Posts Tagged ‘Research’

G.D.H. Cole on the Nationalisation of the Utility Industries

March 22, 2016

I found these arguments for the nationalisation of the utility industries in G.D.H. Cole’s 1942 book, Great Britain in the Post-War World (London: Victor Gollancz).

Road and Rail

But these two types by no means exhaust the list of industries and processes which call for early socialisation. The third group consists of industries which, though they include too many separate units to fall under the first group, have nevertheless been shown by practical experience to be incapable of serving the public interest under private enterprise. The outstanding member of this group is the coal industry, which, unable to create a monopoly by its own efforts, has been erected into a private monopoly by legislation, under conditions which have improved its own profits without providing any better for the public service. To this group belong also the public utility services – railways, electricity, gas and water-which are, like the coal industry, so essential to the satisfactory working of the other industries and services and to the health and comfort of the community that inefficiency in their conduct is intolerable and their exploitation for private profit plainly against the public interest. the industries and services in this group are already in various stages of transition from private to public control. The railways resemble the coal industry, in that they have been erected into a virtual monopoly by legislation, after having failed to achieve monopoly by their own efforts. they differ from coal in that no sooner had the State made them into a capitalist monopoly than this monopoly began to break down on account of the developing competition of road transport. But this, so far from improving the situation from the public standpoint, has led to chaotic competition between the rival means of carriage. The railways, tied down by rate-fixing regulations which were intended as safeguards against the abuse of their monopoly, have been unable to adapt their rate structure so as to achieve a sensible distribution of traffic between road and rail in accordance with relative costs; and the road transport agencies, having begun to threaten the railways with bankruptcy, have in their turn been hobbled by restrictive licensing regulations designed to prevent them from capturing from the railways the amount of traffic which would have gone by road under conditions of unrestricted competition.

There appears to be no way out of this impasse but by co-ordination between the two transport agencies, so as to provide a single carrying concern which will transport goods by road or rail according to its own judgement of expediency and cost. But it is clearly out of the question to place this power of judgement in the hands of a profit-seeking monopoly; and there is accordingly a clear case for the unification of both forms of transport under public ownership and control.

Water

Of the public utilities, usually so called, water supply is pre-eminently a public health service, though it is also of great importance to industry. It is already for the most part in public hands; and the problem which it presents is mainly that of extending adequate supplies of pure water to those areas of the country which are at present without them- mainly the rural areas. This clearly will not be done by private enterprise: nor is private enterprise a likely way of ensuring that proper use is made of local resources before water is brought from a distance, or of securing a right allocation of distant sources between rival claimants. It is, moreover, a clear point of principle that public health services ought to be publicly operated and not made the sport of private interests.

Electricity

Electricity supply is already partly socialised, under the Central Electricity Board, which controls main-line transmission; and a large part of the business both of generation and of retail distribution of current to consumers is already under municipal control. But there remain both a number of large private Power Companies, generating current which is sold both to big industrial consumers and to municipal and private distributors, and also a large number of interlocked private companies engaged in generation and distribution. In addition, a number of big concerns, including railways, own their own power-stations. It seems clear that the extremely complicated provisions under which the Central Electricity Board, instead of operating its own generating stations, has to buy current from Power Companies and from municipal and private stations and then re-sell it, often to the very concerns from which it has been bought, is uneconomic and foolish, and that it would be very much better for the Central Electricity Board to take over the whole business of generation, except perhaps where a private station exists solely for supplying the big industrial enterprise which owns it. Given this unification, it would be possible for the ‘Grid’ to institute a national system of charges throughout Great Britain; and the task of electrifying the countryside and the remoter areas generally would be immensely simplified. I do not suggest that the Central Electricity Board should take over the job of the retail distribution of current, which would probably be best organised on a regional basis, under public ownership by some sort of Joint Board or ad hoc authority for each region, subject to a general system of national co-ordinating control. What is clear is that there is no room in this industry for the continuance of private profit-making. The case is one for complete unification of the basic supplies, and for regional public control of the end nearest the consumers.

Gas

Gas supply, again, is already under municipal public ownership in a considerable number of areas. But there are both very big private concerns, such as the Gas Light and Coke Company, and many smaller private concerns, often controlled by the larger companies or holding companies which have bought out the original owners. There is, I think, no clear case for a national unification of the gas supply service, which is destined to remain mainly local. Only in a few areas is long-distance transmission of producer-gas from industry likely to be practicable. Indeed, it becomes less practicable as industries achieve greater efficiency in using up gases that formerly ran to waste. Nor is there any necessary economy in increasing the size of gas undertakings beyond a certain point, which is fairly soon reached. The economy that is important is that of unified technical administration and research; and this can probably best be achieved by regional rather than national consideration. The right solution seems to be the amalgamation of gas undertakings on a regional basis, under regionally unified technical direction. And this could best be achieved by regional public ownership, parallel to the ownership of the system of electricity distribution.

The Church and the British Government’s Human Embryology Research Bill

March 26, 2008

One of the big stories over this side of the Atlantic in Britain this week is the debate in parliament over the government’s human embryology research bill. This is, or should be, intensely controversial, not least because one of the possibilities being discussed is of allowing human and animal cells to be mixed. The Church criticised this suggestion on Monday, and was in turn criticised by the broadcaster and infertility expert, Lord Robert Winston. Winston stated that such research, using cells created from a mixture of human and animal genetic material, would lead to cures for disease, and that by opposing this the Church risked making itself look stupid.

