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16/04/2014

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Shorts - September 2013

Consulting on education

The content of the revised National Curriculum for maths and science in England for ages 5-14 (Key Stages 1-3) has been published by the government. The revision aims to raise expectations for knowledge and skills in maths and science, with the inclusion of additional content.

The content of the revised National Curriculum for maths and science in England for ages 5-14 (Key Stages 1-3) has been published by the government. The revision aims to raise expectations for knowledge and skills in maths and science, with the inclusion of additional content.

Working scientifically

An increased emphasis on “working scientifically” in the primary curriculum has been welcomed by Annette Smith, Chief Executive of the Association for Science Education (ASE). ‘We’re pleased with the development of “How Science Works” into “Working scientifically” which includes investigations and discussions about science,’ she told People & Science.

As part of SCORE (the Science Community representing Education), ASE has been working with the Department for Education to revise the government’s first, heavily criticised draft programmes of study.

Wrong focus?

Richard Needham, former Chair of ASE and ASE’s representative on the SCORE committee, told People & Science, ‘We’ve always suffered in science education in having two different purposes. One purpose is to create a scientifically-aware society that can think rationally and weigh up evidence. The other is to supply future scientists to feed the economy and to drive technology.

‘The last curriculum included aspects of social awareness of science. That became criticized in the press as “having a chat in the pub”,’ he continued.  ‘That’s unfair… but this curriculum is swinging back the other way… to promote a better grasp of factual knowledge.

‘The implication [is] that once students have acquired substantive knowledge they are then in a position to make more reasoned judgements and the scientific reasoning will flow out of that - [but] I haven’t seen any evidence to support this idea.’

No aim for the future?

Smith is disappointed by this focus on knowledge and an apparent lack of thought about what education is for: ‘Yes, children should have [the core knowledge], but what do we want them to turn out like in the end?’ She describes the aims of the draft programmes of study for science as ‘not particularly well thought through’.

Needham agrees: ‘The third aim… is that children should be made aware of “the uses and implications of science, today and for the future”, [but] I cannot find anything within the proposed programme of study… to do with the future.’

A further consultation on maths and science for 14-16-year-olds will take place this autumn once the content of GCSEs has been decided and another consultation on assessment and accountability closes on 11 October.

Mitochondrial replacement

In an article in Nature, an American bioethicist has criticized the UK’s decision to trial mitochondrial replacement techniques as ‘premature and ill-conceived’. In June, the Department of Health announced it would draft regulations for public consultation later this year.

In an article in Nature, an American bioethicist has criticized the UK’s decision to trial mitochondrial replacement techniques as ‘premature and ill-conceived’. In June, the Department of Health announced it would draft regulations for public consultation later this year.

Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California, argues that the UK’s decision overturns an international consensus against human germline modification. 

As an example, she cites Article 13 of the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine (which the UK has not signed), which states: An intervention seeking to modify the human genome may only be undertaken for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic purposes and only if its aim is not to introduce any modification in the genome of any descendants.

‘There has been no international discussion of this among those who have signed the treaty, or between them and the UK,’ Darnovsky says. ‘This really would be a unilateral move on the part of the UK.’

Human genome?

Mitochondria are self-contained parts of human cells that produce energy for the cell. They have their own DNA (mtDNA) that is distinct from nuclear DNA (nDNA). Genetic information for characteristics such as hair colour is in nDNA, inherited from both parents. However, only the mother’s mtDNA is passed on to a child, via the egg. Mitochondrial replacement involves transferring nDNA from a mother’s egg or embryo to a donor egg or embryo that has had its nDNA removed.

Supporters of the move argue that mitochondrial DNA should not be considered part of the human genome.  The Nuffield Council on Bioethics published an ethical review of techniques to prevent mtDNA disorders in June 2012, in which it noted that the Council of Europe Convention defines being genetically identical to another human being as sharing the same nuclear DNA, regardless of differences in mtDNA.

Safety

‘It’s just semantics as far as I’m concerned,’ Joanna Poulton, Professor and Hon Consultant in Mitochondrial Genetics at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, told People & Science. ‘The issue is: is it going to be safe, and is it going to be effective in doing what it set out to do?’ she continued. ‘We still don’t really know very much about how mitochondria function in early embryos, in stem cells indeed, and there are some strange results out there… That’s a major safety issue, with lots of unknowns.’

Despite this, Poulton is pleased that human trials may take place in the UK. ‘I think that it has to get licensed in the UK reasonably soon, because if it’s not done in the UK, someone will go and do it in Korea or Russia where there’s no regulation and we’ll never know what the results were. [That’s] the last thing we want to happen.’

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Joanna Carpenter
Dr Joanna Carpenter is the Shorts Editor of People & Science
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