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March 11, 2009


Kevin, I'm also pleased to see the U.S. ban on stem-cell research lifted, even though where I live (outside the U.S.) it will mean more competition for stem cell researchers, who are presently several years ahead of their U.S. counterparts thanks to Bush's ban. But I think your underlying assumption, which seems to be that science is neutral and immune to ideology, is incorrect.

The science that gets done is oftentimes an effect of political considerations, even if those considerations are not stated as blatantly as the outright ban in the case of stem cell research. Suppose that someone wants to look for a possible link between the presence or absence of certain genetic markers and IQ, and then look at the prevalence and absence of those markers in different ethnic groups. There's no presidential edict against such research, but do you think a grant proposal for such a project, even if sound and authored by Nobel prize winners, would even stand a chance of getting funding?

Or suppose someone wants to demonstrate that human-origin CO2 emissions do not contribute to global warming - again, could that person get funding, let alone tenure?

I was originally trained as a scientist, and notwithstanding a stint studying law, I still consider myself a scientist. I'd like to think I still think like a scientist. But part of being a scientist means being objective about the facts, and in this case, when the practice of science is itself the subject of the inquiry, it's clear that science as practiced isn't neutral.

Another scientist and law practitioner agrees with Dan. Public funding for research is extremely sensitive to political tone and nuance, especially when an impact of that research can be imagined to have social consequences. The Obama administration will be much more muted with respect to its political controls on science, but those effects will still remain. Nonetheless, we are looking forward to a new era when science is more highly respected.

Dear Dan:

I was thinking about this interpretation of President Obama's remarks, and thought I'd wait until someone raised it to broach the issue.

It is certainly not my contention that scientists are free of ideology - any fair reading of the past shows that (eugenics, IQ, etc.), even when the "ideology" is merely the "prevailing wisdom." Scientists are human, so they will be affected by all the frailties all humans are prone to have.

But there are two distinctions. The first is that scientists work "from the ground up," i.e. each scientist comes to a problem with her own background. This is very different from "top down" ideology, as practiced by the Bush administration. There, the "answer" was already known (from the ideology), the trick was to get the data to support the answer. This is the antithesis of the effect that individual ideology can have on science.

The second distinction is that most scientists, even having their own ideological proclivities, are inclined to use experimental evidence to support or refute their initial ideas. Fundamentally, the results matter, again in a way not involved in ideologically-driven (as opposed to merely ideologically-affected) science.

As for your question about the capacity for renegades to get funding, their numbers abound: the Hill hypothesis of oxidative phosphorylation was counter to the thinking at the time, as were Barbara McClintock's "jumping genes" in corn, for example. There are geologists with theories of a "snowball Earth" and the Alvarezes, father and son, were not believed when they posited a meteor strike as the cause of the Jurassic extinction of the dinosaurs. Finding high levels of iridium in the right strata around the world, and the impact crater off the Yucatan, made that hypothesis acceptable. And, of course, there was Darwin.

Frankly, I think that there are plenty of groups willing to fund "global warming" denier research, but that's the point - the work the Bush administration relied upon to support its skepticism over global warming did not come from climatologists. Prudence suggests that skepticism has its place, but when all of the leading researchers have independently come to the same conclusion that conclusion should have an effect on the policies you implement (because, of course, they could be right after all).

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to address this - I didn't intend to suggest that scientists or science for that matter is ideologically neutral. Just that under this administration we have a chance to have heard the disparate voices of scientists who disagree based on their expertise rather than their ideologies.

Dear Jwint:

I hope my answer to Dan clarified what I was trying to say. Indeed, there was an article recently, perhaps in the New York Times, regarding the issue of whether a scientist working for a President should be neutral.

I am not looking for perfection, or even even-handedness - I would expect most scientists to be opinionated people who will advocate for their position. But what I expect, and that I think we all have a right to expect, is that the basis of their advice comes from the results of the science. Bill Clinton once said, referring to President Bush, that he (Clinton) had worked very hard to become someone who's world view was grounded in reality, and he liked being there. At least if a scientist's advice turns out to be wrong, there will be a reality-based way of determining that it was wrong, with maybe some suggestion of how to change the policy to do what was intended in the first place.

Thanks for the comment.

I struggle with this decision. While you make a very poignant point about conducting science from the ground up I believe it glosses over the huge distinction between the global warming debate and the embryonic stem cell debate. As to the global warming debate there are proponents on both sides with an interest in seeing evidence indicate one way or another. Conducting solid, unadulterated, research free from political and ideological influence should be possible and absolutely should be fostered by this administration using federal funds. ESC research is far more divisive and begins to delve deeply into personally held beliefs of morality, religion and the sanctity of life. You can’t remove those from the debate any way you try. An extreme example involving the same factors being the experiments conducted in the name of “science” on POWs, prisoners and others by both the Communists and the Nazis during WWII. No one would advocate this kind of research should be conducted free from ideology and political influence. The sanctity of life forbids us to pursue such research. Scores of individuals feel the same way about ESC research in the United States.
Alternatives such as adult stem cells exist to pursue the same goal of unlocking the potential of stem cell therapy. Using federal funds to pursue what is considered immoral and even unnecessary by some is a disconcerting step to dehumanizing human life which is being sanctioned by our own government.
I am not trying to stir the pot but just want to point out that the view you present is overly simplistic and in my opinion impossible.
Another great and thought provoking article however.

Dear Anon:

I think everyone who thinks about the decision struggles with it. My point is just that we need to struggle with it, not impose an ideological decision or conclusion. hESCs are vexing morally, since they pose choices that need to be made: existing life versus potential life; use of living tissue that would otherwise go to waste (i.e., be destroyed one way or the other); "ownership" rights over spawn (since the embryos cannot be implanted into any random third party recipient, why should we allow them to be used to make new stem cell lines?), etc.

So the substantive questions are legion and I did not (and will not, on a blog post), get into them. It is the procedural issue, and the shortcut over what I think are the proper procedures (experimental inquiry over as wide a scope of investigators as necessary to arrive at a consensus view of a situation, even if that changes over time). Deciding on an answer beforehand and then cherry-picking the evidence (by definition, ignoring what doesn't fit) to support the conclusion.

Thanks for the comment.

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