Page last updated at 00:01 GMT, Saturday, 10 May 2008 01:01 UK

Scientists' protest discouraged

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Newcastle University's hybrid embryos
Hybrid embryos have already been created in the UK

Scientists are being discouraged from attending Parliament on Monday to show their support for proposed embryology and fertility legislation.

Documents obtained by BBC News show the Medical Research Council (MRC) believes any lobbying of MPs would be "counter-productive".

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill contains controversial proposals on abortion, IVF and hybrid embryos.

Opponents believe the measures are unethical and unnecessary.

Having worked with patient groups in supporting the bill thus far we would leave them high and dry if we didn't give them public support on the day that the bill reaches the Commons
Dr Stephen Minger

Prominent stem cell scientists had been invited by campaigners to a show of support for the bill, along with patient groups and doctors.

The aim, according to the organisers, is to counter lobbying by groups opposed to embryo research - and to explain the science to interested MPs.

BBC News has learned that the head of policy at the MRC, Tony Peatfield, has emailed the heads of four of its institutes asking them to tell staff that the MRC cannot support researchers involved in the event.

He says that the corporate view is that the presence of scientists outside Parliament could have a "negative impact" and might "actually be counter-productive to the research that (the MRC) would like to see progress".

Angry response

One of the scientists invited to the event is Dr Stephen Minger - who holds one of the two licences to clone human embryos for research purposes.

He said that he "failed to understand the MRC's view".

Dr Minger said that as a result of Mr Peatfield's note, rather than just turn up by himself he is now urging his entire laboratory staff to attend.

He said: "By giving our support to the bill we are showing MPs that there is another point of view.

"And it was lobbying by scientists in the first place that meant that the government was able to understand why the creation of hybrid embryos was necessary.

"Having worked with patient groups in supporting the bill thus far we would leave them high and dry if we didn't give them public support on the day that the bill reaches the Commons."

Dr Evan Harris, who organised the event, described the MRC's response as "rather absurd and paranoid".

He said: "It is a valid part of public engagement - which the MRC is supposed to be encouraging - for scientists to come to Parliament and explain their research."

In his email to institute heads, Mr Peatfield forwarded an earlier note sent by the MRC's head of clinical research and ethics, Catherine Elliot. This note, he said, "is now the corporate view".

Dr Elliot states: "The feedback we have had is that the scientists who are speaking about these issues, to MPs and in the media, appear measured, rational, and not pushing their agenda against all odds.

"Again we would emphasise that pictures of apparently protesting scientists is quite likely to undermine this.

"While we appreciate that protest is not the intention of the event that is how pictures may well be interpreted."

In a statement, the MRC said: "In common with all organisations receiving public money, the MRC has a responsibility to ensure that it uses the most appropriate methods to communicate its policy.

"It is not appropriate for the MRC to undertake lobbying activities such as public demonstrations or protests.

"If scientists supported by the MRC wish to become involved in lobbying in a personal capacity, for example by demonstrating outside Parliament, they are free to do so, but we require them to make clear that this is in a personal capacity, and not on behalf of the MRC."

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