Hinnovic » Framing the future of embryo stem cell research: potential and problems

Framing the future of embryo stem cell research: potential and problems

The future of stem cell research

"Here was a story [embryo stem cell research] that had to be told before it happened, or it might never happen." (Tim Radford, Newspaper Science Editor, cited in Kitzinger, 2008)



Embryo stem cell research is not just an isolated activity conducted in the laboratory. It depends on a range of social and political infra-structures including financial investment, popular support and a facilitative legislative context. Efforts to promote such research thus involve persuading others about the legitimacy, and potential, of the enterprise. My colleagues and I have been tracking this debate over the last ten years – examining media coverage and conducting interviews with journalists, scientists, pressure groups and ‘publics’ (Haran et al., 2008).


Creating a sense of certaintyOur work highlights how an idealised future is brought into the imminent present through the positive use of ‘can’ and ‘could’ to describe the medical promise of embryo stem cell research (rather than more uncertain terms such as ‘may’ or ‘might’). Claims that the research will produce treatments in ‘five to ten years’ – have been circulating for a decade, but the phrasing of such claims offer a moveable feast with no ‘sell-by date’. Commonly used terms such as ‘therapeutic cloning’ are also effectively framing the research as potential medical treatment rather than an experimental science (its projected outcome being woven into the very label itself). A sense of certainty about the future is frequently created. For example, take a statement by one member of the UK’s parliament that embryo stem cell research should be permitted because: ‘Future generations should not needlessly be condemned to a “living hell”’. This promotes an assumption that such suffering is unnecessary because a cure can be found.


The notion of ‘hope’ is central in this debate. Talking of their ‘hopes’ for embryo stem cell research allows scientists who might not confidently ‘predict’ particular outcomes to invoke positive visions of the future; it bridges the gap between aspiration and present reality. Appeals to hope also serve as a moral imperative to action. Declarations about the ‘right to hope’ and the ‘power of hope’ are used to make criticism of embryo research appear morally reprehensible. The complexity of ‘hope’, highlighted by some disability activists, is usually marginalised (Kitzinger and Williams, 2005).


The burden of hope can lead to debaclesThe need to enroll stakeholders in the embryo stem cell enterprise has led to some high-profile problems. For example, when the South Korean scientist, Woo-Suk Hwang announced major advances in stem cell research in 2004 and 2005 these were welcomed as a major landmark – hope made flesh. His work was later revealed as fraudulent. The national and international burden of hope placed on the shoulders of this research seems to have contributed to this debacle.


It would be too simplistic just to characterise the problem as ‘hype’. Such a characterisation ignores the complex processes involved in the creation, management and repair of hope. It also fails to address the shifting alliances and oppositions evident as key protagonists compete to assert different versions of hope (from what and for what), involving multiple fault lines (e.g. between those working with cloned embryos and those using ‘spare’ IVF embryos, or, latterly, hybrid embryos). In addition, the concept of ‘hype’ is often a term applied without a clear sense of agency and can be used to scapegoat the media. This absolves scientists and policy makers of any role in promoting an innovation (whereas, in fact, much of the ‘hype’ can be traced back to press releases and direct media briefings/interviews) (Kitzinger, 2008). In fact, allegations of ‘hype’ (against the media, or against scientists in competing fields) are part of the battle to control the future. When discussing alleged hype, it is, therefore, important to acknowledge that it performs particular rhetorical work in discrediting those promoting conflicting views of the future (Brown, 2003).


Pursue the debate with vision and integrityThe debate surrounding embryo stem cell research is just one example illustrating how controversies about innovation often centre not so much on present scientific facts as on speculations about risks and benefits in the future. The challenge is to pursue such debate with both vision and integrity, always aware of the opportunities and dangers created by telling any story, before it has happened.


Jenny Kitzinger is Professor of Media and Communications Research at Cardiff University. She is co-author of Human Cloning in the media: from science fiction to science practice. (2008) Routledge: London.



Author : Jenny Kitzinger, Ph.D.
Professor of Media and Communications Research
Cardiff University



  • Brown, N. (2003) Hope against hype –accountability in biopasts, presents and futures’ Science Studies 16(2):.3-21.

  • Haran, J Kitzinger, J, McNeil, M O’Riordan, K (2008) Human Cloning in the media: from science fiction to science practice. Routledge, London

  • Kitzinger, J (2008) ‘Questioning Hype, Rescuing Hope? The Hwang stem cell scandal and the reassertion of hopeful horizons’, Science as Culture 17(4): 417-434

  • Kitzinger, J and Williams, C (2005) ‘Forecasting Science futures: legitimising hope and calming fears in the stem cell debate’, Social Science and Medicine 61(3): 731-740


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