TCS Daily


The Science of Politics

By John Coleman - July 9, 2004 12:00 AM

In the last month, the Kerry campaign has elevated the issue of scientific progress to the forefront of the 2004 Presidential election. On June 21, candidate Kerry stood before a crowd in Denver, Colorado, and asked American voters to abandon a President who allows "ideology" to trump "science." "We need to invest in science and new technologies," Kerry admonished. Backed by a petition signed by 48 Nobel Laureates he promised to "lift the barriers that stand in the way of stem cell research and push the boundaries of medical research" creating jobs and foisting America, once again, to the "forefront of scientific discovery."

But, as the November election approaches, what is John Kerry's real position on science and progress?

At base, the Kerry strategy seems one of delegation. While President Bush focuses intensely on the ethical implications of biotechnology, Kerry promotes a hands-off ethical strategy backed by a taxpayer funded subsidization of scientific research. "I have full faith that our scientists will go forward with a moral compass -- with humane values and sound ethics guiding the way," Kerry has noted. And his strong support in the scientific community -- founded in a 38-page report issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists accusing the Bush administration of "manipulation, suppression and misrepresentation of science" -- is evidence that scientists prefer his "leave science to the scientists" approach. Where Bush has created the highly philosophic President's Council on Bioethics, Kerry, presumably, would listen only to, as he has said, "the advice of scientists."

But, is this strategy prudent? While most scientists are moral and humane individuals, the creation of ethical oversight committees predates the Bush administration and is founded in a justified fear of scientific tyranny. The first federal committee created to shape bioethics policy, The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, was commissioned by Congress in 1974, and at least nine other committees have been created for similar research including the Biomedical Ethical Advisory Committee and the Human Embryo Research Panel. These commissions do not challenge the benefit of "scientific progress," only the ethical implications of unchecked biomedical exploration.

Scientists aren't always right. For forty years between 1932 and 1972 the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) allowed nearly 400 poor black men to suffer and die under the curable ravages of syphilis so that they could extract scientific data from their dead bodies -- a racist tragedy now known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. In the years before the Great War, scientists in the U.S. were the early champions of the eugenics movement, founding societies like the Race Betterment Foundation. And only three months after the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion it was a Nobel Laureate, James Watson, who made the following recommendation, "If a child were not declared alive until three days after birth, then all parents could be allowed the choice...the doctor could allow the child to die if the parents so choose and save a lot of misery and suffering."

Certainly, John Kerry would not favor such a policy. In fact, he voted to pass a law banning the use of federal funds for the purpose of suicide, euthanasia, and mercy killing -- and, in his Colorado speech he noted the need to provide "strict ethical oversight" on issues of biotechnology. But noting the danger of a purely scientific ethic and the willingness of John Kerry to recognize the need for social guidance, is there really an enormous fundamental difference between the technology policies of Bush and Kerry?

Almost immediately after Kerry's pronouncement, Steve Schmidt of the Bush campaign told the New York Times, "Only John Kerry would declare the country to be in scientific decline on a day when the country's first privately funded space trip is successfully completed." And as Kerry promises to "let America be America again so we can lead in scientific discoveries and advance," perhaps we should question the depth of his scientific radicalism. The candidates differ on important issues -- stem cell research first among them -- but does Kerry really represent a markedly different approach to scientific progress? And if he is as a radical as he seems, is he the kind of ethical leader our nation needs in the coming scientific century?

John Coleman is a freelance writer and assistant director of a fellowship program in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at http://johncoleman.typepad.com.


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