Philippa Taylor

What’s in a name? Some interesting facts about the new Francis Crick Institute

Philippa Taylor was Head of Public Policy at CMF until September 2019 and now works with CARE. She has an MA in Bioethics from St Mary’s University College and a background in policy work on bioethics and family issues.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

Francis_CrickWith the recent news about the Francis Crick Institute and the HFEA’s decision  to allow one of its scientists, Dr. Kathy Niakin, to conduct research into the controversial embryo gene editing technique Crispr-Cas 9, we thought it would be interesting to find out more about the organisation that is pioneering germline (inheritable) genetic engineering.

What is the Francis Crick Institute?

It has been described in the Guardian as a £700 million ‘altar to biomedical science’ , as ‘Europe’s superlab’ and even as ’Sir Paul’s cathedral’, after its Director, Sir Paul Nurse. The Institute is Europe’s largest biomedical research centre. It is a partnership between six of the UK’s most well-known scientific and academic organisations – the government funded Medical Research Council (MRC), Cancer Research UK (CRUK), the Wellcome Trust, UCL (University College London), Imperial College London and King’s College London.

What does the Francis Crick Institute do?

The Institute says its work is aimed at ‘helping to understand why disease develops and to find new ways to treat, diagnose and prevent illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, infections, and neurodegenerative diseases’ . It plans to undertake ‘ground-breaking research across a range of scientific disciplines’ and help ‘laboratory discoveries to be turned into treatments as quickly as possible.’

Researchers work on areas such as cell signalling  and regulation with a focus on cancer, infection and replication of viruses as well as the controversial gene editing of human embryos.

Who funds it?

The Francis Crick Institute’s huge annual £150 million budget comes primarily from the government’s Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust.  The Institute also received £700 million  to pay for building construction costs from the same three organisations as well as three London universities, who contributed £40 million each.

The doors to the Francis Crick Institute’s new building are expected to open in 2016 and its leaders have said in interviews that its funding is already in place and that new funding came only to construct its new building.

The Institute hopes to also get funding and researchers from pharmaceutical companies ‘in the hope of speeding the transition to the clinic,’ says Nature.

Is it too big to fail?

An article in Nature warns that: ‘Some worry that the Crick will become ‘too big to fail’ — that its public and private funders will put the centre ahead of other priorities’ especially given the vast expectations that come with its size, its funding and the hope of many that the Institute will become a scientific and economic boon to the UK. The article asks if: ‘the centre could become a black hole that devours public and private research funding, while widening the gap between the haves and have-nots of UK science.’ James Wilsdon, a science-policy researcher at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK told Nature: ‘It is a big, big, big, enormous whale of an investment. It has to succeed. If it doesn’t, what do we do?

It can of course be argued, in response, that this is welcome investment that may not otherwise have been given, and we certainly need research and therapies into diseases.

However what intrigues us more than the funding is the name given to the Institute.

Why ‘Francis Crick’?

Crick did much that was well worth celebrating and recognising, as Matt Ridley’s book title states:  ‘Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code’.  On its website, the Institute describes Francis Crick as a man: ‘noted for his intelligence, openness to new ideas and collaborations with scientists working in different fields of expertise.

The same could be said of many people, including Cecil Rhodes. Cecil Rhodes did much that was good but, despite that, a statue of him, hidden away in a small College that few visit, was under threat of removal because of his racist views.

In a time when we have public arguments about the removal of statues and plaques that commemorate people who are now regarded as racist, why has a high profile, massively funded, European ‘superlab’ been given the name of a British scientist who was an unashamed eugenicist?

Crick’s personal letters  showed his belief in eugenics, even suggesting that the Nazis had simply given eugenics ‘a bad name’, adding that: ‘I think it is time something is done to make it respectable again’. (letter to biochemist, Dr John T Edsall on June 10, 1971).

Crick famously threatened to leave a scientific group after researchers protested against a racist research proposal that posited finding evidence for supposed differences in the IQ of black and white people. Crick actually agreed there were racial IQ differences and suggested these were as a result of genetics.

