Science-Based Catchphrase-Making

by | Jul 6, 2009

The Bush administration’s unorthodox stance on climate change and stem-cell research led to widespread accusations that it conducted a war on science. The Democrats’ response has been to promise to ‘let science guide us, not ideology’, to ‘make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology’, and that ‘the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over’.

But in the latest issue of Issues in Science & Technology, Dan Sarewitz shows that, on the evidence of Obama’s presidency so far, science-led policy-making is easier said than done. Take Obama’s moves to change US stem-cell policy. Bush infamously restricted the use of federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research, limiting research to existing stem-cell lines. Writes Sarewitz:

Less than two months into his presidency, Obama announced that he would reverse the Bush policies by allowing research on cell lines created after the Bush ban. The president instructed the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to “develop guidelines for the support and conduct of responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research.”

In announcing the change, President Obama emphasized the need to “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,” yet the new policy, as well as the language that the president used to explain it, underscores that the stem cell debate is in important ways not about scientific facts at all, but about the difficulty of balancing competing moral preferences. The new policy does not allow unrestricted use of embryos for research or the extraction of cell lines from embryos created by therapeutic cloning. In explaining that “[m]any thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research,” President Obama was acknowledging that, even in its earliest stages, the small group of cells that constitute an embryo are in some way different from a chemical reagent to be sold in a catalog or an industrially synthesized molecule to be integrated into a widget. Indeed, to protect women from economic and scientific exploitation, and in deference to the moral and political ambiguity that embryos carry with them, no nation allows the unrestricted commodification of embryos, and some, including Germany, have bans on destroying embryos for research purposes. Although most Americans favor a less restrictive approach to stem cell research than that pursued by President Bush, the issue is inherently political and inherently moral. Thus, some of the cell lines approved for research under the Bush restrictions might actually not be approved under the Obama guidelines because they may not have been obtained with the appropriate level of prior informed consent of the donor, a moral constraint on science that apparently did not concern President Bush.

Or take Obama’s decision to slash funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository:

At this point it is tempting to write: “It’s hard to imagine a case where politics trumped science more decisively than in the case of Yucca Mountain, where 20 years of research were traded for five electoral votes and the support of a powerful senator,” which seems basically correct, but taken out of context it could be viewed as a criticism of President Obama, which it is not. But the point I want to make is only slightly more subtle: Faced with a complex amalgam of scientific and political factors, President Obama chose short-term political gain over longer-term scientific assessment, and so decided to put an end to research aimed at characterizing the Yucca Mountain site. This decision can easily be portrayed in the same type of language that was used to attack President Bush’s politicization of science.

But not only is science-led politics difficult, if not impossible, it is also potentially dangerous. Sarewitz concludes:

… ownership of a powerful symbol can give rise to demagoguery and self-delusion. President Bush overplayed the national defense card in pursuit of an ideological vision that backfired with terrible consequences in Iraq. In turn, a scientific-technological elite unchecked by healthy skepticism and political pluralism may well indulge in its own excesses. Cults of expertise helped bring us the Vietnam War and the current economic meltdown. Uncritical belief in and promotion of the redemptive power of scientific and technological advance is implicated in some of the most difficult challenges facing humans today. In science, Democrats appear to have discovered a surprisingly potent political weapon. Let us hope they wield it with wisdom and humility.

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