Now I like Dr. Winston. He’s a great science presenter with a genial and avuncular manner. He did a fascinating programme on the development of the world religious faiths, The Story of God, on BBC television a few years ago. He’s a practising Jew, and managed to leave Richard Dawkins looking more than a little nonplussed on camera when he and Dawkins were discussing religion. Dawkins had made a statement, if I remember correctly, to the effect that he could see how many scientists took belief in God seriously, to which Winston quietly replied ‘I believe in God.’ Dawkins seemed to step back a bit, looked at him and questioned this. ‘Yes, I really do believe in God’, said Winston. I don’t think Dawkins really knew how to take this, as although Dawkins does recognise that many scientists are religious, it seems to me that he genuinely doesn’t understand how any scientifically educated person can still believe in God. Furthermore, Winstone gave a talk last year to the Edinburgh Association for the Advancement of Science criticising atheists like Dawkins for confusing atheism with science. I think he described such people as ‘deluded’.

However, I think he’s wrong on this point. Very wrong.

The opposition to such embryological research is based on very carefully reasoned positions on the dignity of human life. People aren’t just biochemical machines, but possessed of reason and the capacity for suffering. Human life has an innate dignity which extends also to its beginning in embryos and blastocytes, even though these may not be able to experience pain. The philosophical issues involving the treatment of human embryos, even if these are merely the few cells envisaged by the scientists engaged in this research, have implications for human dignity as a whole. Hence the opposition to such embryological research. For Jews and Christians, human dignity has its basis in the Biblical description of humanity made in the image of the Almighty, though this does not make it irrational. Philosophers have defended the innate dignity of human life against attitudes to reproduction that are felt to degrade this dignity through rational, logical argument. Now the Church’s attitude towards such research can be questioned, and arguments framed against it, but that does not mean that the Church’s attitude is stupid or wrong.

The statement that such experiments in creating human/animal hybrids would lead to cures for disease is also open to question. There is in fact no guarantee that this will occur. All that can be said is that those engaged in such research believe that it will lead to cures for disease. And the question remains that even if this were so, whether it would justify the moral danger of such research.

Parallels to Controversy over Embryonic Stem Cells

There are parallels here to the controversy in America a year ago about research into embryonic stem cells. The use of such material from embryos was being advocated as holding insights to any number of important biological questions, including the replacement of other cells damaged by disease or aging. It promised cures for a number of acutely debilitating conditions. Nevertheless, George Bush’s administration felt that federal funds could not be used to support this research, and it was believed that here Bush’s religious views and those of the Christian Right were important in blocking such funding. There was a storm of protest from the scientific community engaged in the research, and it was presented in parts of the science press as a case of retrogressive religion holding back the progress of science and medicine.

Other scientists involved in stem cell research, however, pointed out that there were major flaws in the supposed usefulness of embryonic stem cells and stated that adult stem cells were far more suitable for such research. I remember reading an article about it in a Right-wing American Christian website, which quoted the Christian head of a biotech company as stating that his company was not engaged in embryonic stem cell research because of the serious technical difficulties in manipulating such cells compared to those from adults. Nevertheless the suitability of adult stem cells was apparently rejected in favour of embryonic stem cells by the vast majority of those engaged in such research. It was claimed that the support of research using adult, but not embryonic stem cells was part of a ‘Republican war on science’, and that adult stem cells could not possibility be manipulated so that they fulfilled the scientific and medical claims made for their use. Such criticism was contradicted last November when two labs, one in Wisconsin and the other in Japan, independently showed that adult stem cells could be induced to perform the functions being claimed for them. There are, however, still immense practical difficulties for the manipulation of embryonic stem cells, or so I understand.

My own feeling is that something similar may be the case with the claims made by British biotech researchers here that creating cells from animal and human material will lead to greater insights and cures for diseases. The claim that such hybrid cells could lead to medical advances may be misplaced or overstated. As well as being morally dubious, the science also may be flawed.

Parallels to the Ethical Debate over Cloning

There is also a further danger that such research will lead to a return to eugenics, assisted by modern biotechnology. In 1970 the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Bentley Glass, declared that humanity should take control of its nature and try to transcend itself by altering its genotype. 1 As for the ethical dimensions of such research, while the ethics of science are given far greater attention and discussion than they were in the 1950s some scientists have commented that scientists engaged in such research are rarely interested in its ethical dimension. Lee Silver, the director of a molecular biology lab at Princeton, commenting on the cloning of Dolly the sheep, remarked ‘The scientists who do the research never think about the implications’, concluding that they did so because it might affect their ability to do research’. 2  

Now clearly medical research should be encouraged and supported, and the immense potential of science to cure and treat disease explored and realised. But this does not mean that all such research that claims to lead to cures for disease should be followed. For this reason I strongly hope that attempts to mix human and animal material to create hybrid cells, even for the noblest reasons of curing disease, will be rejected because of the immense moral danger it presents to humanity. The rejection of this type of research by the Church is neither stupid nor irrational, but an entirely rational response to the immense human moral cost involved.

Notes

1. Gina Kolata, Clone (London, Penguin 1997), p. 65.

2. Kolata, Clone, p. 35.