Monday, November 10, 2014

BS and Ebola, Hype and Stem Cells

Hyperbole surrounding both stem cells and Ebola research has surfaced recently with cautionary notes concerning the damage it can do to the reputation of researchers and science.

Just last week UC Davis stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler took up the matter in a piece headlined “The Cheating Death Excitation.” Over on the Pacific Standard Web site, Michael White of the Washington University School of Medicine wrote an article titled “Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep.”

White’s entry point was a flap last month about whether more federal funding would have meant faster progress on an Ebola vaccine. The hooha started with a statement by Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, and included a retort by Michael Eisen of UC Berkeley that Collins’ comments were “complete BS.”

Subheads in White’s Oct. 31 piece summarized his view nicely,
“A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.”
“We, scientists and society, need to be more honest about the uncertainty inherent in the scientific process and in any projection of society’s future needs.”
Out west in California, Knoepfler remarked Nov. 6 on his blog,
“Can stem cells help many people in the immediate future to escape death? Recent headlines on new stem cell-related clinical developments would make you think so and they go a step further to indicate that such miracles are just around the corner.”
He continued,
“In the last few weeks there’ve been an unusually large number of papers and newspaper headlines about stem cell clinical developments, and as much as I hate to say it as an advocate for the stem cell field, many of these cases have been hyped.
“The reporters, their headlines and in some cases even some of those involved in the research seemingly would like you to think that cures for all kinds of bad things are about to happen tomorrow.”
Knoepfler said stem cell technology will be important and it will lead to “humanity changing events…but we aren’t there yet.”
“It’ll probably take another decade or two to really get closer to being a reality. Raising expectations sky high right now with over-the-top claims and headlines is not helpful to progress.”
Our comment: In the case of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, it has been burdened by the hype of the 2004 ballot campaign that created it. Voters were led to believe that miracles were in the offing and only 10 years or less away. That perception has not served the agency or the people well. Nor does it enhance the credibility of stem cell researchers, who were largely silent in 2004 about the grindingly slow process of science and government regulation of new treatments. Yes, ballot campaigns do need to generate excitement and hope. They also have a propensity to degenerate into falsehoods, critical omissions and exaggeration. That is one good reason that expensive ballot campaigns ($35 million in the case of the stem cell agency) are not necessarily the best way to fund scientific research.

As Knoepfler said,
“The key is balance….get excited and talk about the cool stem cell work (but) temper your statements a bit and keep plugging away at the research.”
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  1. Anonymous8:09 AM

    Hype is an interesting issue in the stem cell field both in terms of science and politics. Do you know if the advertisements from the Prop 71 campaign have been archived and, if so, how they could be accessed?

    1. You can find nearly all of the Proposition 71 campaign web site here.
      UCLA has done a fine public service by preserving it and other ballot measure campaign web sites. Another place to look concerning the campaign and hype is on the web site of the Center for Genetics and Society. It has a vast array of coverage of the campaign, and the site is searchable. Here is a link to the center: