Blair Science Speech Angers Pro-Lifers, Environmentalists

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

London ( - British Prime Minister Tony Blair has jumped into the fray surrounding scientific research, angering both environmentalists and the pro-life lobby by indicating his strong support for genetically modified crop research and embryonic stem cell studies.

Blair said he wanted to change Britain's "anti-science" culture, during a speech Thursday to the Royal Society, the U.K.'s leading scientific body.

He recounted how a group of scientists in India had told him: "Europe has gone soft on science. We are going to leapfrog you."

"I believe that if we don't get a better understanding of science and its role, they may be proved right," Blair said.

One area he pledged support for was stem cell research.

"I want to make the UK the best place in the world for this research, so in time our scientists ... can develop new therapies to tackle brain and spinal cord repair, Alzheimer's disease and other degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's," Blair said.

He noted that Britain has produced 44 Nobel Laureates in the past half-century but only eight in the last 20 years. Blair said that morality would not suffer at the hands of scientists.

"Science is just knowledge. Better moral judgment goes hand in hand with better science," he said.

Pro-life anger

But Blair's promise to support research on stem cells lines, some of which are derived from embryos, irritated pro-life activists.

Peter Garrett, director of research and education for Life, called the speech "embarrassing" and said Blair was using outdated research.

"The scientists who are briefing the prime minister aren't keeping him up with the field," Garrett said Friday. "Almost all leading commentators now say that using embryonic stem cells is unlikely to lead the way to cures to diseases like Parkinson's."

He said that some of Blair's advisers and key administration officials have an interest in promoting unfettered scientific research.

"His vocal cords are being used by vested interests," Garrett said. "As long as we follow down this path, the rest of the world will continue to be amazed at the amount of spin surrounding stem cell research in this country."

"The leadership that President Bush has shown on this issue in the United States is excellent. I only wish we could get similar leadership here," he said.

Garrett has written extensively on the connections between Blair's administration and biotechnology firms and noted that the prime minister has received substantial campaign contributions from donors in a position to benefit from government scientific funding.


In his speech, Blair also defended animal experiments and research on genetically modified (GM) crops, two stances that inflamed environmentalists.

"We cannot have vital work stifled simply because it is controversial," he said, noting that Britain has one of the strictest sets of rules when it comes to animal testing.

Blair referred to several high-profile cases where trial GM crops were destroyed by environmental protesters.

"There is only a small band of people, I believe, who genuinely want to stifle informed debate. Such a small group can, as has happened in our country, destroy experimental crops before we can determine their environmental impact," he said.

"I want to reach my judgments after I have the facts and not before," Blair said.

Lord Melchett, the director of the pro-organic food Soil Association, accused the prime minister of "regurgitating chemical industry propaganda."

"The prime minister cannot argue that it is in Britain's economic interest to support GM food," he said.

"Blair wants to portray environmental protestors as anti-science," said Friends of the Earth Director Charles Secrett. "But in fact, concern for our environment has been fuelled in large part by scientific findings ... governments ignore this science whenever it suits them."

E-mail a news tip to Mike Wendling.

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