In what was widely seen as a needless politicization of science, President George W. Bush announced early in his presidency that he was forbidding federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells (with certain exceptions). This episode, and the way he sold his decision to the public, is the prime example in Chris Mooney’s excellent The Republican War on Science. In particular, he oversold the exceptions, claiming that up to 60 lines of usable stem cells existed, when only 21 were viable, and when those were contaminated in various ways, and could not be used to research certain questions. Critics noted that the restrictions were arbitrary and overly limiting, and that they seemed to have been devised with no input from the researchers who were beginning to understand how stem cells could help us understand and even treat some of the most horrific illnesses we face.
While President Obama campaigned on a promise to reverse this and other abuses of science, he was slow to reverse Bush’s order with his own executive order. The problem with Bush’s order was not just with the restriction on stem cell research, but that it was sold based on misrepresentations of science, and implemented without any understanding of how science was using stem cells.
In a Nobel-studded White House ceremony today (note Energy Secretary Stephen Chu amidst his fellow Nobelists in the background), President Obama overturned these limits, and did so in a way that does not repeat Bush’s mistakes. The order does not set forth specific rules for the use of stem cells, but says that the HHS Secretary (Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, when she is confirmed) “may support and conduct responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem cell research, to the extent permitted by law.” The Secretary, through the Director of the NIH, is required “Within 120 days from the date of this order… [to] review existing NIH guidance and other widely recognized guidelines on human stem cell research, including provisions establishing appropriate safeguards, and issue new NIH guidance on such research that is consistent with this order. The Secretary, through NIH, shall review and update such guidance periodically, as appropriate.”
By referring the implementation details not to political officers, but to scientific leadership at the NIH, the President avoided major pitfalls of his predecessor’s approach. The decision which belongs in the realm of politics is whether to allow research on human embryonic stem cells, how much funding to provide, and, to some extent, how those cells can be obtained. The details of how those cells are used and how they may be obtained has to be settled by scientists, based on the guidance offered by the political leadership. This is the tricky balance of making science policy. Scientific questions which touch on complex moral issues, or which might compel broader social policy (as with global warming), can’t be completely isolated from the political realm, but allowing politics to dictate what research is or isn’t conducted is a very dangerous course.
Bush breached that wall, mixing scientific-sounding claims amidst moral or philosophical claims, obscuring what aspects of his policy were dictated by moral aversions and which parts were motivated by a clear view of what scientific research required.
Obama’s decision, and his speech announcing it, show a clear separation of his hopes, his take on the broader moral questions, and the state of our scientific knowledge. He closed the speech with a clear warning about the timeline for the therapeutic applications from this research. Noting that Christopher Reeve, a passionate advocate for stem cell research, passed away three years ago last Friday and could not fulfill his hopes of walking again within ten years, Obama said:
Christopher did not get that chance. But if we pursue this research, maybe one day – maybe not in our lifetime, or even in our children’s lifetime – but maybe one day, others like him might.
There is no finish line in the work of science. The race is always with us – the urgent work of giving substance to hope and answering those many bedside prayers, of seeking a day when words like “terminal” and “incurable” are finally retired from our vocabulary.
Today, using every resource at our disposal, with renewed determination to lead the world in the discoveries of this new century, we rededicate ourselves to this work.
At the opening, he reminded his audience that “At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown,” and “that potential will not reveal itself on its own. Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident. They result from painstaking and costly research – from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit – and from a government willing to support that work.”
Recognizing that uncertainty is vital to effective use of science in policymaking, or in effective policymaking for science. So it is only fitting that Obama’s stem cell decision was accompanied by an order to his Science Advisor (John Holdren, who still awaits confirmation) “to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making. To ensure that in this new Administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science; that we appoint scientific advisors based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology; and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions. That is how we will harness the power of science to achieve our goals – to preserve our environment and protect our national security; to create the jobs of the future, and live longer, healthier lives.”
That order, sent to all heads of departments, gives Holdren broad power to work with departments to ensure the integrity of scientific advice, and to ensure that scientific information is disseminated to the public rapidly. These changes will reverse a worrying trend from the Bush years, when political hacks who hadn’t even graduated from college were instructing NASA scientists’ to refer to the Big Bang “not [as] proven fact; it is opinion,” and forbidding NASA climatologist James Hansen from speaking publicly about global climate change.
The order makes clear that “The selection and retention of candidates for science and technology positions in the executive branch should be based on the candidate’s knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.” Hopefully this will also prevent abuses like those perpetrated by Julie MacDonald, a civil engineer who overruled Department of Interior biologists on endangered species decisions and shared confidential details of upcoming endangered species rulings with the oil industry and with players in online role-playing games.
Needless to say, the proof of these changes will be in the pudding, but it’s clear that the President understands how science works, and how to insulate scientists from improper pressure, while ensuring appropriate oversight. These executive orders leave lots of room for Congress to maintain its proper role, and for the details of scientific research to be sorted out by scientists themselves.