Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Republicans' "War on Science"

According to a recent news report, President Obama declared that his executive order that affirms the use of federal funds for some forms of embryonic stem cell research is "the vanguard of a broader effort to end what he [President Obama] calls a Bush-era 'war on science.'" Bush's ban in 2001 on the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research represented, in Obama's words (as quoted in this news report), ''false choice between sound science and moral values."

According to a research scientist interviewed on the PBS news program, "Chicago Tonight" yesterday (which was Monday, March 9, 2009), Obama's order finally separates politics from science. These aren't his exact words, but he was making a distinction between politics and science, on the grounds that bannning the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research was "politics" and removing the ban was freeing science from the constraints of "politics." This scientist then went on to say that he respected the views of people who saw embryonic stem cell research as immoral but that these same people needed to respect his views and the views of "75% of Americans" (again, not an exact quotation, but he did say that 75% of people support such research) and not "impose" (his word) their views on him. (One might think the imposition was more on one who purportedly benefits from such research and not on the scientist who gets paid to do the research. Maybe this scientist or someone he cares about has a condition that could be alleviated by embryonic stem cell research, but in the context, he was quite clear that the imposition was on him as a scientist.)

Such sentiments represent a false view of the situation. Bush's decision in 2001 to ban the use of federal funds was indeed the use of politics to regulate--"constrain," if you will--science. But these commentaries miss the point that removing the ban also reflects the use of "politics" in the regulation of science. The scientist on Chicago tonight relied on his assertion--and I presume he has read some study that supports his assertion--that an overwhelming majority support embryonic stem cell research (and, presumably, the use of federal funds for such research) to serve as partial justification for his claim that such research should be pursued by scientists and should be eligible for federal funds. Relying on the fact that a majority supports one's views is quintessentially political. To be fair, this scientist had other reasons for supporting embryonic stem cell research, the most important of which is that it promises to lead to advances in treating such degenerative disorders as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. When the interviewer, Phil Ponce, asked whether the scientist would still support embryonic stem cell research if other types of stem cells could be used instead (a possibility that is not yet realized), the scientist said he would.

While for both personal and humanitarian reasons, I support the idea of looking for advances in the treatment of degenerative diseases, I demur from the view that the ban on federal funds for embryonic stem cell research is unconscionably political (if the scientist interviewed on Chicago Tonight had been more introspective, he might have acknowledged that the president's executive order removing Bush's ban was indeed political, but that it was conscionably so) and I also demur from the presumption that the ban was part of a "war on science" and represented "a false [moral] choice." (For what it's worth, and to be fair to Mr. Obama, I have trouble finding confirmation that Obama actually used the term "war on science," but I have heard the term bandied about as if he had said it.)

I demur because I believe that science always has to operate in a political environment. Priorities must be made and decisions have to be made yearly--if not more frequently--about how to allocate funding, and moral and political considerations are always at play. It's the job of politicians to benefit their constituency and to make the hard decisions, and sometimes those decisions include what consittutes valid research methods and what conditions get the funds for research.

I won't disclose here my own views on Mr. Obama's executive order. My comment has only to do with the tone with which that decision has been greeted by the "scientific community" and the tone apparently used by Obama in justifying his executive order. And as far as, and only so far as, tone is concerned, I find it objectionable and an unfair characterization of what many sincere-minded people believe.