Science and Supposition

Science and Supposition

The new Obama protocols on scientific research will influence not just stem cells but climate change, genetics, sex education and food safety.


On March 9 President Obama signed an order guaranteeing “scientific integrity” in federal policy-making, specifically repudiating the propriety of ideological influence. Under most post-Enlightenment circumstances, such a directive would have been deemed tautological. But during the past eight years of the Bush administration’s Newspeak, scientific findings have been manipulated, corrupted and/or censored in service to commercial interests rather than reproducible results.

Most public discussion of Obama’s renewed support of the sciences has centered on stem cell research, for which federal funding had heretofore been blocked–largely in response to religious conservatives, who view the fertilization and manipulation of embryos solely for research as akin to murder. While the Obama administration’s policy will indeed allow better-funded research in this area, technological advances have made the ethics of the debate somewhat archaic. Today it is possible to transform adult cells into an embryonic state, thus bypassing most religious questions of whether the embryo is a pre-born person. But the larger dimensions of this administration’s commitment have ramifications far beyond stem cells. The Obama policy also affects hiring protocols. Not only must scientific decisions be sheltered from political quarrels; science advisers are to be chosen for their expertise, not toadyism; whistle-blowers who report bad practices or questionable findings will not have to fear for their jobs. Moreover, the president has set up a Council of Advisers on Science and Technology who will report directly to him.

In addition to stem cell research, the new protocols will have significant salutary influence on research into climate change, genetics, sex education, pollution and food safety. Under Bush, the budgets for the National Institutes of Health and for the Centers for Disease Control were all but frozen. The food pyramid was redesigned so as not to offend sugar manufacturers. Cattle ranchers were blocked from testing their own herds for mad cow disease, for fear of offending the beef lobby. Climatologist James Hansen of NASA was forbidden to speak to the media about his conviction that global warming was worsening. Despite lots of evidence about the public health rewards of education about condoms and safe sex, such information was muffled in deference to the disproved efficacy of “abstinence only” as the centerpiece of AIDS and STD prevention.

Bush supported positions that allowed pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions, based on individual religious beliefs instead of professional ethics. He opposed the morning-after pill and the vaccine against human papilloma virus (the virus linked to increased likelihood of cervical cancer). His White House engaged a lawyer who had once been a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute to filter, alter and edit reports produced by the federal Climate Change Science Program. And, of course, Bush weakened the Endangered Species Act by allowing a wide range of government mining and building projects to proceed without any independent or scientific review of their environmental impact.

President Obama’s reinstating the importance of independent scientific research has been underscored by his ferociously intelligent brain trust, chock-full of Nobel laureates. All this should lead to a more robust grappling with the life-altering crises facing our planet. And it ought to provide a good base from which to take on other, no less pressing but far less publicized issues of biotechnology. With the birth of Nadya Suleman’s octuplets, for example, public sentiment seems to have flipped overnight from calls for abstinence-as-the-best-medicine to calls for forced sterilization of poor and/or single women. There is also a complicated debate about free-market eugenics we will soon have to confront–the tip of the iceberg being in vitro fertilization clinics that advertise their willingness to try to weed out embryos with cosmetic traits that may be undesirable to parents, like certain hair or eye or skin color.

Similarly, untold sums are being diverted to policing and surveillance, including functional magnetic resonance technology, which claims, prematurely, to be able to deploy brain scans as lie detectors. This past September a woman in India was convicted of murdering her former fiancé after a court-ordered MRI showed what authorities claimed was her memory of the event. This conclusion was based on metrics that map which parts of the brain store the past, imagine the future or work harder when summoning pictures, hearing sounds or registering smell. And so the defendant was convicted based on which parts of her cortex lit up as the prosecution’s charge was read to her. In a few months, a number of start-up companies will commence broad-scale marketing of just such mind-reading toys in the United States. We must be prepared to ask what these developments mean for the notion we call “privacy,” to say nothing of the boundary against intrusion that “taking the Fifth” establishes. What does it mean when “I” say–and “I” believe–one thing, but my brain waves decide to incriminate me? Have I been invaded? Am I more than one mind? Am I mad?

On other fronts, the medical ethics of euthanizing severely disabled infants or terminally ill elders is re-emerging as a philosophically freighted issue for theologians and utilitarians alike. And a global transplant market has inspired interest in more “efficient” organ harvesting; this, in turn, has led to practices that in effect move up a patient’s time of death by redefining expiration as “cardiac death” rather than “brain death.”

We live in a geologic age so affected by the complexities of human activity that scientists have begun to call it the Anthropocene Era. President Obama’s directives recognize that any hope of repair depends upon wise political choices informed by independent expertise and repeatedly tested outcomes.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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