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 certainty

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 debacles

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 integrity

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