Speaker: Dr Dimitriy Myelnikov # University of Edinburgh
19th Sep 2016
15:30 - 17:00
Crystal MacMillan Building, Staff Room, 6th floor
Dolly the sheep was born 20 years ago at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, to much acclaim and controversy. The dramatic public debates surrounding her tended to obscure her origins within the research programmes at Roslin and elsewhere. Historicising Dolly, a project in STIS, University of Edinburgh, seeks to place the cloning of Dolly in the previously understudied contexts of research agendas, technique development, government policy and funding. We have built on the newly available Roslin Institute archives, government papers, published documents and oral histories. This paper reports our interim interpretations.
Roslin Institute was founded in 1993 on the basis of two much older agricultural research bodies in Edinburgh: the Poultry Research Centre and the Animal Breeding Research Organisation (ABRO). This administrative restructuring was a symptom of dramatic changes that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, as British agricultural research funding was split between the Agricultural Research Council and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Thatcher’s cuts to public spending, but especially the government’s and scientific establishment’s interest in nurturing British biotechnology, forced ABRO to reorient its work from long-term breeding experiments to the ‘biopharming' programme of making genetically modified sheep that produced pharmaceutical in their milk. These speculative experiments proved successful, but funding continued to dwindle, so ABRO looked for private sources of income, helping set up a biotech company, PPL Therapeutics. In resisting top-down restructuring and appealing to government priorities, ABRO found itself in a complex public-private arrangement between research council, ministerial and private patronage.
These arrangements played an important role in the Dolly controversy. Cloning research has a long history in the twentieth century, but at Roslin it was primarily a way to improve the poor efficiency of genetic modification for biopharming. Dolly was a prototype in this pursuit, a product of collaboration between Roslin and PPL scientists, with the Ministry of Agriculture and PPL acting as key funders. While the resulting controversy exceeded expectations, both bodies had prepared for intense publicity and interacted with Roslin to manage communication. Despite being besieged by the press for a year and participating in a number of government inquiries around cloning, Roslin’s management turned the hype around Dolly in its favour, by making a successful case against planned funding cuts and setting up another spin-off, Roslin Biomed, on more favourable terms. Overall, this story highlights the complex entanglements of private and public interests in the origins of biotechnology, the importance of institutional adaptation to changing scientific priorities and the benefits that a well-managed controversy can bring.