CBC’s ink was not even dry on our annual 2007 Winners and Losers when we received an objection to our giving Ian Wilmut winner status. Here’s how it all came down. Our good colleague across the pond, Josephine Quintavalle, with Comment on Reproductive Ethics in London, contacted me about a scientist who had just contacted her. Apparently the scientist wanted help drawing attention to the recent petition to the Queen to not grant Ian Wilmut his knighthood. The connection to CBC, was the fact that this scientist was currently working at Children’s Hospital in Oakland CA, a hospital where I spent 10 years of my nursing career. Talk about a small world! Herein begins the interview I did with Dr. Jeremy Brown.
Lahl: What is your complaint about Wilmut?
Brown: The question to bear in mind is how can Wilmut abandon human cloning since it is something he never did in the first place? Science consists of first having an idea and then testing the idea. Wilmut had neither. It can be gleaned from reports from well-known British newspapers that the idea that made cloning possible belongs to Dr. Keith Campbell. It can likewise be gleaned that the 2 technicians who did the experimental work were Bill Ritchie and Karen Mycock. The question we must then ask is which part of the scientific process did Wilmut perform? I submit neither. Dr. Campbell is credited with the idea of freezing cells for cloning research and his fellow scientist, Bill Ritchie with the assistance of Karen Mycock conducted the vital experiments.
Lahl: How long has cloning been around. It didn’t start with Dolly?
Brown: In 1952 tadpoles, which are animals were cloned at NYU by Briggs and King and then in the1960s cloning of frogs improved by John Gurdon at Cambridge, England. Willadsen in the 1980s was working on cloning sheep in England, in fact for the same organisation that Wilmut worked for. This was certainly not Wilmut’s idea. There is a reputable review of the history of cloning for those who are interested.
Lahl: I understand that Wilmut was the first author on the 1997 Nature paper that described cloning Dolly the sheep. This implies that he did most of the work and had the ideas behind the work. How do we know that this is not true?
Brown: There was court testimony, stating that the idea of freezing cells for use in cloning had been devised by Dr. Campbell and the vital experiments had been carried out by a fellow scientist, Bill Ritchie, not Ian Wilmut. Some scientists, who spoke to the Guardian under condition of anonymity, believe the group would still be trying to clone an animal were it not for Prof .Campbell and his contribution to the cloning technique which demonstrated that each egg and cell used in a cloning attempt had to be carefully coordinated for the embryo to have any chance of surviving.
As a brief explanation: the “idea of freezing” means freezing the cells at the “quiescent” or resting stage of the life cycle, not freezing cold as you might otherwise assume, and “each egg and cell used in a cloning attempt had to be carefully coordinated for the embryo to have any chance of surviving” are referring to the same thing.
Lahl:: Did Wilmut have any scientific role in the cloning research which led to Dolly?
Brown: No. Wilmut’s role was in a supervisory/managerial capacity, as part of the managerial structure of the scientific arm of the British government (BBSRC). Earlier there had been moves by higher management to fire him. His role was in holding the purse strings and administering the research funds, and giving orders to people.
Lahl: Aren’t there ethical rules which guide the scientific researcher and assuring proper credit is given where due?
Brown: What has escaped many people is that, yes there are most certainly rules for authorship on scientific publications. In the field of biomedicine these are the overriding rules: Highlighted is: section II Authorship and Contributorship A.1. which makes clear that “Acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, alone, does not justify authorship.” A supervisory role does not merit authorship. Wilmut clearly broke the rules surrounding the assignment of proper authorship! It baffles me still to this day that the media and the scientific community still refer to Ian Wilmut as the famous cloner of Dolly the sheep! And this fact is well established in the public record and noted for all to see in the public domain. The Emperor is in the altogether!
Lahl: Certainly to rob others of their credit in research has enormous, and negative policy implications. Not to mention damaging the credibility of the scientific community in the public’s eye.
Brown: Amazingly, Wilmut is on the advisory board of the Connecticut stem cell program, and serves on the advisory board of the stem cell program set up by the San Francisco based Burrill company, and the University of California Irvine invited him as a cloning expert to give a talk as late as October 2007. People listen to him when he speaks!
When the Chinese poet Li Po was asked if he would rather be an artist or a rich man, he replied that he would rather be rich as artists can usually be found on the doorsteps of the rich. Scientists are in many ways the artists. They are creative and imaginative. However, they rely on the rich who control the funding they need to pursue their scientific pursuits. Often time the rich is the manager of the lab, who controls the purse strings of the funding.
The next time a child looks to you for advice about doing their home work, and in particular about science, perhaps you should not give the stock answer but consider Li Po’s advice. Was Li Po wrong? What is the point of being a scientist if you can be the manager of the scientist? Why will our younger generation want to enter the field and contribute to scientific progress?
A naive person might think that the rules on authorship are meant to identify the brains and the hands behind a piece of scientific work so that science can go forward. This is naive in the extreme.
It took Wilmut 10 years to admit that he was not the brains behind Dolly the sheep. And now they want to make him a Knight!
Jeremy Brown, M.D., Ph.D., is Staff Scientist at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. Dr. Brown is the first person to alter both copies of genes in normal human cells. He has spent 10 years working on cell life span. In the last 5 years he has also worked on how genes are regulated and how this may affect cell life span and the efficiency of cloning. Presently he works at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute.
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