December 8, 2023


 Cloning researchers seem to have a knack for coming up with embarrassing surprises. First the South Korean government ended up with egg on its face for pinning its dream of becoming a major biotech player on the fraudulent experiments of Hwang Woo-suk. Now the German government has come under fire for giving its most prestigious scientific prize to the wrong man.

It turns out that Professor Ian Wilmut, internationally famed as the creator of the first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, played second fiddle in the landmark experiment. This has emerged in an improbable venue, an employment tribunal where Wilmut is being accused of racial harassing and bullying an Asian colleague, Prim Singh.

He was asked by a lawyer whether the statement "I did not create Dolly" was accurate and was forced to reply, "Yes". Sixty-six per cent of the credit, said Wilmut, should go to another colleague, Professor Keith Campbell; he had only had a supervisory role. Indeed, according to the Guardian, Wilmut’s handling of the Dolly affair may have been behind Campbell’s decision to quit the Roslin Institute a year later.

Apart from damaging the stellar reputation of the Scottish scientist, the revelation shocked the Frankfurt-based Paul Ehrlich Foundation which garlanded Wilmut with a ?70,000 prize for cloning Dolly last year. The award was bitterly criticised at the time because Wilmut’s research would have been illegal in Germany. According to the newspaper Scotland on Sunday, the foundation might even strip him of the award. Professor Wilmut has since gone on to become one of the leading advocates of cloning human embryos in the UK.

Admittedly, who gets credit for a discovery can ultimately be a question of office politics in highly competitive research institutes with many scientists and technicians. As one scientist told the Guardian, "You have a hierarchy of employment and you need the job. They dictate the rest."