UK science policy: who decides?

11 March 2009

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act: a retrospective

How do we decide how far science should go? The ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, based at the University of Edinburgh, has invited some of the UK's leading scientists, policymakers, media experts and ethicists to debate this question at a conference in Westminster, today (12 March 2009).

With special reference to the recently updated Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act, which promises groundbreaking legislation on assisted reproduction and embryo research, the conference explores how this new legal framework was determined and who really makes decisions related to science policy in Britain.

Speakers at this event include:

  • Dr Stephen L Minger, Director, Stem Cell Biology Laboratory King's College, London
  • Phil Willis MP, Chair of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee
  • Dr Katy Berry, Department of Health
  • Fiona Fox, Director, Science Media Centre
  • Professor Steve Yearley, Director, ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum
  • Sarah Norcross, Director, Progress Educational Trust

Discussions will explore:

  • What was the formal process that ultimately led to the HFE Act?
  • What does it mean to make decisions 'democratically' in such a controversial area?
  • What impact did key stakeholder groups - including scientists, the media and the Church - have on the public debate and legislative outcome?
  • What can the social sciences bring to our understanding of the public debate and decision making process?

The event is part of the ESRC's Festival of Social Science and takes place on 12 March 2009, 09.00 - 17.00, One Great George Street, Westminster.

Professor Steve Yearley, Director of the ESRC Genomics Forum, commented:

"In the coming years many new and challenging biomedical innovations can be expected to stir up controversy. The Festival of Social Science offers us a great opportunity to re-visit last year's often emotive debates over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, not to ask whether we got the answer 'right' or 'wrong' but to find out how good the quality of the discussion was. Was it reasonable? Was it democratic? Was the outcome arrived at fairly? Answering these questions will allow us to approach future decision making over science and ethics with far greater confidence".

Phil Willis MP, Chair of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee stated:

"This remarkable piece of legislation was borne out of a desire by scientists, patient organisations and policymakers to create legislation which would serve the human fertilisation community not place barriers in it way. The outcome, following hours of debate saw considerable movement from the Government and demonstrated that where evidence informs policy sound outcomes can be achieved."

Fiona Fox, Director, Science Media Centre added:

"This is the story of top scientific researchers who took a decision somewhere along the line that engaging with public concern is a key part of their roles as scientists. In doing so, they have made history: they have changed the narrative of science and the media from a negative one to one that is both positive and inspiring. They are exemplary in their willingness to engage with the media, and the Science Media Centre will work to ensure more scientists follow their lead in the future."

For further information contact

ESRC Press Office:

Notes for editors

  1. Programme details
  2. The event is free and open to all, but advance registration is required as places are limited.
  3. For further information or to attend this event please contact:
    • Emma-Elizabeth Capewell, ESRC Genomics Forum Press Officer - Telephone: 0131 651 4746 or 07967 819277
    • Christine Knight, ESRC Genomics Forum Policy Officer - Telephone: 0131 651 4743
  4. Established in August 2004, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is a novel initiative in the field of social science research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
  5. As part of the ESRC Genomics Network (EGN), the Forum acts to:
    • integrate the diverse strands of social science research within and beyond the EGN;
    • develop links between social scientists and scientists working across the entire range of genomic science and technology;
    • connect research in this area to policymakers, business, the media and civil society in the UK and abroad.
  6. The Festival of Social Science is organised by the Economic and Social Research Council, and runs from March 6 - 15, alongside National Science and Engineering Week. It celebrates some of the very best British social science research, as well as highlighting the ways in which social science makes a difference to everyday lives. Press releases detailing some of the varied events are available, or for more information please contact the ESRC Press Office.
  7. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research which impacts on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2008/09 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes.