Saturday, March 14, 2009

Stem Cells, Science, Religion and Politics

Coming on the heels of the Obama administration's reversal of Bush-era regulations restricting embryonic stem cell research, various states, including Georgia, are legislatively trying keep the old restrictions in place. This is a dicey issue which covers the spectrum from religion and morality to ideology and politics.

Rarely do you see this kind of incisive writing in the mainstream media anymore, but Peter Steinfels' piece in today's NYT sums up the controversy and explores "both sides" of the issue. Here are a few excerpts concerning the role of science.

Science, it is said, should be isolated from politics, from ideology, from dogma, from religion.

Sounds good if all one means is that the current administration will treat science with more respect than many people believe its predecessor did. Sounds good if all one means by politics is partisan maneuvering or by ideology, dogma and religion, some form of blind belief unwilling to engage alternative viewpoints.

But these words frequently function as weapons. One person’s ideology can be someone else’s political philosophy or even morality. One person’s dogma can be someone else’s self-evident truths. And politics is the way that people decide how they will live together, by what moral standards and to what ends.

Historians, sociologists and scientists themselves have generated a small library of books demonstrating how much of science has been driven and shaped by politics and ideology — and economics, too — all the while imagining that it was value-free, “just the facts,” as Sergeant Friday and perhaps Mr. Obama would say.

Science has certainly developed safeguards to isolate its work from distorting influences. The danger is that those safeguards, like antibodies run amok, can also isolate it from morality.

Two days after Mr. Obama’s announcement, The Times ran three science-related articles. One was about stem cell researchers worried that any new federal financing might prove insufficient. It also ran an article about a prolific medical researcher who admitted fabricating research that just happened to support the products of the pharmaceutical company underwriting the research. Both were reminders of how much science is affected by big money.
Of course, science doesn't operate in a vacuum and no one is suggesting it should. However, proponents of stem cell research should keep the rhetoric more realistic in this debate and recognize that despite the political gimmickry which often surrounds this issue (and in the Georgia Legislature, the "debate" so far has been more clownish theater than serious discussion), there are real questions of life, morality and religion which have to be addressed.

The scientific community is often quick to dismiss such concerns, at its own peril as Steinfels notes. And while the science of embryonic stem cell research promises much, the rhetoric should reflect scientific reality and not be portrayed as a "miracle breakthrough" which will end all human disease and suffering.

At the same time, opponents of this research should know that by enacting overly stringent regulations on embryonic research, the state runs the risk of being viewed as "anti-science" and out of touch with the 21st century. Not to mention, the loss in funding for this kind of research will damage research universities in the state, particularly our fine institution here, irreparably.

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