently run, are powerless to overturn the achievement cards dealt against the most neglected children. 

I tried and failed to raise the funds so that one of the Birkenhead schools could provide boarding facilities similar to what the Durand school in Lambeth is going to achieve. Getting neglected children away from parents who do not even care if their children get up in the morning, let alone provide them with a breakfast, and away from a beastly home environment, is the only way to improve some children’s life chances. 

It is good that the National Audit Office is investigating the Durand School’s business plan (“Costs of running ‘Eton of state sector’ hugely unrealistic”, 24 April). But I hope it has been instructed to find ways of making this great experiment a success. The odds against innovation in this country are stacked too heavily in favour of vested interests. The National Audit Office would do all neglected children a great service if it became an ally of change and not a weapon to destroy hope. 

Frank Field MP, (Birkenhead, Lab)


House of Commons

I agree with your leading article that a “state-sector version of Eton” is a good idea, but it glosses over the urgent reforms required in state education (24 April).

There is a lack of school places as well as schools in high-density areas of the country such as London, where 118,000 extra state-funded places are required in the next three years.

There is also an issue of quality. State comprehensive schools are failing their brightest pupils, as well as those who are not as interested in academic subjects. The boldest move that Michael Gove can make is to open up for-profit competing providers to increase supply.

Profit will allow business to increase educational capacity. Even if one does not like the idea of schools running for-profit, one must be pragmatic – as government is not providing enough places. They have to come from outside the state sector. Costs should fall, and a state-backed education voucher can be used to ensure individuals can afford such academic fees. 

Second, he should seek to overhaul the failed comprehensive system by moving English and Welsh schools back to a system of academic streaming, based either on the old grammar school or German three-tier system.

James Paton, Billericay, Essex


Before I went into teaching, I worked in industry. Fifty weeks a year at 40 hours a week, with an hour off on Christmas Eve if the department had done well. My friends taunted me when I became a teacher because of the nine-to-four day and the 13 weeks’ holiday.

I discovered that, while I was never tired while doing the industry job, I was shattered by the workload in teaching. I fell asleep before the evening meal every Friday.

To teach 27 hours a week, I had to do at least 30 hours’ working at home. The friend who read and made notes on 21 books during his holidays so that he could be ready for the following year was a little exceptional, but any decent teacher simply had to use a lot of holiday time for preparation.

I don’t object in principle to Michael Gove’s proposals for a longer school day and longer terms, but they need to be based on the reality of what happens in the unseen part of the job of teaching.

Jim Johnson, Nottingham


Landlords cash in on poverty

In the midst of this government’s brutal assault on the poor, sick and disabled, there is one group of scroungers left unreformed; in fact, actively encouraged.

The swarms of buy-to-let landlords, purchasing portfolios of ex-council flats and cheap housing, are having their mortgages paid by the taxpayer through housing benefit. They are being given, at public expense, inflation-proof assets and a return on capital far above that available to savers.

Many local councils offer a property letting and management service to these landlords, removing even the need to manage their properties. Essentially, providing council housing, but with no security of tenure for the tenant and at ruinous public expense.

Overheard on my train to the City: “...he has a portfolio of 40 flats...”

The utter lunacy of wasting huge sums of public money subsidising the already wealthy, while refusing to spend any money on building new social housing, shows the real priority of this cruel government.

An opportunity for Ed Milliband? Fat chance. Very many MPs, of all parties, own their own little portfolios of these gold-plated cash machines, so the chance of any meaningful reform is remote.

John Boulton, Edgware, Middlesex


It is not important whether or not the “bedroom tax” is actually a tax. What matters is that the less well-off people in our society are being targeted once again, this time for having a bit of extra space that is not permanently occupied.

For many, that space might represent a storage space, privacy for teenagers, a homework desk or simply room to put someone up now and again. These are everyday matters that contribute to physical and mental health and which those of us in larger homes take for granted.

John Charman (letter, 23 April) is quite right that social housing must be used efficiently, but it will be counterproductive in both individual, social  and financial terms to degrade the living conditions of one group to accommodate another.

Perhaps George Osborne would like to try living in the housing he advocates.

Jean Gallafent, London NW1


Seafarers of Middle England

Rambling Syd Rumpo of blessed memory used to sing a traditional sea shanty about the herring fishermen of Harringay (I think) of which he said: “’Tis a sad lament on account of Harringay being landlocked”. After seeing your map of lost counties (24 April), I imagine their colleagues in Rutland must be sharing the same ditty.

Gordon Elliot, Burford, Oxfordshire


The herring fleet of Rutland was indeed a fine sight, and often put to sea with trawlers from Leicestershire and Northamptonshire. Rutland was badly hit by the EU imposition of fishing quotas, as no doubt Nigel Farage will tell you.

Cedric Narbrough, Gravesend, Kent


Boston stands up to terror

No, Eddie Johnson (letter, 22 April) you’re not alone in thinking that the Boston lockdown made the US look ridiculous. Heroic speeches about standing up to terrorists while everyone cowers in their basements – it all supports the view that Americans don’t do irony. 

The whole thing became some kind of non-stop reality TV mass entertainment, and the world is apparently expected to stop what it’s doing and watch in wonder as the US police and FBI show the rest of us how it’s done. 

It’s one thing to lock down a city for a day, but when the bombing goes on for years, you have to carry on as normal even in fear of your life, as we had to do during the IRA bombing campaign starting in the 1970s Now that’s brave and resolute. Incidentally, the IRA was funded for years by Irish Americans, particularly in  Boston. I wonder if those supporters have a clearer understanding now of what it was they were paying for.

Monica Scott, North Yorkshire


It has been reported that the 19-year-old who planted bombs at the Boston Marathon is being charged with  “using a weapon of mass destruction”. Surely WMDs by definition are nuclear, biological or chemical weapons? If a home-made bomb, a pressure-cooker full of ball-bearings, is classed as a WMD, then those assault rifles which the US  Congress refuses to control must also be classed as WMD.

John Boaler, Calne, Wiltshire


The Marathon bomb suspect has been formally accused of using weapon of mass destruction. So now we know. Bush and Blair are vindicated. Saddam Hussein had a  pressure cooker bomb.

John Crisp, London SW1


Bitten by stardom

Those running football clubs are very slow to understand the basics. Only Sir Alex Ferguson realises that football is a team game. If Suarez played for Manchester United he would now be on a flight home. Liverpool players now realise they are merely overpaid support staff who must bow to their star player, which is why their first premiership title is still light years away.

Malcolm Howard, Banstead, Surrey


Why waste time and money on anger management training for Luis Suarez? Just make him wear a muzzle.

George Nicholls, Wilmslow, Cheshire

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