Cloning deja vue; something to teach us?

Back in 1997 when the world heard the news of the first mammalian cloning (Dolly the sheep, of course) it gripped the imagination of a global audience and provided endless copy to the news media. More than once since then it has broken surface again – such as when the Raelian group claimed to have succeeded in human cloning efforts. In parallel, politicians in many countries (and diplomats at the United Nations) responded with assorted legislative and regulatory efforts. The cross-cutting debate about embryonic stem cells (which can be got from cloned embryos, even if so far they have usually been culled from embryos created by in vitro fertilisation), and the hyped prospect of “therapeutic cloning,” gained political traction in many places – and had the effect of distracting attention from the cloning issue as such.

This time around, the story is not so big. But it has made it to the front pages, even though there seems no more in the way of substantiation that the work (to produce cloned born humans) has been or can be done than in the earlier press-conference explosions of the past decade. There’s no doubt that publicity-hungry researchers (and cultists) can still milk the word, but it is yielding less as time passes.

Lessons? Well, for one, the five-letter word clone continues to have enormous drawing power. It fascinates, with some combination of the fascination of the horrible and the excitement of the future. The technology behind it (so-called somatic-cell nuclear transfer) may be rather passe – as Sir Ian Wilmut, Dolly’s creator, re-stated on a panel we shared during the recent Cambridge (UK) Science Festival – he is now looking elsewhere for stem cell success. But like “genetically-modified foods” (mainly in Europe) “clone” is a word to be conjured with. And conjurors intent on media coverage or policy debate have shown its magical powers. Whether these technologies are good, bad, indifferent, tedious, exicting, or some combination of the above (and my own views on cloning itself have been made clear elsewhere), they grip the public imagination.

Secondly, the public does not – in general – have much understanding of S and T issues on which it may have very strong opinions. This is not to insult the public intelligence (though the wisdom of crowds is not necessarily wisdom) but to underline the problems that emerge when matters that have generally been considered “technical” explode onto the public stage. Perhaps the biggest problem lies in the area of risk. As our economy migrates increasingly into dependence on technology-driven innovation which in the nature of the case will prove disruptive and not simply replicate the products and processes it supersedes, where are the bombs buried? When public understanding is low, economic and social impact high, and something highly novel and sci-fi in character at stake, we have reason to be scared. Nanotechnology has offered the best and most widespread example of the problem so far.

The answer? Well, platitudes about the need for “public engagement” are true, though the problem of engaging the public early enough in the development of new things is one we have yet to solve.

Perhaps we should be grateful to Dr. Zavos, the self-promoting would-be cloner, for reminding us.

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