Tuesday, March 10, 2009

And Obama Lifts the "Ban"

So, President Obama has lifted the limitations on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Not that this should be a surprise to anyone. Elections have consequences, after all, and this is at least one campaign promise he's making good on.

I've taken a lot of shots at President Obama lately, so I do want to give him credit where it's deserved. He took great pains to make clear that the promise of embryonic stem cells "should not be overstated." That the full promise "remains unknown." And that we won't be seeing miracle cures tomorrow, or next month, or next year, or maybe even in the next decade, or two, or more.

This is a welcome change in rhetoric from his side of the aisle. Having made the bulk of my living for the last 20 years as a medical and science editor, few hypocrisies have steamed me more than Democrats who claim to be on the side of unbiased science, savage the Bush administration as supposedly distorting climate science for their own political ends, and then make absurd and scientifically unsupported suggestions (or outright claims) that if only the federal government would fund embryonic stem cell research, Christopher Reeve would walk again and Alzheimer's would be a thing of the past by the end of the next presidential term. The demagoguery on this issue for political gain has been appalling, and I give the President credit for trying to walk this back. It was a flash of the adult, "post-partisan" Obama from the transition, who has been all too rarely seen since the inauguration.

I also want to give credit to CNN. They took great pains to make the same point about not overselling the near-term benefits of this research. True, they did have one correspondent who tried to suggest that the reason we won't see these miracle cures by the end of President Obama's term is because we "lost" eight years under President Bush, but by and large, CNN put this issue in the proper context. That was also a welcome change, because I don't recall CNN (or any other major media organization, except Fox News) making a point of providing such context on this issue when President Bush was in the White House. But then, I'm never surprised that the rules of news coverage are different when the man in the Oval Office has a "D" after his name.

Now, with that said, this announcement also bothered the crap out of me.

President Obama was right to say that this issue is a "difficult and delicate balance," and that many "thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about or strongly oppose" it. Lord knows I'm conflicted about it myself, and have been for a long time. The idea of intentionally destroying human embryos for their stem cells is an ethical line I worried about us crossing long before I ever found my way back to Christianity. And if it were simply a question of saving myself from Alzheimer's or paralysis, I'm not sure I could live with the moral trade-off, or would want to. But if it were a question of saving my wife, I also know that my first, second, and third answers would be, "Start harvesting."

The President made an effort to depict this as a difficult moral and ethical issue, but then he declared that the "proper course has become clear" because "the majority of Americans from across the political spectrum and from all backgrounds and beliefs have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research." That's an almost unbelievably broad and overreaching statement. What's more, difficult moral and ethical issues are not solved by polls. Any supporter of gay marriage, for instance, or of abortion rights with no restrictions whatsoever, should find deeply troubling a line of reasoning that judges the morally right choice as being the more popular one -- even if only in terms of their own political fortunes.

And if this really is a difficult moral and ethical issue with good people on both sides, then it's not "a false choice between sound science and moral values," as President Obama also characterized it. Either those who oppose federal funding for stem cell research have a good-faith, honest disagreement on where the ethical line should be drawn, or they're against "sound science." You just can't have it both ways. Especially not in the same speech. And especially when, in the same speech, the President also says that we will never open the door to cloning for human reproduction, because it is "profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society or any society." But how is the one "a false choice between sound science and moral values" and the other is not? And if we are now going to make scientific decisions "based on facts, not ideology," then what non-ideological "facts" are telling President Obama that opening the door to federally funding embryonic stem cell research is "sound science" but opening the door to cloning for human reproduction is "profoundly wrong"?

If the President wanted to make the case that he draws the moral and ethical line at a different place than I do, I could respect that argument. But he's not really making that argument here, is he?

There's a disturbing line of reasoning, which I mostly find among Democrats and, especially, supporters of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, that seems to argue morality has no place in science. And yet every animal study I edit has been approved by or followed the guidelines of an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, because ethics and morality do have place in science. We don't go straight to risky human clinical trials for a potentially life-saving treatment, because ethics and morality have a place in science, and ethics and morality steer us away from that practice. But we also fast-track certain drugs for certain patients after less thorough testing than we require for other drugs for other patients, because we consider fast-tracking the moral thing to do.

The people who oppose federal funding for embryonic stem cell research are not "anti-science." They don't spend their days thinking what a great idea it would be to keep Grandpa in his wheelchair and his Alzheimer's uncured, because Gramps is just so entertaining. They don't do that any more than those who support federal funding spend their days smiling gleefully at the idea of snuffing out potential human beings. President Obama seemed to understand that in this speech, except when he didn't.

He also seemed to understand that ethics and morality have a much-needed place in science. Except when he didn't.

Of course, I don't think the President has a real understanding of what it means to "restore scientific integrity to government decision making," either. Not when Energy Secretary Steven Chu is talking about how we're "looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California," John Holdren is President Obama's cabinet-level science adviser, and James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is talking about "death trains" and calling for mass political protests to influence government policy.

Then again, I never bought into the idea that science and politics can ever really be separated, or that the problem is simply "anti-science" Republicans. Both parties use science to advance their political agendas. The only difference is which areas of science they distort, or in what direction they skew the same area of science.

UDPATE: As Andy Levy twitters:
Obi-wan: Only the Sith believe in absolutes. The Sith are EVIL.

Obama-wan: Science shouldn’t be guided by ideology. Cloning is WRONG.
UPDATE II: John Tierney, over at his New York Times science blog, writes:

You can read the White House’s summary of the new science policy here. If you’ve read my previous column and posts on the president’s new scientific advisers, you can guess that I’m skeptical of how open this administration — or any administration — really is to science that doesn’t conform to its agenda. Conservatives’ spinning of science has been widely criticized, but see, for instance, Ronald Bailey’s account in Reason of how liberal politics trumped scientific findings about silicone breast implants and second-hand smoke.

Perhaps, though, I’m being too cynical. I was interested to see that this new memorandum instructs agency administrators to “have appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency, including whistleblower protection.” Do you suppose this protection will inspire any government scientists to question Mr. Obama’s claim that global warming is causing “storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season”? How many government economists will speak about the theoretical and practical advantages of a carbon tax over the cap-and-trade system being promoted by the administration? How many federal scientists discuss the environmental problems blamed on the ethanol subsidies favored by Mr. Obama?

If there are whistleblowers feeling newly empowered, please feel free to post comments here.

Tierney's comments section is already quite lively. I especially like this comment from James:
You ask “How many government economists will speak about the theoretical and practical advantages of a carbon tax…” What I’d like to know is when economics - particularly government economics - became a science.