He wrote in another letter  to Edsall and six other members of the American National Academy of Sciences in February 1971 that: ‘…In brief I think it likely that more than half the difference between the average I.Q. of American whites and Negroes is due to genetic reasons, and will not be eliminated by any foreseeable change in the environment. Moreover I think the social consequences of this are likely to be rather serious unless steps are taken to recognize the situation…’

This was years after he aired his views to Lord Snow. When Lord Snow asked him about a BBC programme, Crick wrote on April 17 1969: ‘As far as I remember I said that the biological evidence was that all men were not created equal, and it would not only be difficult to try to do this, but biologically undesirable. As an a[s]ide I said that the evidence for the equality of different races did not really exist. In fact, what little evidence there was suggested racial differences.’ (emphasis in original).

Crick even went so far as to advocate bribery and sterilisation of certain groups of people!

His 1970 letter  to Dr B Davis at Harvard Medical School to offer financial incentives to families to separate twins at birth for research said that people who were ‘poorly genetically endowed’ should be sterilised:

‘…My other suggestion is in an attempt to solve the problem of irresponsible people and especially those who are poorly endowed genetically having large numbers of unnecessary children. Because of their irresponsibility, it seems to me that for them, sterilization is the only answer and I would do this by bribery. It would probably pay society to offer such individuals something like £l,000 down and a pension of £5 a week over the age of 60. As you probably know, the bribe in India is a transistor radio and apparently there are plenty of takers.’

Is this relevant now?

‘Eugenics’ is a compound of two Greek words meaning good and genes. Eugenics is usually viewed as a historical phenomenon, involving coercive, state sponsored, reproductive control.

What appalls true eugenicists is that the whole business of human reproduction is out of rational control and is left to chance. After saying the Nazis had given it a bad name, Crick said in one letter that: ‘people have to start thinking out eugenics in a different way.’ In that respect, he was right. Eugenics is now thought out differently.

Armed with new genetic technologies, a new eugenic enthusiasm has emerged. The new eugenics is more laissez-faire, but is one where it is irresponsible to refuse to undergo prenatal tests, where every child has the ‘right’ to a healthy genetic endowment and where we improve humans by deliberately picking and choosing their inherited traits.

This brings us back to the Francis Crick Institute.

The HFEA’s controversial decision to grant approval to the Francis Crick Institute to conduct germline editing on human embryos using the technique Crispr-Cas 9 has been covered by us here.

However some bioethics experts and groups have warned that germline research now being carried out at the Crick Institute  could be used for eugenic purposes.  In an headlined:  ‘Eugenics is inevitable because parents will always want to ‘enhance’ their children’, a group of 150 British scientists said: ‘Permitting germline intervention for any intended purpose would open the door to an era of high-tech consumer eugenics in which affluent parents seek to choose socially preferred qualities for their childrenWe must not engineer the genes we pass on to our descendants.’

Even Prof Lovell Badge, a supporter of germline research, recently warned in The Telegraph: ‘…You can quite easily imagine that if one (a rogue clinic) were to apply these techniques to germline editing the place where it’s going to happen is going to be associated in some way with IVF clinics…You can quite easily imagine the combination of the ego of the person running the thing and someone who wants treatment and is saying ‘I will slip you $50,000’ (£35,867) or whatever to do this. And that scares me.’

In highlighting this, we are not advocating removal of either the Rhodes statue nor the Institute, but we want to challenge this high profile celebration of a eugenicist, and to warn that current research carried out in the same place may end up with exactly the same highly objectionable (indeed, harmful) purposes that Francis Crick had.

The laudable goal of treating human disease and relieving human suffering must not be allowed to become a tool for exercising quality control over our offspring. Ironically, the choice of name (inadvertently?) now links the research at the Francis Crick Institute to a eugenic advocate.

And the further other irony of all this is that, if the germline research now being done at the Institute is indeed potentially eugenic,  as claimed, then the Institute’s name is, unfortunately,  highly appropriate.

This article was written jointly by Philippa Taylor and Trudy Simpson.



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