Study war no more: Science, politics and the battle over US government funding for embryonic stem cell research
13 September 2010
Post-Doc, Center for Biomedical Ethics, Stanford School of MedicineAppeared in BioNews 575
Playing Red Light/Green Light seems not unlike the experience of conducting embryonic stem cell research in the United States. Look at the history. In 1996, Congress shut down all federal funding for research involving embryos. In 2001, President Bush allowed limited funding for research on some embryonic stem cell lines. In 2009, President Obama allowed more funding, but on different lines. Two weeks ago, a federal judge placed an injunction on all funding of embryonic stem cell research. Last week, a federal appeals court reinstated funding, pending another round of legal argument, leaving the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shoving grant money out the door as fast as possible before it gets cut off again. This isn't really fun anymore.
Many scientific commentators have used the opportunity to decry the 'politicisation of science.' If only science were just given the money it needed, they sigh, and left alone to govern itself in peace, the world could be cleansed of suffering by Thursday next.
What exactly scientists would do in such a situation is unclear. But the real point is that this is a false vision. Science is political. It has always been political. It is political because it is a massive, complex, materially expensive enterprise designed to mold the world to our advantage.
Science, at its broadest, affects how we eat and breathe and travel and communicate and die. Scientific endeavours can bring us irreparable harm or immense benefit, and the role of governments is precisely to protect us from harm and ensure the equitable distribution of benefit.
But this latest legal tug-of-war over embryonic stem cell research shows that there are two aspects to the political nature of science. There is the politics of science and then there is science as politics.
The politics of science takes into account that science is a social project, staffed by humans. The material livelihood, not to mention social standing, of those individuals depends on succeeding where others have failed. Few scientists, at least academic scientists, go into research expecting to get rich per se, but there are other social and professional rewards in academia and competition is fierce. If nothing else, science is political because its practice must be paid for and there is little more political than money.
The first part of the ongoing stem cell farce could be considered little more than a particularly unsubtle exercise in the politics of science. Two scientists, Dr James Sherley and Dr Theresa Dreisher, were given legal standing to sue the government because it agreed to fund more embryonic stem cell research, redirecting money that, in the opinion of a District Court, 'would have gone to fund a project of theirs'.
According to the Court transcripts, attempts to explain how scientific funding actually works fell on deaf ears. The idea that funding embryonic stem cell research 'seriously harms' adult stem cell researchers is a bit like saying the H1N1 vaccine was prejudicial to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) patients.
I missed the moment when adult stem cell researchers became a protected class under civil rights law. So it's a little disingenuous to say these two researchers are unforgivably harmed by the NIH funding embryonic stem cell research, but dozens of post-docs, technicians and Principal Investigators (PIs) are not materially harmed by having their salaries cut off. This may be why the NIH keeps stumbling in their court appearances; they can't quite believe this is serious.
The reason this makes no sense is that this is not an exercise in the politics of science, but merely another gambit in the endless battle of science as politics. Of the two plaintiffs, one has received $100,000 in NIH funding for the past five years and the other has never filed a proposal. One plaintiff is the head of a private biotechnology company that is dedicated to the production of 'affordable, pro-life therapeutics. Original co-plaintiffs in the case included the Nightlight Christian Adoptions, the Christian Medical Association and Embryos.
Ironically, Judge Lamberth - who issued the injunction - asserted in his judgment that embryonic researchers would not be harmed by the termination of their funding because they could 'obtain private funding for their research'. I want to live in his funding world.
In fact, thanks to Judge Lamberth, Dr Sherley and Dr Deisher are now heroic defenders of embryos. In all likelihood, private anti-abortion organizations will keep them funded into perpetuity. Embryonic stem cell researchers, on the other hand, will find it extremely difficult to get funding from anyone but governments because they are the only organisations left that know when the research is legal. At this point, even the NIH is guessing.
This is not the first time scientific rhetoric has been used to fight for religious positions. Witness the original assertion that allowing the use of fetal tissue for research would, perhaps subconsciously, encourage women to have abortions. Or the bizarre spectacle of Senator Brownback claiming that the debate over human SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer) research had nothing to do with religion, he was just worried about the exploitation of all those financially poor women.
This is nothing new, so we should have known better. The human embryo is the Schroedinger's Cat of moral entities. It is both alive and not alive and the box is padlocked shut. We need to stop pretending that this is a 'war' that science as politics can win - for either side - and try to conduct the politics of science like intelligent, democratic adults.
By focusing too hard on the Presidential ability to swoop in like Father Christmas - or the Grim Reaper, depending on your viewpoint - and change the landscape of science with a wave of his hand, we have neglected the real role of the government in science. We already have a body that is supposed to make difficult moral compromises between conflicting needs and beliefs on behalf of all Americans, and it is not Judge Lamberth.
Say it's legal. Say it's not legal. Only say when and under what circumstances and stick to it. We can only hope that when Congress reconvenes this week it will step up to the task of creating a sustainable, balanced legislative policy on stem cell research so science can get back to work.