Science and politics: Key lessons from the stem cell controversy
|January 15, 2008||Posted by O'Leary under Culture|
Ron Reagan (son of Ronald) called it “The greatest breakthrough in our or any lifetime.”
John Edwards, 2004 US vice-presidential hopeful and part time prophet, predicted that Christopher “Superman” Reeve would arise and walk —provided that religious fanatics did not stop the progress of science.
And when Bush nixed new funding in 2001, Newsweek’s science correspondent Sharon Begley suggested that his compromise might be “a cruel blow to millions of patients.”
Whatever were they all talking about? The fabled fountain of youth? Well, more or less. Actually, they were talking about processing frozen human embryos abandoned at fertility clinics, to use in stem cell research (ESCR).
Essentially, these “snowflake” babies pile up in the freezers of fertility clinics because the couples who use the clinics tend to forget their spares once they’ve scored. But researchers looking for human subjects without legal rights thought of little else.
Time and again, we were told bluntly, scientists NEED them. There is no other way. Hand them over, you anti-science twits!
And then suddenly last summer it was all over. Researchers found that they could trick ordinary stem cells into acting in the same way as embryonic stem cells by adding genes to them (“direct programming”). Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, reported in Cell on success with cheek cells from a middle-aged woman and James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported independently in Science on success with foreskin cells.
The famous Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, promptly switched fields, to begin work in this “extremely exciting and astonishing” new area. And Thomson, who was an ESCR pioneer, was heard to say that this is “the beginning of the end of the controversy.”
But just think of the political fallout! Vast sums have been spent on ESCR, notably by the state of California. And now they’re stuck shifting gears.
As I wrote in my upcoming column in ChristianWeek,
Careers in research, health charities, politics, and public relations depend on it. Politicians have demonstrated their coolness by endorsing it or their backwardness by opposing it. Ethicists competed to show why it is right. Christian opposition was vilified. George Bush was singled out for special abuse because he twice vetoing money for ESCR and insisted that skin cells be tried. And now, all that energy—opposing “anti-science”—may be irrelevant.
To do them credit, the lobbyists will go down fighting. Prestigious science journal Nature (450, 585-586 (29 November 2007)) announced that “this is exactly the wrong time to constrain research on human embryonic stem cells.” but provided no clear rationale for why. (For whatever reason Nature is prestigious, it is surely not for editorials like that one … )
Now that ESCR lobbyists can’t simply denounce ESCR as “anti-science”, they argue that ESCR is too far along to abandon. They suggest pursuing both lines of research. In other words, their technology became obsolete before it was commercialized but it is too far along to abandon? Too far along for whom to abandon? Not the taxpayer who already has qualms about it, I trust? (Whoops, correction here, that’s who they DO mean … we should fund it even though we disapprove of it AND it is obsolete.)
First Things editor Joseph Bottum thinks he understands what underlay the enthusiastic support for ESCR in the legacy media. He writes, in the Wall Street Journal (November 28, 2007),
All those editorialists and columnists who have, over the past 10 years, howled and howled about Luddites and religious fanatics thwarting science and frustrating medicine— were they really interested in technology and health, or were they just using all that as a handy stick with which to whack their political opponents?
He goes on to suggest that the cheerleading for ESCR, as opposed to cord blood and adult stem cell lines that were giving better results, was because ESCR props up abortion. After all, if everyone’s health really depends on the death of unborn children, who can object to abortions?
To cap it all, the Nature editors made a startling admission: ESCR researchers would feel relieved if “all the scientific problems had been solved in the papers published last week—abandoning work on human embryonic stem cells would allow them to operate with a clear conscience and without having to defend their work all the time.”
Oh? Really? You mean, the researchers knew it was wrong? All the time, they knew it was wrong? It went against their consciences? I never heard that before. Before this summer, only religious whackjobs had conscience problems about ESCR.
Science journals are a great way to learn profound skepticism. But quite often it’s about them.
I get mail. And so does B16!
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