TCS Daily


Political Science

By Charles Murtaugh - March 14, 2002 12:00 AM

Some scientific controversies have deep meaning for the field, but relatively little impact on daily life. Last month, for instance, the New York Times reported that three separate groups of scientists were unable to repeat an observation of "dark matter" particles, announced two years ago by researchers at the University of Rome. Other controversies have remarkably little intrinsic scientific interest, but cast long political shadows. Consider the scandal that has erupted over planted hairs in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey of Canadian lynx, or the debate over whether or not genetically-modified corn has begun to run rampant in Mexican farmlands.

Since these debates are of much greater political interest than scientific, it may prove impossible to settle them. For example, Ignacio Chapela, one of the authors of a Nature paper on GM corn "pollution," turns out to be an anti-GMO ideologue. On the other hand, Paul Christou, who authored an editorial in the journal Transgenic Research strongly criticizing the Nature findings, is himself an outspoken advocate of plant biotechnology. Both researchers could be accused of ideological bias; it will take an extraordinary level of scientific evidence to satisfy activists on both sides of this and other issues.

Such a situation is sadly typical in environmental research, where every study is scrutinized through an ideological lens. A recent Science paper that showed the West Antarctic Ice Sheet increasing in size, in spite of global warming, was accompanied by a short review article warning "coastal property owners" not to derive too much comfort, since the complexity of the system could defy the latest study and lead to catastrophic flooding after all. Similarly, every study that purports to find evidence in favor of global warming is immediately criticized from the other side, leaving neutral outsiders to scratch their heads.

At first glance, it appears that a similar atmosphere of suspicion and overreaction is threatening to invade my field, developmental biology, on the wings of the debate over embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) and therapeutic cloning. Every scientific paper that indicates promise for either embryonic or adult stem cells is immediately seized on by partisans in the abortion debate. For instance, in a Newsweek column published last April, Anna Quindlen explicitly suggested that the promise of ES cells could be used as a pro-choice wedge, by introducing a "long-overdue relativism" into the debate: if early human embryos could be useful to us, we would have less qualms about destroying them in general. On the other side of the debate, in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard, Wesley Smith examined several recent papers and reviews and made a case that therapeutic cloning is a "false promise," thus tying together his moral argument with a practical one.

Given this atmosphere, is it only a matter of time before developmental biologists themselves separate into partisan camps, as has happened in the plant biotechnology field? Worse still, might they begin to selectively filter their data and opinions so as avoid undermining their ideological position?

Thus far, in my opinion, partisanship has not contaminated the science of stem cell research. Most embryologists support ESCR, but this has hardly led to ghettoization of adult stem cell science, nor have ES cell researchers had an especially easy time publishing sub-par papers. Most importantly, researchers have not been afraid to express their skepticism about either flavor of stem cells; in a brief review published by Nature last week, for instance, a prominent developmental biologist surveyed the literature on mouse embryo cloning and concluded that, "unless there is a real breakthrough in finding a source of adult nuclei that can be efficiently reprogrammed, all the talk about this 'therapeutic cloning' will come to nothing."

The openness of the scientific community surely reflects the openness of the science itself: In spite of the hype, we are still years away from practical use of either embryonic stem cells or the newly-discovered adult stem cells, and it is impossible to seriously predict which avenue of research will be more fruitful.

For now, most researchers in the field would rather not deal with political questions, but politics intrudes nonetheless. This became obvious during the Bush administration's long search for a director of the National Institutes of Health; as the Washington Post reported, the eventual decision to appoint Elias Zerhouni came after he had given assurances that he supported a ban on therapeutic cloning.

Since biologists can't escape politics, they ought to strain to keep their ethical opinions separate from their research findings. This is not to suggest that they should keep mum about the ethical implications of their work; in fact, they might speak out even more forthrightly, not only about the moral status of the embryo, but also about the moral importance of medical progress, and of free scientific inquiry itself. Honesty, in other words, about the why of their research as well as the how and what.

This approach is not risk-free: If the public doesn't like what it hears, there could be cuts in funding or restrictive new regulations. But such threats are already being made, and silence isn't going to make them go away. As long as scientists affect ethical disinterest, their opponents are free to paint them as Frankensteins or worse, and their would-be friends are able to misuse scientific facts for ideological ends. The result is a blueprint to remake stem cell biology along the lines of environmentalism, a prospect that makes me shudder.
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