Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Honesty, Science and Politics

Part of the justification for the existence of the California stem cell agency lies in the argument that scientific research should be above politics and government and apart from it.

However, science has rarely been apart from politics – at least in the last 50 or 60 years in this country.

New York Times
columnist John Tierney dealt with the intersection of the two in a Monday piece – headlined "Politics in the Guise of Pure Science" -- in which he raised questions about whether some of President Obama's scientific advisers can be "honest brokers."

He quoted Roger Pielke(see photo) of the University of Colorado on the matter, whose book, not so coincidentally, is entitled "The Honest Broker." Tierney said Pielke argues that "most scientists are fundamentally mistaken about their role in political debates. As a result, he says, they’re jeopardizing their credibility while impeding solutions to problems like global warming."

Tierney wrote,
"...(T)oo often, Dr. Pielke says, they pose as impartial experts pointing politicians to the only option that makes scientific sense. To bolster their case, they’re prone to exaggerate their expertise (like enumerating the catastrophes that would occur if their policies aren’t adopted), while denigrating their political opponents as 'unqualified'or 'unscientific.'"
Tierney cited recent statements by John Holdren and Steven Chu as examples. Tierney did not discuss human embryonic stem cell research in his piece, but he could have.

The case for hESC research is often imbued with messianic zeal and rhetoric about "missions" that seems more appropriate to an ideology rather than cold, hard scientific research. Hyperbole does not necessarily serve the public or scientists well over the long term, perhaps not even in the short. Instead, it can become a justification for spending on ill-considered, dubious efforts advanced to attain some sort visionary goal. Pielke's and Tierney's cautions are something for the overseers of California's $3 billion stem cell research program to keep in mind as they evaluate the agency's efforts in the next few months.

(Editor's note -- Tierney's column drew 156 comments at the time of this writing. You can read them here). Sphere: Related Content


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Dave,

    You're right about stem cell research supporters often making their case with messianic zeal and rhetoric about missions.

    Sadly, CIRM's draft strategic plan update to be considered at public hearings on March 5 and March 11 is rife with that sort of language. It envisions the agency as a bully pulpit to spread the stem cell gospel worldwide.

    That philosophy explains why CIRM has just hired the well connected Podesta lobbying group in Washington, DC, for $200,000 for 10 months.

    That's not what the voters expected when they approved Proposition 71. They wanted an agency that concentrated on funding promising stem cell research in California that the Bush administration would not fund.

    The agency should not be a platform for worldwide stem cell advocacy by Chairman Bob Klein, who has never moved beyond the campaign mode of the Prop 71 initiative. Klein's advocacy may well be a very good thing if its based in an appropriate organization. However, CIRM -- a state agency --is not the right place.

    The agency's board, the ICOC, needs to insist that CIRM's executives remain focused on the primary mission: funding research in California.

    John M. Simpson

  3. John --

    You make some good points, identifying an apparent trend away from the primary goal at CIRM. That said, science is a global and national enterprise. CIRM should be engaged in efforts to harness energy elsewhere, if and when it enhances what is going on in California. But given the tiny, tiny staff at CIRM and the urgent need to solve its dire financial problems, it seems that some of these national, international and Washington efforts could drain valuable energy and resources that should be intensely focused on assuring that CIRM has the money that it owes to grantees come this fall.