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Mr. President, Can You Spell Science Policy?

So far in this election we’ve learned that matters of science and human values don’t hold a candle to the near collapse of the financial sector, lipsticked pigs, or picturesque views of obscure Russian islands. For the time being, the lingering culture wars have moved on to battlefields other than stem cells and evolution. To be sure, there is vigorous contention in Michigan about reforming the law that prevents embryonic stem cell research; many voters well remember who did and did not raise his hand concerning intelligent design during a primary debate; and worries about the “next Terri Schiavo” hang in the background. But at the national level, such issues have receded, left mainly to advocates and bloggers.

Of the items on this forlorn menu, it seems to me that the stem cell issue has the least predictable future, both in the near and long term. What will the next president and congress actually do? Both Obama and McCain have pledged support of embryonic stem cell research, though not their respective parties. The Republican platform would prohibit all embryonic stem cell research regardless of the source of funding, as well as somatic nuclear transfer or “cloning for research.” This plank is far more radical than Senator McCain’s position, and it’s even more radical than President Bush’s policy. It has received scant attention, however, because party platforms have vastly diminished importance in American politics, and there is virtually no chance that such a bill would get serious discussion in a congressional committee let alone come to the floor. In the general election campaign, Senator McCain has slightly shifted his language in the direction of greater restrictions on stem cell research.  Surely this is part of a more general effort (read: Governor Palin) to reassure the Christian conservative base with which he once had a policy of mutually assured revulsion; those close to McCain note his longstanding record of barely suppressed sympathy for social libertarianism. As one conservative who has briefed McCain said to me, no one really knows what McCain would do on stem cells.

Senator Obama has been much less equivocal about his intention to reform the current policy. If elected, one of his early executive orders would likely make human embryonic stem cell lines derived after August 9, 2001, available for NIH grant research support. Such an order may have certain conditions, including uncompensated donation by fully informed persons who have deposited embryos in fertility clinics, and only after they are no longer to be used for fertilization. Congress being Congress, however, and the issue being one on which several members have for years put their political careers on the line, we may expect legislation as well. Depending on the precise configuration of the executive and legislative branches next January, efforts to restrict embryonic stem cell research (such as a ban on cloning for research and therapy) are likely to fail. However, debate may allow certain monsters to come out of the closet, such as Senator Brownback’s efforts to ban the creation of some animal models of disease that contain human cells, regardless of their scientific value.

Even supporters of the Bush administration policy tend to agree (albeit rarely in public) that his administration has slowed the development of embryonic stem cell science, although they may still assert (at least in public) that it has stimulated the search for alternative techniques that don’t destroy embryos. That notion is hard to square with the fact that, only last week, a Japanese lab was the first to file a patent on the technique for inducing “adult” stem cells to turn pluripotent, exhibiting at least some of the valued traits of embryonic stem cells. This was the same lab that reported success with the technique in fall 2007, allowing the White House to take credit for research done in Kyoto. Will they also boast that they have enabled Japan to claim valuable intellectual property? Not likely.

The Return of Science Policy

One of the more hopeful outcomes of this election cycle might be a modest invigoration of interest in science policy more generally, with stem cells as just one element in a much bigger canvas. One manifestation of this interest is the Science Debate 2008 movement, sponsored by a coalition of organizations and spearheaded by a Hollywood screen writer, Shawn Otto, who happened to be on strike when the idea was broached. There is general agreement that scientific and technological innovations have been responsible for at least 50 percent of the growth of U.S. gross domestic product since World War II, yet it’s rare for politicians to have much to say about science policy beyond trivialities. In 2006, the National Academies released a high-profile report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” that recommended strengthening the country’s long-term position in an increasingly competitive global scientific environment, from new initiatives for science and math education to creating an advanced research projects entity for the Department of Energy. But in tight budgetary times, both Congress and the executive branch have been slow to respond.

Sources of the renewed interest in science policy include relative reductions in research and development investment by both government and the private sector. The Bush administration’s reputation for “dissing” evidence, revealed by current and former administration officials, is another reason for the renewed interest. While it’s certainly true that all presidential administrations like to have the facts go their way and on occasion haven’t minded massaging the numbers, this one has made it an art form. The failure to appoint a presidential science adviser for the first time since the Eisenhower administration hasn’t helped. And there are political potholes in determining appropriate roles for government and the private sector in fostering innovation.

Although the Science Debate effort didn’t achieve its primary goal, which was a presidential debate on science policy, it can be credited with highlighting the need for a national conversation about science in America. The movement’s greatest concrete achievement lies in the fact that both major party candidates responded to 14 science policy questions, one of which is on stem cell research. The answers are not groundbreaking, but they do reveal some of the implications of the candidates’ attitudes concerning the proper relationship between government and the private sector with respect to stimulating innovation.

In fairness, not very many people would make science policy a top three criterion for their vote, and politicians don’t have The Structure of Scientific Revolutions on their night tables. When they do comment on science policy during a political campaign, it’s usually in the sense of “policy for science” – actions that influence the scientific community (such as patent law or funding restrictions, as with stem cell research). These are matters that often excite constituents who have a stake in one of a variety of policy options. By contrast, “science for policy” provides information for policy-makers so that they may make better decisions.

Many believe that the current administration has failed on both counts, but the “politicization” of science is far more damaging and irresponsible with regard to science policy in the second sense, as informing wise policies, than in the first. One may disagree with policies that elected officials set for fields of social endeavor like science, but they have every right to try to persuade voters to see things their way. Voters then get the government they deserve. However, distortions or misinterpretations of data cause harm to people whose representatives may not, for practical reasons, have the opportunity to sort fact from fiction and who have little choice but to live in the real world where evidence matters.

The major candidates’ answers to the questions posed by Science Debate 2008 highlight the executive branch’s need to improve its reputation with regard to science for policy. They agree that the relatively obscure White House Office of Science and Technology Policy should be bolstered. A Wilson Center report this past spring concluded that the OSTP needed a “critical upgrade,” including moving it physically back into the main White House complex (the Bush administration moved it out), giving OSTP its own press office to help make sure the president’s statements comport with the best evidence, and giving it the same status as the Council of Economic Advisers.

A Role for Bioethics?

Although many bioethicists still cut their teeth in clinical ethics, there is a longstanding and growing role for bioethics in science policy. National commissions have played a more important role in the growth and legitimation of bioethics than in any other academic field. Issues like access to health care and, more recently, the just distribution of responsibilities in public health crises have stimulated substantial literatures. While they have been primarily preoccupied with “policy for science,” the “science for policy” aspect of science policy is one to which bioethicists can contribute enormously. Evidence rarely provides an obvious and singular answer to a problem, but it does establish a framework for thinking through options and measuring them against one another. This kind of movement within the field would go far toward reassuring those anxious about the “politicization” of bioethics that that evidence does matter to bioethicists, even though it is not determinative. With all the problems that will confront him, it will turn out to matter to the next president even more.


Jonathan D. Moreno is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Published on: September 25, 2008
Published in: Bioethics, Health Care Reform & Policy

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