Framing Science

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The Bush administration isn’t the only government opposing the expansion of publicly-funded ESC research. This week, Germany joined with Poland, Austria, Slovakia, Luxembourg, Malta and Slovenia in opposing a EU proposal to allow public funding for ESC research on embryos left over from in vitro clinics. Germany is trying to rally Italy to join in the EU coalition opposing stem cell research.

The announcement features the multiple faces of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government when it comes to science. Just a week earlier, Dr. Merkel, who holds a doctorate in physics, wrote in SCIENCE magazine of the importance of scientific research to the future of Germany. In an Editorial in the July 14 issue, Merkel emphasizes the importance of science to economic development and societal progress: “The German government recognizes that our future lies in a knowledge-based society founded on freedom and responsibility. This is what will enable Germany to rise to the challenges of today’s world, be they national or global, or economic, social, or ecological in nature. That is why the promotion of science, research, and innovation is one of my top priorities.”


She also emphasizes that German scientists need greater freedom in developing research directions and programs: “We also plan to give science and research a freer hand. The task of government is to create conditions in which they can flourish and to provide the right kind of stimulus. That means that our universities and research institutions must be given more independence. They need greater freedom to choose their students and staff, develop their own profiles, cooperate with industry, and spend their funds as they see fit.”

Germany’s stand on embryonic stem cell research is another example that opposition to research is not necessarily a “luddite” or “anti-science” position. And this is where the complexity of the debate deepens. In the U.S. and Germany, many of the opponents of public financing of ESC, are also great supporters and patrons of science in other areas. Most of the public and the majority of policy-makers have a general deep support for science, believing that it makes lives better and is important for the economy. It is on particular issues like ESC research, where the general belief in science runs up against a competing value system like religion or a historical-cultural distate for genetic engineering, that consensus support for science breaks down.

Comments

  1. #1 adamsj
    July 23, 2006

    I just figured the Vulcan nerve pinch worked.

  2. #2 Deepak
    July 23, 2006

    I actually had a question. If the EU decides not to fund stem cell research, can individual member countries still fund research within their own boundaries?

  3. #3 bob koepp
    July 23, 2006

    I’m one of the people who believes strongly in supporting science, ESCR in particular, but is opposed to public funding for ESCR. Why? Because that’s what’s required to consistently hold to the traditional liberal principle of freedom of conscience. If we are really to respect the freedom of conscience of those with whom we disagree, we should not be trying to extract support from them in the form of tax revenues to finance research that they believe is immoral. Individual conscience can be trumped, of course, but only on a demonstration that this is necessary to maintain a well-ordered society. I’ll change my position and start to support public funding of ESCR when that demonstration is made. Until then, I’ll try to persuade anti-ESCR people that it is ethically sound science, and support private initiatives to develop the science.

  4. #4 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 23, 2006

    My understanding is that Germany’s move is not to outlaw research or to prevent individual countries from funding such research, but rather to prevent the EU research agency from issuing grants to European researchers. On the other matter, Bob Koepp’s point is a good one and is really what is at issue with all the focus on the public opinion polls. How much support is enough support for funding of ESC research? Is 51% all you need? Is 60% the critical line? (Where the public is at right now according to independent polls), or is it 75%? Even with the last figure, if a quarter or a third of Americans strongly oppose using their tax dollars based on moral convictions, should the government go ahead and do it? Of course, the same argument could be said for the decision to invade Iraq. If 30% of Americans at the time opposed military action against Iraq based on moral grounds, should the government have gone forward with action?