Smelling a rat

By Pete Young
Monday, 23 September, 2002



Trapped in the political crossfire of the stem cell debate, biotech industry icon Prof Alan Trounson has taken some heavy hits.

They include claims he misled MPs about a US research project in which mobility was restored to a crippled rat by incorrectly claiming embryonic stem cells were responsible. There were also insinuations his financial and research interests were too closely tied.

The uproar has wounded Trounson to some degree as an effective spokesman for the proponents of embryonic stem cell research. But a larger question is whether the affair is inflicting collateral damage on the life science research community in terms of the trust it enjoys among the general public -- and whether the controversy has shaken the industry's view of itself.

Some industry figures interviewed for this article felt Trounson's troubles would discourage scientists from taking a highly visible role in similar future public debates. Others believed the controversy was stimulating scientists to stand up and make their views known.

In some quarters, Trounson's embarrassment appears to have been greeted by a reflex outbreak -- quickly suppressed -- of the tall poppy syndrome that exults in the misfortunes of larger than life figures. And one biotech baron saw the furore as a positive signal that Australia had arrived in the front rank of countries engaged in significant life science research.

Sympathy and fear

While there is deep sympathy for Trounson within the life sciences community, there are also fears such incidents could transform public unease with science research in this area into active distrust.

"I was horrified [by the crippled rat affair]," said cell biologist Dr Jean Fleming, a member of New Zealand's recent Royal Commission into Genetic Modification who now works in cancer research at the Queensland Institute for Medical Research.

Her experience on the 14-month Royal Commission convinced her the New Zealand general public was deeply distrustful of Big Science and Big Business, and that distrust was part of a larger anti-globalisation movement.

The Australian public was not as anti-science but "the average person in the street would read about [the incident], not be able to interpret the scientific nuances and conclude he was lying to get money," she said.

"You could just see people saying: 'There you go, he's been caught making a mistake'." She said scientists could not afford to take any shortcuts in their efforts to gain or maintain the trust of the public.

Misjudgement

Basically, Trounson did misjudge his words when he briefed the politicians on the crippled rat research, said Prof Peter Doherty, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Medicine for discoveries concerning the specificity of the cell-mediated immune defence. "But his misjudgement lay in talking to a group of parliamentarians the way he would talk to a group of scientists."

Doherty noted that Trounson has been held to exacting standards on what he said and claimed while his detractors had not been subjected to the same standards.

Mel Bridges, chief executive of successful diagnostics company Panbio, said the stem cell debate and the Trounson controversy was "an uncommon occurrence... an atypical event" that would not have a lasting impact on the biotech community's existing attitudes and philosophies.

Tension of the type swirling around Trounson "is not an unknown event in other countries," Bridges noted.

He suggested it could be viewed as a positive event because it confirmed Australia was now a member of the exclusive club of countries with the right combination of cutting-edge research and science commercialisation to trigger such controversies.

'Too quiet'

The controversy is apparently being treated with circumspection by rank-and-file research workers. "In the circles where I move, there has been very little discussion about Trounson," said Dr Tim Littlejohn, CEO of bioinformatics specialist company BioLateral. "In fact, it is almost too quiet."

Littlejohn speculated one reason for the silence was that "there was a bit of a tall poppy thing" among scientists in the immediate wake of the Trounson stumble. On reflection, those same people "are feeling a bit bad they had that reaction."

The result was a general embarrassed silence when the topic came up, Littlejohn suggested.

For himself, "I'm one of those who believe there should be many more inspired and inspiring people like Trounson playing high-profile roles.

"The only lesson here is that whoever gets up on the podium has to be extremely careful about what comes out of his mouth."

Garry Redlich, chief executive of drug discovery company Peplin Biotech, said the tall poppy syndrome was "one of the most underrated retardants to the development of Australia's entrepreneurial culture... People look for an opportunity to bring the tall poppy down when there is a faux pas.

"The only way to be sure you won't commit an indiscretion is to maintain a deathly silence."

He said he believed the Trounson incident would make people in the industry less inclined to speak up about their views before the stem cell legislation was voted on.

"People will wait to see what happens with the vote and then say: 'yeah, I support that'."

That would be an unfortunate side-effect because "we can't move forward as an industry or a country unless we are prepared to engage in these debates."

Queensland Bioethics Centre director Ray Campbell saw a different reaction. "I think it has encouraged other scientists who might agree with the direction of the research to speak out because they feel uneasy about the hype [surrounding ES cells]," he said.

But Peter Andrews, co-director of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, agreed the major effect would be to stifle debate. "The rough and tumble of political headkicking is not something most scientists feel comfortable with," he said.

"The ones attacking Trounson are not arguing an ethical viewpoint but are seeking to denigrate the man over trivia. Clearly he has been attempting to put complex scientific issues to the community at large and he's been beaten around the head and neck for it."

Andrews did not agree that scientists should vacate the public podium or turn to public relations specialists to vet their comments.

"Frankly, if the science community had minders to make sure we never said the wrong thing, it would protect our asses. But that is not as important as getting the facts out to the community and people like Trounson are making that attempt."

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