Don't look for cures right around the corner. Science is hard and results are not guaranteed. Lower your expectations, as the former governor told Californians shortly after he was first elected. And it was a message that came through clearly in the California stem cell agency's draft of its strategic plan.
In the words of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, the proposal "appears to be a rare case of prudence by public servants."
The plan was even heralded – sort of – in religious fundamentalist circles. A piece written by reporter Michael Foust in the Baptist Press said,
"In an announcement that some ethicists say should lead to a greater focus on adult stem cells, a much-celebrated California stem cell institute says any cures using embryonic stem cells likely are years away."The strategic plan's theme of patience, at least as it was portrayed in the media, was somewhat different than the overheated rhetoric of the campaign for Prop. 71 two years ago.
A recent paper by Tamra Lysaght of the University of Sydney, published in the Australian journal Bioethical Inquiry, examined 99 news stories from the Prop. 71 campaign. Among her conclusions:
"Concerns regarding the hype surrounding the potential medical benefits of stem cell research and its implications for public expecations were notably absent from the public discouse prior to the passage of Prop. 71, though they were later noted by a number of scientific and institutional actors. The reasons for this phenomenom are unclear, but perhaps point to the reluctance on the part of the scientific and medical communities to openly question the value of this line of research or to critcize each other; fears about aligning with religious or other actors opposed to hESC research; or the influence of commercial, academic and media interests in framing and limiting crucial debate."But even before the strategic plan emerged, CIRM officials talked of managing expectations and avoiding hype although the message was less than visible in the media.
The Center for Genetics and Society of Oakland, Ca., recently conducted a briefing on the politics of stem cell research for reporters and focused on the exaggeration question. Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the center, said,
"Exaggeration is really one of the hallmarks of this issue. It’s pervasive on both sides of the debate, and each side’s hyperbole feeds the hyperbole of the other."She continued:
"Just recently the Democratic Senate candidate from Missouri, who strongly supports the stem cell initiative (in that state), used the words "lifesaving," "cure," or "save [a life]" 22 times in a 732-word interview published by the Associated Press.CIRM has a difficult road. It must maintain the public's faith, which does require the delivery of easily understood messages with a vision of hope. But the controversy involving Advanced Cell Technology's report on stem cell extraction shows how nuances make a big difference. The $6 billion (including interest) that CIRM will cost taxpayers requires results. If something tangible and understandable is not forthcoming in a few years, it may erode public support for an endeavor that once gained 59 percent approval of the state's voters.
"Statements like these seriously degrade public understanding and distort political discourse. Perhaps more surprisingly, similar exaggerations have also become common in the world of science, in statements by scientists about stem cell research. It’s always been considered a matter of scientific integrity to refrain from making claims in the absence of clear evidence. But in the stem cell world, that principle is being regularly violated.
"One example: It’s common to hear that embryonic stem cell research will result in cures for Alzheimer’s disease, when in fact, unfortunately, the idea that stem cells have the potential to treat Alzheimer’s is far-fetched.
"Knowing this, Rick Weiss, the Washington Post’s science reporter, called a prominent stem cell and neurology researcher to ask why he and his colleagues weren’t correcting the misunderstanding. The scientist’s answer: 'To start with, people need a fairy tale... they need a story line that's relatively simple to understand.'"
Below you can find the verbatim statements made by Darnovsky and her colleague, Jesse Reynolds, at the Sept. 19 news briefing for editors and reporters. The statements are not currently available on the center's web site. Sphere: Related Content