Monday, March 28, 2005

Citizen-bioethicists and Stem Cells

California's stem cell agency is coming under scrutiny in the hallowed halls of UC Berkeley.

In what may be the only course of its kind in the country, students are examining the conduct of the agency and stem cell issues in general.

Topics for this week's classes are “Going Corporate: Patenting and Secrecy” and “Markets for What?” The class readings on the subjects include the websites of both Geron and CIRM. Also required this week is a book titled “Body Bazaar: The Market for Human Tissue in the Biotechnology Age.”

The class is called "Rhetoric of Scientific Discourse: Stem Cells, Cloning, and the Genetic Imaginary." Rhetoric and women's studies professor Charis Thompson devised it to analyze ethical and political implications of cutting-edge scientific proposals and activity. She taught a similar class at Harvard University before joining the UC Berkeley faculty in fall 2003, according to a
report by Noel Gallagher, a writer for the Berkeley campus.

"We are increasingly being asked to act as what I call 'citizen-bioethicists,' and to have political and personal opinions about scientific, technical and medical matters," Thompson told Gallagher. "This class is an attempt to outfit us for that role."

The first assignment for the 30 undergraduate students in the course was to read the full text of Prop. 71, making them part of the handful of persons who have actually done so.

The class began in January and will end in May. In the meantime, students will dig in such areas as “links between democracy and science” and “governance and genetics.”

Thompson told us that she has a grant that will enable 8 undergraduates and 2 graduate students to continue research in the area. She also said, “I am working with the oral history group on campus to begin a stem cell archive. In theory the class, or a variant of it, as issues develop, will always be offered in the spring.”

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